Alexa Davalos/Amazon

Any open-ended adaptation of a novel is going to have to take substantial liberties with the source text in order to keep the narrative engine cranking for however long it continues. (Take it from me, the guy who reviewed Under The Dome for three seasons.) The Man In The High Castle showrunner/writer Frank Spotnitz has lifted the concept and a number of characters from Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, but he’s well aware that an ongoing series is a different beast. Since Dick’s story is itself an investigation of an alternate reality, it’s probably best to think of this series as an alternate to the alternate; after all, Spotnitz has more than 50 years of hindsight to work with that Dick never had. The novel was a contemporary alternate reality, whereas the show is a period piece taking place in an alternate history. All of this is a way of saying these reviews won’t be overly concerned with comparing and contrasting the series with the book (it’s been too long since I’ve read it to do a great job of that anyway); we’re here to talk about The Man In The High Castle as a series and its effectiveness on its own merits.

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In that regard, the pilot episode is a mixed bag, although definitely intriguing enough to offer hope for the season (and series) to come. As an exercise in world-building, it comes out of the gate strong; as a story about compelling characters, it’s still finding its way. The set-up is a classic “What If?” scenario, right up there with “Would you kill Hitler as a baby?” In this case, Baby Hitler not only survived, he grew up to be the victorious leader of the Third Reich. Having won World War II, the Axis powers have split the United States between the Greater Nazi Reich (everything east of the Rockies) and the Japanese Pacific States (the west coast), with a Neutral Zone separating the two. By 1962, a new normalcy has set in. Most Americans have adapted to life under the occupation (with younger people barely remembering any other way of life), as day-to-day existence is not necessarily so different than it would otherwise be…unless, of course, you happen to be Jewish or black or some kind of a troublemaker.

There is a Resistance, as we learn when Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meets with Don Warren, a New York trucking dispatcher and one of the leaders of the underground. Initially skeptical of the fresh-faced Blake, Warren gives him a mission to deliver a truckload of coffeemakers to Canon City, Colorado in the Neutral Zone. The trucking company is raided by Nazi brownshirts and Warren is captured, but Blake gets away. His cross-country journey is intercut with scenes from the west coast—specifically San Francisco, where Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) lives with her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). Just before Juliana’s half-sister Trudy is killed, she passes Juliana a film can containing a newsreel titled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.” When she watches the film, Juliana is shocked to see footage of the Allied forces seemingly winning the war. Frank dismisses “Grasshopper” as a propaganda film made by someone calling himself the Man in the High Castle. He urges Juliana to turn it over the authorities, but instead she decides to pose as Trudy and meet up with her Resistance contact in Canon City.

It’s a premise with enormous potential, but it’s hampered by the dull characters at its center. Kleintank and Davalos are both attractive but blandly contemporary in both appearance and mannerisms; they don’t exactly melt into the early ’60s like the cast of Mad Men did (even if this is an altered take on the period). Blake is at least meant to be something of a cipher throughout this first episode, but neither character seizes the screen right from the start. Instead, the more interesting players are found on the fringes: the trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) who consults the I Ching and meets in secret with a German officer; Frank’s conspiracy-minded co-worker Ed (DJ Qualls, who does look like he fits into this time period); the ruthless Obergruppenfuhrer (Rufus Sewell), who orders Warren tortured to death even though he already knows all the useful information he could possibly spill.

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If the characters need work, the world they inhabit is fully formed from the opening frames. Director David Semel and production designer Drew Boughton have built a detail-oriented alternate 1962 from the ground up, no doubt benefiting from the oversight of executive producer Ridley Scott, who knows a little something about assembling a meticulous Philip K. Dick reality from his work on Blade Runner. You can see the influence of that film on the Japanese makeover High Castle has given San Francisco, but the immersion in this world isn’t just about its most eye-catching design elements (like the illuminated 10-story Nazi flag over Times Square, seen in the grade box above). Semel and Boughton haven’t made the mistake of making everything look like it was built five minutes ago; you can see the new built over the recognizably old, and the remnants of the world that came before (like the tattered Uncle Sam posters glimpsed in Canon City).

The pop culture of the era is subtly changed, as well. There never was a Rock Hudson/June Allyson movie called The Punch Party, but there might well have been. This sort of whitebread entertainment appears to be all that remains, as we hear snippets of innocuous (and invented) pop hits like “Ask The Robin” and “Angry Words,” or catch a glimpse of a game show called Guess My Game with an aw-shucks Nazi soldier as a guest. It’s this insidious grounding of the unthinkable into the realm of the everyday that provides the show’s most chilling moments, as when the trooper helps Blake change a tire and offhandedly remarks that the ash in the air comes from the nearby hospital burning “the cripples and the terminally ill…a drag on the state.” Though set in the past, High Castle inevitably evokes parallels with the present. With Donald Trump stumping for ID badges for American Muslims, it’s certainly no stretch to see echoes of this imagined fascist America in the here and now. The challenge for The Man In The High Castle is to make us think and care as much about the people populating this world as we do about its design elements and metaphorical implications.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to the TV Club reviews of The Man In The High Castle! Our regular schedule will be twice-weekly, with episode reviews posting Mondays and Wednesdays. If you’re a binge-watcher, here’s some news you can use.
  • From the “Things Could Always Get Worse” Department: Various characters are concerned about Hitler’s failing health, because if Goebbels or Himmler replaces him, the Nazis may take over the entire country.
  • Twist ending (that probably didn’t come as too much of a shock): Joe is working with the Nazis. Is he a double agent? If not, how long will it take for Juliana to turn him?

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