What if the Nazis won? Not exactly the most original question you’ll ever hear but it’s the starting point for The Man in the High Castle which, taking its lead from a Philip K Dick novel, imagines a 1962 in which the United States has been divided into a Greater Reich on the East and occupied Japanese States in the West, with a neutral zone buffering the two. The Man in the High Castle is Amazon’s big ticket drama, a possible breakout for their Prime service, and all 10 episodes became available in the UK on Friday. It’s a surefire hit.
Without having read the source novel I can’t say how closely they stuck to it but many of the themes that are familiar from other Philip K Dick works are here. Notably we’re dealing with a world in which violence and death are ubiquitous but hidden; people go about their daily lives determined to live as calmly as possible. The resistance, such as it is, has grand visions but is not particularly good at achieving them. Key to their (vague) objectives are film reels which are smuggled to the man in the high castle which seem to show another world, one in which the Allies won. Their power and purpose is enigmatic but that people will kill or be killed for them is never in doubt.
Across the ten episodes of this series the world of The Man in the High Castle expands from a central pair of Juliana Crain, an American woman reluctantly thrust into the resistance against the Japanese, and Joe Blake, an American from the East whose motives and allegiances maybe he himself doesn’t quite understand. They meet, first, in the Neutral Zone to which they have both ventured. There is a notable difference between East Coast and West Coast in that in the Pacific States, the Japanese are clearly occupying and bossing the lower orders whereas in the Greater Reich, the undesirables have been eliminated and everyone can happily celebrate ‘VA Day’.
Surrounding this pair are interlocking circles of plot, character and setting. Far too much to list here but there are standout performances from Rufus Sewell as Obergruppenfuehrer John Smith and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the Trade Minister. What is notable is how human everyone is, even the monsters in the secret services are motivated by reasons they would see as honest. These outer stories assume greater import as the series goes on and there are times when it can feel a bit of a drag to go back to Juliana and Joe. That’s possibly because towards the end it feels like their story arc is being deliberately slowed so we can have a second series. It’s a minor concern though in a programme which consistently hits the highs it aims for.
A word must go to how the world of The Man in the High Castle looks. The biggest compliment you can pay is that having seen what a Nazi controlled New York looks like and how the people in it are dressed and act you now can’t imagine it any other way. There is a consistent clarity of thought and this well-realised world is the outcome. They have avoided the jackbootery of a 1984 world and gone for something more disturbing: a perfectly ordinary one which just so happens to have the bad guys in charge.
Philip K Dick’s works often end in confusion about what is real and what is not, whose mind is the rational and whose the deluded. There are glimpses of that here and towards the end it becomes a spoken out loud aspect, even if it is never resolved. There are enough loose ends and enough to do in this alternative 1962 that a second series seems highly likely but the writers will need to firm up some of those things that are left unexplained this time round if they are to avoid becoming twisted in knots. By doing so The Man in the High Castle may lose some of the strengths of this first season but, at the moment, I have a naive confidence they may get it right again. Should there be no more episodes I wouldn’t be too sad – for anyone except completists who need every last thing explained this was a more than decent ride.
In these dull days where so much seems to be dumbed down or where things that are described as ‘clever’ seem to lack intelligence or consistency it is a real pleasure to come across something as deep and pleasing as The Man in the High Castle. If there is a downside it’s that it’s another triumph for the closed-off environment of Amazon. Maybe in the future we’ll need another Philip K Dick to imagine us a world in which such smart storytelling is once more the mainstream.