In March of 2013 I reviewed P.K.D.’s The Man In The High Castle on this blog on the heels of an announcement that Amazon.com would be making a television series for their Prime streaming service. In short, I enjoyed the book finding it thought provoking.
After a release of the pilot episode earlier this year, the television series was released this past November. I was surprised that the entire series of ten episodes was released all at once and available for streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.
The story is set in 1962 post World War II United States, but the U.S. depicted in the show is nothing like anything we would recognize because the war was won by Germany and Japan, the Axis powers. The United States have been divided into three sections with the Nazis in control of the eastern part of the country and west coast under the control of the Japanese. In between, a strip of land running from north to south and roughly following the Rocky Mountains is called the Neutral Zone. There is a palpable tension between the Nazis and the Japanese, especially since Hitler is aging and more ambitious individuals seek to take power when he is either killed or dies. Thanks to one character in the story, the Japanese have the capability of building an atomic weapon while the Nazis already have theirs. Meanwhile, films are surfacing that depict a different outcome of the war that is more in line with our history. As these films surface, both factions in charge of the U.S. are trying to get hold of them to keep the population from inciting to riot. An underground resistance movement also seeks to possess the films and deliver them to a mysterious character known as the man in the high castle.
As I stated earlier, the story is based on P.K.D.’s book, but it does not entirely follow the story as laid out in the book. There are numerous story elements that are preserved in the series though, and I am completely okay with that. One of the elements that has been preserved is how dark and disturbing the world of Dick’s alternate post WWII world is. The population of the U.S. has been almost completely assimilated into the cultures that dominate the two areas of the country that are controlled by the Axis powers. While the Nazi controlled east would seem not to be quite as oppressed as one might think, on the surface, everything would seem to be normal, with the exception that there are a lot of Nazi style uniforms with armbands that incorporate the swastika into the red and white stripes of the U.S. Flag. At one point, late in the series, there is a celebration of V.A. (Victory over America) Day that looks much like a 4th of July celebration, complete with fireworks, and flags flying in the breeze that has the blue field of stars on our flag replaced with the Nazi symbol. As I said, more than just a bit disturbing.
At the same time, while the east is normal on the surface, the American Nazis work more behind the scenes to maintain order. This is not the case in the Japanese controlled west, where the population has been beaten into submission by the controlling government. As far as the Japanese are concerned, American natives are simply a resource to be exploited and disposed of when no longer needed. The Japanese style of rule is depicted as being openly brutal to serve as a constant reminder of who is in charge.
All of this is depicted by the movements of four main characters throughout the series so far.
Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) Is a young woman living in San Francisco and would seem to have assimilated well into the culture imposed by the Japanese. She has studied the martial art of aikido and is quite proficient. While she, like most other Americans in the west, are just trying to survive and make life as comfortable as possible, she unwillingly finds herself becoming a part of the resistance movement when her sister is killed in front of her trying to deliver one of the films. As time goes on, Juliana finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the resistance while managing to avoid being captured or killed on numerous occasions. She unwittingly becomes involved with a Nazi agent who saves her life causing her to have a sense of misplaced loyalty to him
That Nazi agent is Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) who is given the mission of infiltrating the resistance based in the neutral area of the country. As he travels, he sees things happening and remains loyal to his controller, but would also seem to have doubts as he encounters Juliana and begins to have feelings for her. At the same time, Juliana has feelings for him and manages to help Joe evade being killed when it is discovered who he really is working for.
Joe’s controller, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith is a family man, but is also the sole head of the SS in the U.S. His loyalty to the party is without question and he is not above using any means necessary to achieve his goal of putting down the resistance, including committing murder of disloyal fellow officers and threatening the lives of the families of those under his control. His behavior in the series is deceptively appealing until one remembers that he is a high ranking member of an oppressive government.
Juliana’s boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), is of Jewish heritage and has to go to lengths to conceal this as he might be extradited to the Nazis for execution. Frank works in a factory that produces replicas of weapons to be sold to the Japanese. When he comes under investigation of the Kempeitai (the Japanese counterpart of the Nazi SS) for his relationship with Juliana, he faces execution. His sister and her children are instead killed prompting Frank to insist on taking action by converting one of the replicas of a weapon into a working model and going after a very high ranking Japanese official. His attempt is thwarted when he is beaten to the punch by another assassin. Nevertheless, Frank is then forced to try to avoid being captured by the Kempeitai and executed.
As political tensions between the Nazis and the Japanese rise over the impending power vacuum that will be created by the death of Hitler, the Japanese Trade Minister, Nobosuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) works clandestinely with a high-ranking Nazi to try to avoid what he fears will be a nuclear attack by the Nazis to take over sole control of the globe.
Two other characters that should be noted are Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) and his assistant Sergeant Yoshido (Lee Shorten). They are the Kempeitei officers who seem to get into everyone’s business in pursuit of dissidents and disloyal Japanese citizens. They are very cool, calm and collected as they go about their business, but their sense of harmony covers a ruthlessness that is to be avoided at all costs. I should note that the actor Joel de la Fuente was also in a short-lived series that I dearly loved called Space - Above and Boyond. It was great to see him back on screen and showing more of his acting range.
The Man In The High Castle is well written, well acted, and very compelling. Again, the story in the television series does not follow the novel to the letter, it does set the right mood and there is plenty of Dick’s work integrated to make it very recognizable as the authors foundation. The story does not move quickly and gives the viewer plenty of time to reflect on what has happened and really get an understanding of what is at stake for the characters. There are numerous scenes of intense action that are well thought out and move at a pace that is digestible in a single viewing. However, there are some scenes that are very graphic in nature, or are also quite suggestive, but are done in a way that advance the story and always keep the attention on the story and the characters.
Overall, as I mentioned before, the story moves along at a rather slow, cerebral pace and so does the character development. The back stories of the main characters unfolds at a snail’s pace and we only get what we need to know as it is relevant to what is happening on the screen. Continuity was apparently very important to the story because every episode picked up where the last left off. This is a great television series and I highly recommend it for fans of Philip K. Dick, dystopian stories, or just really good television in general. Be careful though, as I did, you will be tempted to watch the entire series in one day.
This show is serious, gritty, disturbing, depressing and awesome. I think that the opening credits sequence sets the mood quite well...
Well, there it is…