Amazon Studios has been making quite the push for its new series, The Man In The High Castle. Ads for the show have played up its alternate-reality vision of a Nazi-fied America, complete with a swastika replacing the stars on the U.S. flag. It’s a provocative image, and one the studio is likely hoping draws in curious viewers. Still, there’s a slight problem with how it’s adapting the Hugo-winning Philip K. Dick novel into a potentially ongoing TV series: If you’re going to muck around with alternate realities and try to build a convincing universe, it might not be the best idea to drop the most intriguing idea right into the middle of your pilot episode, and then spend the first half of the season ignoring this alarm klaxon of a plot point.
Herein lies one of the key problems with Amazon’s pickup process. By having its audience watch and select the best pilots to be put into development, shows are somewhat hamstrung by the need to quickly dazzle the audience. Admittedly, this is true for most shows that make it to air, but those series need only offer a solid-enough premiere, knowing there’s at least the opportunity to trust people will come back with enough of a hook to satisfy them. Amazon’s shows live and die based on a fleeting initial impression, because nobody can come back for a second episode of something that doesn’t get made. Ergo, the first half of Man’s initial season gives off the distinct impression that it would’ve rather held back some key info, but was forced to drop it into the debut, and now must live with the consequences.
Much as with Dick’s novel, the show is set in a post-World War II country, specifically 1962—only, in this case, the Axis powers won. America has been divided up, with the Nazi Reich seizing the East coast, and the Japanese assuming control of the West, leaving a small and lawless neutral territory (the Rocky Mountain States) between them. But while the characters and general storylines have been imported from the source material, much has been changed, mostly from necessity. Dick’s book is a sprawling account in which many of the central characters live out narratives that sometimes barely overlap, outside of the setting. It’s as much an anthropological investigation of life in these disparate realms of the fictional reality as it is a coherent through-line, and the writers of the show have taken that as license to focus more on world-building than tight storytelling.
Our initial protagonist seems to be Joe Blake, a young man who joins up with the Eastern resistance to the Nazi regime—a regime embodied with quiet menace by Rufus Sewell’s Obergruppenführer Smith. Joe is initially played with bland acceptability by Luke Kleintank, who looks like Zack Woods’ model of a younger brother, but who seems to find his character as the episodes progress. Our primary West Coast hero is Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who finds herself in the Hitchcockian position of having to go dangerously undercover, following the shocking death of her sister. Her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans), his co-worker Ed (DJ Qualls), and Japanese Trade Secretary Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) fill out the other major players. It’s a sprawling, multifaceted story, and especially in the early going, the events on the West Coast take a while to lock in.
The most compelling storyline involves underground films, video reels ostensibly made by the mysterious person who gives the show its title. When Julie’s sister passes one of these films along to her, shortly before dying, Julie watches it, and sees footage of a world in which the United States and its allies were victorious. She sets out to find the maker of the film, and this adventure leads both her and Joe into the lawless territory, where the most intriguing developments occur. But simultaneously, we’re keeping track of Sewell’s Nazi officer, investigating the resistance, and Tagawa’s scheming official. It’s a lot of pins to juggle, and the show sometimes drops one or more of these by teasing out details of a plot we’re too cloudy on, or taking too long to give us reasons to invest and care about another.
Thankfully, there’s a gorgeous, richly textured world surrounding these people. When the camera tracks the busy city streets, there’s almost a glow to everything, a gauzy hue filled with retro styles that look like something out of The Rocketeer or a 1950s serial. (If nothing else, the Nazis sure fixed NYC’s traffic gridlock.) It nicely plays counterpoint to the jarring appearance of swastikas and Hitler propaganda everywhere. And the pilot, directed with verve by David Semel (Hannibal, American Horror Story), contains some lush scenery—a late conversation between Julie and Joe looks like an outtake from a Terrence Malick film. The narrative may sometimes feel bloated and ponderous, but the look and design of the show is never less than sterling.
And the first few episodes, for all the sprawl, hold promise. The story of the MacGuffin video reels is propulsive and engaging, as are the consequences back home for Julie’s boyfriend Frank. There’s an intriguing moment where Joe listens to “Strange Fruit” on a record player, and the juxtaposition with the Nazi threat is striking. But just as the mysteries are accelerating, the series backs off the gas pedal, as though it’s worried about going down Dick’s elliptical rabbit hole of a reality too quickly. Unfortunately, this has the unintended result of lessening the effectiveness of the more straightforward plots, pulling viewers back into a world of all-too-human governmental intrigue, just as the show was dangling something more.
Similarly, there’s a few cringingly clumsy plot devices, such as the idiotic “knockout and run away from the guy about to kill you, rather than just taking his gun and shooting him when he’s down” maneuver. The show is too stingy with payoff moments at present, preferring instead to dole out some mournful montages or on-the-nose dialogue exchanges rather than pressing the story onward. The third episode ends with someone kicking open a door in the middle of a chase, only to cut to credits. That’s not a cliffhanger; that’s an act break. And for a show so saturated with angry, volatile men (and it’s almost all men, here), there’s an awful lot of brooding.
But the actors are so strong, and the world they’ve created so lived-in, the show can get away with some of these early missteps. Viewers hoping for an ongoing engagement with the inviting, “Is reality somehow askew?” concept teased by the film reels won’t get anything further in that department—not for the first half of the season, anyway. The show blundered badly by needing to slip that into the first episode, because it detracts from grounding the other stories as fully as they need to be for the audience to invest in this reality. But there’s real promise in this landscape of a world ripped in two by an authoritarian nightmare of a society, especially when the allegories to our own reality are given space, rather than hammering home how unlike our world this one can be. As long as The Man In The High Castle can resist the Twin Peaks-season-two mistake of ducking around its central mystery, it could become a resistance fighter worth betting on.