"The Man in the High Castle" Season One. 10 Episodes, Amazon Prime, 2015. Starring Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank, Cary-Hroyuki Tagawa, Rufus Sewell. TV-MA (10 out of 10)
Be forewarned that I'm a history teacher. I'm a history teacher who was raised by a history professor. A history professor whose specialty is World War II and Germany. I'm trying to take off those super nerdy glasses for this review, but it won't quite play out that way. "The Man in the High Castle" rolled out last week on Amazon Video (free for Amazon Prime subscribers), as a part of their original programming. That programming on both Amazon and Netflix has brought me some of my favorite current series, so I was excited to see this series. Of course I binged it all within three days, and I'm glad I did.
The premise seems simple enough on the surface -- the Allies lost World War II. The United States has been partitioned into three sections: the Japanese Pacific States, the Greater Nazi Reich, and a Neutral Zone between them. In case you need a map (I need a map), here you go:
Our story is split among these three locations, and characters that travel between them. Joe Blake, a Nazi agent on his first mission, heading from New York City to the Rocky Mountains. Except he could be a double agent. Possibly a triple agent. Even he isn't sure. Juliana Crain is in San Francisco, where she receives a film canister from her sister, just as her sister is shot dead by Japanese Kempeitai (their Gestapo/SS/KGB) in front of her. Her boyfriend is Frank Frink, and they watch the film together. This movie is newsreel footage that shouldn't exist -- it shows the Allies winning World War II. These characters live in a world where that's impossible, and can't believe their eyes. Juliana's sister gave her the mission to get the film to someone in Canon City, and she leaves Frank behind to complete that mission. All of this happens in the first episode, putting these three main characters on courses whose paths will cross multiple times.
Other characters include Obergruppenfuehrer John Smith -- an SS officer in New York who committed unspeakable acts during the war, gives Joe Blake orders to kill on sight, who's a torturer, a murderer...and a family man. He's got a perfect family in a perfect house, and is more man than monster. But is still a villain. These complicated characters play out in a more nuanced way over the course of ten hours than you'd get in a single film adaptation (or even in Phillip K. Dick's novel which was the source material for the series), and characters who you start the series hating, end up less hateful as the episodes roll on.
There are good Nazis, there are heroic Japanese. One of my favorite characters is the lovable Mr. Togami, the Japanese Trade Minister. We like him from the moment we meet him, and he's one of several men working behind the scenes to try to minimize the effects of the Japanese occupation (nearly twenty years now), but more, to prevent future war with Germany. He consults the I Ching to make decisions, and ends up at the center of most of the west coast stories.
Dick's novel is part of what kicked off an alternate history craze that's still burning strong. I've read a lot of them, and most of them miss the mark by telling too much. Telling the reader exactly which battles went awry, which bullet, which invention, which personality changed the past. "The Man in the High Castle" doesn't do that. Across the ten episodes we're dribbled out intriguing pieces of information: Washington DC was leveled by an atomic bomb, ending the war for the United States in 1947. FDR was assassinated at some point before that, and Stalin was a few years after. We see the horrifying images of a Times Square celebrating Nazism, but also the undeniable coolness of a Nazi rocket plane that travels coast to coast in two hours. We see the influence of Japanese culture on the United States, and the well-oiled machine that fascism likes to think it brings with it.
With or without knowing the "real" history of World War II, this is an enjoyable series. The heroism of the main characters is as flawed and nuanced as the villains. That said, there are several irredeemable characters, like Burn Gorham's Nazi bounty hunter who would be laughable in his scenery chewing if he weren't so terrifying. If you want heroism, you'll find it here. If you want villainy, you'll find even more. The real strength of this series is that after establishing the alt-history backdrop, it tells a good story. The espionage, the characters, the drama would be solid in any setting--it doesn't rely on the gimmick to make it compelling. Other sci-fi series could learn a lot from this one.
With so many choices in binge-watching (I started Marvel's "Jessica Jones" the day after I finished "High Castle,") this is one that should be at the top of your list. If you've got the Amazon Prime membership, you should call in sick to watch this. If you don't have Prime, things like this would tip me towards subscribing. This is a series that could have gone off the rails in so many different ways, but it stayed together until the very end, with a cliffhanger that has me incredibly curious, and antsy until the next ten episode season is released. It'll be a while.