By Quentin Basnaw
It’s 1962. You watch films about the success of your country. You drive forties and fifties era cars. You listen to old music, but more importantly, you listen to the Nazis. The entire world has fallen under joint Nazi and Japanese dominion and everything you can do as a citizen is filtered based on their doctrines. That is the world of The Man in the High Castle and it is every bit as bleak, depressing and grim as you could imagine. This is one of those shows that has a boatload to set up. Thankfully, what it delivers is well worth the ten hours of alternate history class it presents.
It’s an age old question: what if the Nazis won? While not the first to do so, the show Amazon Prime has produced is based on Philip K. Dick’s book of the same name. The show uses the world of the book to set up an intriguing story about what would have happened if the Axis powers had won the war, mainly concerning Nazi Germany and Japan. Italy and Mussolini are oddly left out of the descriptions of the new geopolitical maps; I suppose, like most citizens, the show forgot Italy fought in the war too. The horrible anti-Semitic laws, restriction of the press and individual rights, and executions of the mentally and physically disabled are all things that pervade the societies presented in the show.
The Eastern seaboard and a sizeable chunk of the Midwest is still the United States, but it is now a member state of the “Greater German Reich”. The Western seaboard up until the Rocky Mountains is now the “Japanese Pacific States.” The Rocky Mountains, and a small chunk of territory around them, are now categorized as the “Neutral Zone”. All of these locations form crucial and completely unique settings to the story. Imagine Times Square at dark if the neon signs sprouted propaganda and swastikas for all to see. The Japanese states make the “San Fransokyo” concept from Big Hero Six a live action reality, and forms an admittedly gorgeous setting for our main stars to interact in.
The main story, without giving much away, follows a trio of characters whose lives intersect. All trying to live in this nightmare of a world, they come across film reels that show an alternate reality: the Allies have won the war. These film reels are obviously propaganda. The penalty for watching the reels is death, so they must be delivered to the Resistance (a la Star Wars) so they can hopefully incite rebellions by showing people the Nazis can be defeated. The main story starts off slow, but does get progressively more intriguing. However, for me the main characters aren’t interesting. The thing that makes up for having to deal with their shenanigans is the villains. The main Nazi hunting the films down, played by Rufus Sewell, is brilliant. He’s not even German, but American, someone who (supposedly) joined with the Nazis and now enforces their laws. The two Japanese villains butt heads constantly about the nature of their work and how to fulfill their duties, which is captivating to watch.
In short, the show is captivating and is worth the ten hours it takes to watch. The setting and complex villains make the show a nice bonus for something to watch with your Amazon Prime Student account. Alternate history has always been a fascinating thing. If you’re tired of hearing the same old same old in history class, this show is up your alley. It gives you an alternate take, something completely different than the story you’ve heard. It is also something that’ll keep you up, realizing how great it is that the Allies won the war.
That was the general review for the show. Now comes the part of the review with milder spoilers, what I didn’t enjoy about the show, and a closer look at the themes running behind the show that I want to explore. The show keeps you guessing as to the true purpose of the reels that portray an “alternate history,” and where they are coming from. The original novel didn’t use film reels to instill hope in the heroes; it was actually a novel. The novel within the novel was banned material written by a man who was imagining if the oppressive world were different. The book gives hope to people who want to rebel. The show smartly makes the book a series of film reels since the show is a visual medium. The film reels are implied have been originated in a parallel dimension where the Nazis lost the war (our own realm). The show has other various hints about things appearing in the show that seem out of place (like maglev trains, which we just invented in our own world).
The films themselves seemed to be spread by the Nazi’s themselves at various points, for unknown reasons. Hitler himself watches them in his fortress. The whole nature of the films not being solved, at least until Season 2, was a bit irksome to me. The other thing I did not like were the main heroes. They’re all cardboard cut-outs. You’ve got the conflicted guy, the man who experiences tragedy that fuels him to rebel and the main female, who just sounds bored with everything happening around her. In addition, the show is not always gripping, at least for me. It took a few episodes for the show to get into a groove, when I needed to watch the next episode immediately. The final four episodes snowball into an overall satisfactory end to the season, setting up hope for a well-rounded second season.
The thing that captivated me the most about this show, aside from the science fiction/magical multiverse elements, was how “real” it could actually be at times. The world slowly unravels things that the Nazi’s implemented, such as killing disabled people and the continued extermination of Jewish and African cultures, that got my attention. Citizens in the Eastern United states have helped the Nazi’s persecute and eliminate the Jews, as one character tells it. As mentioned before, the main villain Nazi is John Smith, the most American sounding name ever, and becomes a Nazi. The show suggests that a sizeable amount of people can easily fall under the tarp of an oppressive regime, using that regime to suit themselves and remain in power. It is realistic and frightening.
The show hits on these things in subtle ways, which is what sells it. The Man in the High Castle is definitely an original and “different” concept that stands out among a sea of standard shows people stream. The ideas presented in the show will stick with you much longer than anything else from recent memory.