A day late and a dollar short, but cashing in now… @courtsideseats3 shares her thoughts on Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle after the show’s fourth and final season.
The second half of 2019 was the beginning of a love affair with Amazon Prime Video for me. Discovering shows like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Carnival Row, and now The Man in the High Castle. (Author’s Note: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is next on my list. No spoilers please. And yes, I’m late to that game as well.) Typically when a novel is adapted to television or film, I prefer to read the book first and give myself an opportunity to envision the world in my own mind before Hollywood builds it for me. However, when your binge-watching buddy peer-pressures you to start watching or they will proceed without you, you cave. Or at least I did. Add Phillip K. Dick’s novel to my 2020 project list.
For me, World War II history has always been fascinating. The dynamics of this two-sided war paired with Hitler’s dictatorship and the atrocities in Nazi Germany, Pearl Harbor and beyond have always captured my attention in American history classes. Many of us, of course, remember learning about the end of WWII, the end of the reign of Hitler, the surrender of Japan, and everything that followed. Imagine a world where the Allies lost the war, American culture as we know it ceased to exist, and both the Japanese and Germans overtook the United States. That is where The Man in the High Castle begins and this is what our world looks like:
We learn about life in San Francisco run by the Japanese empire and in New York City under the rule of the Nazi Reich. In both regions, American culture has been completely wiped out. Individuals living in this version of the United States are submissive, scared, and living in fear of the higher Japanese and German powers. Anyone who falls a little bit out of line is shown no mercy – mainly death, as an example to others. There’s a gray glaze over every scene. No doubt mimicking the despair and sorrow felt across the new nation.
Eventually, we get a glimpse into the Neutral Zone, occupied by Americans who have defected from the formally occupied regions and, many of whom, form the basis for The Resistance. This group is charged with bringing to light films, created by an individual only known as “the man in the high castle”, that show an alternate world where the Allies win the war. There’s the D-Day celebration, troops returning home, FDR’s creation of the New Deal, the beginning of the Civil Rights movement – everything the audience knows as real life, but what the show’s characters all believe to be impossible. The more people who see the films, the more hope Americans feel in reclaiming their land, and thus the more the Japanese Pacific States (JPS) and the Great Nazi Reich (GNR) must fight back and deny the distribution of these films.
A True Cast of Characters
Julianna Craine (Alexa Davalos) starts the series trying to help her sister, who is involved in The Resistance, and turns into the face and the heart of the cause. Much like a modern-day Katniss Everdeen. Once she views the films, Julianna is fearlessly determined to share the knowledge and fight for the America she has seen in pictures. Julianna is one of a few characters who seamlessly integrates into both Japanese and German culture. She is cool, calm, and always collected, and has the likeability of the typical “girl next door”, but the wits and tenacity of a skillfully trained soldier.
John Smith (Rufus Sewell) is a former American solider turned Nazi loyalist, climbing the ranks of the Reich. He would do anything for his cookie cutter family, but that same ruthless spirit applies to his desire for power – similar to Walter White from Breaking Bad. Smith is smart and rubs elbows with all the right people, Nazis and otherwise, and always seems to be three steps ahead of anyone who may cross him. He is quick to realize that Julianna Craine holds the key to ruining all that the GNR has built in America, and the two characters prove formidable enemies throughout the series.
(Author’s note: Sewell also plays Jasper Bloom, the two-timing man that wrecks Kate Winslet’s Iris in one of my all-time favorites, The Holiday. Mind officially blown.)
Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) is acting as a Reich spy in the American Resistance, assigned to this role by John Smith. He meets Julianna during his first project in the Neutral Zone and their connection is palpable. We, the audience, know his true identity, but only Smith knows in the show’s world. His good looks charm you into thinking that he might do the right thing and share in the Resistance’s efforts, but can this Nazi double agent really be trusted?
Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is the Trade Minister of the JPS and hires Julianna Craine to work for him. She applies for the job under the pretense of spying on the Japanese, but she and Tagomi are quick to develop a bond. The importance of this bond becomes clear as the show progresses, but Tagomi’s peaceful, strong, and subtle demeanor is a nice balance to the extremes of the brutality of both the GNR and the JPS militaries.
(Author’s note: Tagawa also appears in Netflix’s Lost in Space – underrated, but pretty entertaining!)
Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido (Joel de la Fuente) is leader of the Kenpeitai, “the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army”, in San Francisco. He is cunning, vicious, and the powerhouse of discipline in the JPS. He’s responsible for keeping order and obedience within his domain, and is unforgiving to anyone who threatens to ruin that authority. Kido has a run-in of some kind with literally every major character on the show and his presence alone invokes the feeling of true fear from all of them.
“Every [Episode] You Greet Me”
The show’s theme song may be known to many from “The Sound of Music”, but Jeanette Olsson’s version is nothing like the von Trapp Family Singers. As a child, I sang this musical’s soundtrack for hours on end – rewinding the VHS and cassette tapes, singing and dancing on repeat, until the tape ripped. (No DVDs, CDs, or YouTube for this 80s baby!) Hearing the theme song in the pilot episode, completely wrecked some of my favorite childhood memories. This version of “Edelweiss” is haunting, beautiful, eerie, and I can’t un-hear it. It’s the perfect song with the perfect tone and musicality for the introduction of this series.
Subtitles or bust…
A true sign of a show’s authenticity lies with the actors’ accents. As I previously described in my review of HBO’s Chernobyl, there is nothing worse than an inaccurate accent to distract from the plot. For Man in the High Castle, I found the accents were tough to understand, but I think that means they’re authentic. At times, it was a little jarring to jump between German, Japanese, and English, but I think that made me pay attention more. This is not a show for background noise while you clean or meal prep. Trust me, I tried, and ended up re-watching a lot of scenes. A friend once suggested that I enable subtitles for Netflix’s Peaky Blinders. I highly recommend for this show as well – it was a game changer for me. Why should we suffer alone with Wikipedia episode summaries?
While I haven’t heard much buzz about this in mainstream reviews or major award show discussions, The Man in the High Castle hit all the right notes for me. It’s smart, creative, a little twisty, and insanely interesting. As someone who grew up memorizing history textbooks, this show undid everything I thought I knew about World War II.
While the show is based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel, I give the show’s creative team so much credit for bringing this story to life. There is a remarkable balance between all the different cultures, an imaginative twist on American history with accurate ties to reality, and a perfect dash of alternate universe fantasy to please all audiences. Think His Dark Materials plus Stranger Things plus The Hunger Games plus History Channel.
The most recent season, season four, was the show’s finale, so there are no predictions or questions – nothing left outstanding. (For now, I’ll keep my opinions about the final scene to myself.) The Man in the High Castle is just really excellent television. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.