What if the Nazis had won World War 2? That’s what sci-fi genius writer Philip K Dick explores in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, now adapted for the small screen by Amazon Studios and available on Amazon Prime. The project, which started with Ridley Scott as a producer and the major creative input of Franz Spotniz (just the guy responsible for The X-Files), has now been renewed for a second season after breaking all previous Prime records – it is the most streamed original TV show in the platform – and receiving widespread critical acclaim.
This show is centered mostly around the adventures of accidental Resistance member Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and double agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). Together they try to get hold of the sought-after “fake” newsreels made by (or somewhat related to, it’s not clear) the mysterious Man in the High Castle. Having said that, the series’ secondary characters and storylines are equally strong, if not stronger, than the main ones. An example of this is Juliana’s partner, Frank Frink, played by Rupert Evans, who manages to get into serious trouble with the Kempeitei. Then, Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who seems to be ready to bring down the system from the inside. And last but not least, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, played by the magnetic Rufus Sewell, in one of his best performances to date, already recognized by the Critics Choice TV Awards with the supporting actor nomination.
The strength of The Man in the High Castle is definitely its dystopian genre, which has rarely been made justice on the small screen. The pleasure of seeing familiar elements distorted by, in this case, an evil twist, is the main point of attraction for the audiences. But this is not the only selling point of a series that delivers period drama quality and attention to detail on a broadcast budget. Plot and character development, those two old friends more and more neglected by the big silver screen, find in Spotnitz’s new creation a safe haven where to prosper. As the beautifully crafted, classic cinematography enhances a somewhat slow narrative rhythm (particularly if compared or watched shortly after the latest Marvel serial releases). All the responsibility rests on how charismatic the people in front of us are. Certainly, the Nazis were always the perfect villain, and Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith seems to proudly incarnate the stereotype during most of the episodes. However, being this a quality drama and not a manichaean perspective on History, this “baddie” is presented in the most normal, understanding manner, making him so much more terrifying – if such a man of integrity and intelligence can so easily decide to follow an evil doctrine, what hope there is for the most common of mortals (and his name John Smith is certainly no accident in that regard)? Obviously, being this an American story, soon he’ll start questioning his duties as the most severe guidelines of the Regime start hitting a bit too close to home.
As the story progresses, not much is given away to the audience regarding the central mystery of the show. The newsreels themselves are rarely shown, and we are mostly given information about them by the characters that we see watching them, open mouth, eyes wide open. How can the videos change History and make things right? And is there any alternative reality where things are actually “right”? As the last episode shows at last some kind of explanation for the origin of the videos, the number of questions unanswered grows. Is The Man in the High Castle a complex and well-achieved metaphor about the power of the Fifth Estate? Only time and a new season (or several) will tell.
From the breathtaking intro credits to the last scene, the ten episodes hold their own, though some less dramatic moments and a certain character hollowness regarding the members of the underground Resistance give some tempo pauses in what is still a great drama symphony. The European audiences may have some difficulty in accepting the Japanese as an evil power, technologically behind the Germans (in this alternative reality, technology in general had an impressive jump start after the War), but then, so do the Russians when told by cinema that America won the war. After all, what the script does confronting these two very different cultures united in the past to defeat a common enemy and now somewhat forced to collaborate to stop world doom is a far from subtle historical parallel.
Does The Man in the High Castle reinforce the start of a fourth Golden Age of television, started by Netflix’s House of Cards, now that the consumer is somewhat giving direct money to see what she/he wants to see, and streaming platforms dominate a world that has as many viewing options and a growing stash of quality content? We certainly hope so. Next step – an international week-long holiday where everyone can stay at home and binge-watch all of these great new content…
The Man in the High Castle is now available on Amazon Prime, and its second season will start production in 2016.