The Man in the High Castle is the latest in the newest batch of Amazon’s television series for their streaming service Amazon Prime. Created by Frank Spotnitz, once an executive producer of The X-Files, the series deals with an alternate history of the post-war years in the U.S.; one where the Axis powers won the Second World War, not the Allies.
That’s instantly an intriguing premise, and it helps to make it more immediately engaging too – we’re all familiar with what actually happened, so seeing this flipped on its head pulls the viewer in. The series is based on a book of the same name by Phillip K. Dick, a man most will know as being the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book that Blade Runner was based on. Dick’s other works have also been adapted for film and television before – Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, for example. Similarly, The Man in the High Castle succeeds on many of the same levels.
In this alternate reality, the Nazis were the first to develop and use an atomic bomb, and instead of Germany and Berlin being partitioned, it is the United States of America, with the Japanese puppet state of the United Pacific States to the west of the Rocky Mountains, the Greater Nazi Reich to the east, and the Neutral Zone between the two. Set in 1962, the series plays out a lot like a Cold War dramatic thriller, in more ways than one. Alexa Davalos’ Juliana Crain is the main character – this meaning only that she is the protagonist of the main plot – but she’s part of a fantastic ensemble cast. Rupert Evans’ Frank Frink and Luke Kleintank’s Joe Blake also stand out in the driving plot of the drama – though the secondary plot is definitely more important in the grand scheme of things, and it’s certainly catching up with our main characters.
That’s what the programme does so well. It takes an absolute titan of a subject and concentrates on the micro – at first simply on the day-to-day musings and events of our characters. However, plot threads weave and one way or another, the main three are brought into the fray of a conflict that’s potentially on an even higher level than their attempts at liberation. No one is saying it publicly, but Japan and Germany are on the brink of war. Hitler is ill and dying, and a power vacuum is about to reveal itself, whilst the ministers and war planners of both the Japanese Empire and the Nazi Reich are preparing for what might happen next, whilst the most megalomaniac of these are attempting to position themselves near the front of the queue for power.
This grim, almost satirical alternative Cold War is, in a word, chilling. It has the full weight of history behind it – bizarrely, given that it obviously didn’t happen. The drama on this level works as a form of dystopian fiction – the venal, power-crazed politicos doing anything and everything to attain and retain power, whilst the oppressive regimes themselves crush their internal opposition whilst mobilising and militarising for conflict with another superpower. Like all great dystopian fiction, this draws parallels with events and places that the audience is already aware of, whilst conveying these regimes, rightfully, as evil, brutal, warmongering and genocidal.
Then of course, there is the mystery element of just who this “Man in the High Castle” is – a kind of Banksy Goebbels, he, or she perhaps, has created various propaganda videos in the style of newsreels showing that the Allies did in fact win the war. Of course to us, the footage is real, because it did happen, and it’s the same footage, thus, it’s all the more disturbing when it keeps cropping up, and naturally, this material is seen as incendiary by the Nazi and Japanese authorities, perhaps suggesting that somewhere down the line, even during a conflict between the two, they might have to unite if they want to stop the population of America rising up – the show is not shy of reminding the viewer that the war didn’t just have consequences, it had survivors. American survivors.
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Though this article may have perhaps not reflected this, The Man in the High Castle is not as political and historical as one might think. It can be, but how much audiences pay attention to the macro is very much up to them, as the micro is given far more screen time, and at most points is more engaging. However, it is the macro wrapped around this that makes this one of the most interesting and unique new shows in town.
By Oliver Rowe