An adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel set in a 1962 American dystopia, Man in the High Castle imagines a horrifying “what if” scenario of an Allied defeat, all rendered with shadowy cinematography that brings to mind the world of executive producer Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner. In the sixth episode, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who exudes the sensitive but troubled aura of James Dean, carries flowers down the sidewalk of a Long Island suburb and approaches his boss, John Smith (Rufus Sewell), at his front door. The highest-ranking SS officer in New York, Smith yells, “Seig heil!” to his neighbor—who’s seen affixing fan flags with swastikas on them to his fence—before leading Joe into his home. Here and elsewhere in the series, the tone is consistently thrilling, even as the story goes through predictable “everyman finds new hope to fight evil” motions.
Directors Daniel Percival and David Semel speed up Dick’s patient, brainy narrative for our generation of binge TV-watchers. A shootout between an American resistance cell in Manhattan and SS agents takes place in the first 10 minutes of the pilot, where Joe, a double agent who’s just returned from infiltrating the resistance in Colorado, absconds with a truck and a mysterious film to Canon City, Colorado, part of the neutral Rocky Mountain States between the Western Japanese Pacific States and Eastern Greater Nazi Reich. In the desolate former mining town, Joe is ordered to entrap unsuspecting members of the resistance; instead, he opens up about wanting to do something else with his life during intimate sunrises alongside the beautiful Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who fled San Francisco after the Japanese secret police shot her half-sister in cold blood for resistance activities.
The Man in the High Castle, a filmmaker rumored to be alive despite the Nazis’ claim to the contrary, is the spiritual leader of the resistance and presumably the only hope the beleaguered and nostalgic freedom fighters have left. Both the Japanese and Nazis fear that the shadowy man’s illicit creation, a newsreel depicting the fantasy of an Allied victory called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” will spread his subversive vision of an America without the Fuhrer and Emperor to ban Bibles, expel Jews, and burn cripples in ovens. The SS and Japanese secret police Kempeitai’s pursuit of the anti-fascist cineaste is a convenient device to unite the show’s main underdogs (Joe’s transformation from Nazi agent to resistance sympathizer is practically inevitable); it’s also a subtle homage to the potency of art in the face of tyranny.
Writer Frank Spotnitz omits too many of Dick’s existential questions that people living under foreign regimes trying to rule the entire world might ask. Spotnitz does, however, retain the novel’s symbolic battle between traditionalism and modernity, which he best encapsulates in the rift between the stoic and ruthless Imperial Japanese and the technologically superior and materialist Nazis. Reich officials in the Pacific States belittle the Japanese like Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), an I-Ching devotee, as superstitious and weak once out of earshot. The impending Japan-Nazi battle looms over most the season, which creates a prime opportunity for the audience to anticipate a resistance. But Spotniz adds so many brewing conflicts, chases, and gun battles for the characters to contend with that they have little time to philosophize or ask important questions, such as why the ostensible chaos of a free society is worth more than the stability of efficient totalitarianism.
What’s striking, and frustrating, about the series is how little idealism or ideology, save for a nebulous sense of pro-Americanism, seems to motivate the central characters and their sudden willingness to kill and die. Juliana’s boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), is driven to join the resistance primarily to avenge family members lost to the Kempeitai, but Juliana’s rebellion seems to be more of a personal pilgrimage to find the truth about the Man in the High Castle, while Joe’s perfidy from the Greater Reich appears to be motivated as much by Juliana’s sexy mystique as it is by “The Grasshopper.”
The most vivid character and commanding performance is Sewell’s SS Obergruppenführer, who’s motivated by love of country, but in an Adolf Eichmann “banality of evil” kind of way. At home, Smith is just like any other stern but loving, cardigan-wearing suburban father, making subtle quips about America’s moral decadence and decay at the breakfast table. Then he heads off to Manhattan to torture resistance fighters who riddled his convoy with bullets, putting the Fuhrer’s ideals of the greater good, efficiency, and racial purity into practice with a mordant sense of humor and chilling poise.
Beneath the show’s enthralling novelty—the electrified giant swastika in Times Square, Japanese-dominated San Francisco, and the cartoonish shotgun-wielding cowboy Nazi named the Marshall (Burn Gorman)—lies not a Blade Runner-style psychological thriller, but a familiar good-guy-versus-bad-guy action drama where Americans triumph over foreigners. Just how we like it.