Stories about Nazis are like Star Wars — they captivate us by drawing a line in the sand between good(ish) people and true evil. However, seeing a bunch of swastikas everywhere is even scarier than watching Stormtroopers take out a whole planet, because this force of terror was REAL. Humanity, we are bad. Thank God the Nazis are no more, right?
But what if they hadn’t just won WWII, but had gone on to take over the United States? The Man in the High Castle, based on the book by Philip K. Dick, asks just this question. It’s a chilling and captivating premise, made even more interesting by the fact that in this alternate universe, the West Coast region has become the territory of the Japanese. It’s like San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6, pretty much to a T. (Not really.)
The story we have here is a compelling one, and the universe built around it is rich and detailed. Fake TV shows, pop songs and childrens’ books are everywhere, often adorned with swastika armbands and German. Most Americans speak a fair amount of either German or Japanese, and some of them even practice Aikido, like our hero, Juliana Crain. She rules at throwing people on the ground in a way that is still respectful and even a little bit spiritual. (This will come into play later, but not as much as you might think.)
Juliana has a happy life in her incredibly dim and dingy apartment with her boyfriend, Frank, until her half-sister Trudy hands her a film before being shot to death. Now Juliana must carry on her sister’s mission with the film, which means going to the “neutral zone” between the Japanese and German territories. There, a stringy boy named Joe Blake hits on her relentlessly, and they become friends. But Blake has secrets of his own, including just what side of the fight he’s on.
Meanwhile, Frank is dealing with Juliana’s disappearance, surviving an interrogation by the Kempetai as to just where she’s gone and why. Frank is part Jewish, and his family members get mixed up in this whole situation, to disastrous effects. This turns Frank from a passive, compliant, “who me?” jewelry maker into angry man who says what he really thinks.
The characters are all entangled with one another in captivating ways, including the Japanese officials and the Nazis, and almost every one of them is given an inner battle that makes you sympathize with them. Even the Obergruppenführer (which I think means like Super Nazi Guy) John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell, has a compelling character arc.
The problem is, the three main characters are just not that well cast. Alexa Davalos does well as Juliana Crane, but she’s the sort of agreeable lady casting choice that Hollywood men love to put in everything. Her sister Trudy (Conor Leslie) seemed like a more interesting actress to me, and I found myself wishing she had been cast as Juliana instead. Juliana’s two competing love interests (Frank and Joe) are complete bores that both look like they were plucked from Abercrombie catalogs. They also have no chemistry whatsoever with Juliana, who seems generally older and more mature than either of them.
Also, I might be totally insane, but was the actor playing Frank different in the pilot than in the rest of the show? When I watched episode 2, where Frank is in captivity and about to be tortured for information, I legitimately thought that there was going to be a plot point where he met Juliana’s other, original boyfriend, who was also in captivity, before I realized they were the same character. I cannot find evidence that another guy played Frank in the pilot, but I also didn’t look that hard. My conspiracy theory about this might explain why the Rupert Evans was so badly cast in this role (he looked the most like original Frank). Maybe I’m just face blind. Who knows?
(Also, I also expected Frank to become a supervillain after what happens to him and his family, but I think I’ve just watched too many superhero blockbusters.)
So should you watch this show? If the premise intrigues you, absolutely. Just know that the three main characters are a bit boring. The rest of the show more than makes up for it, and it’s quite thought-provoking. The most interesting thing I noticed was that the more I saw swastikas in this show, the more banal and everyday they started to look to me. It makes you wonder what symbols of oppression might be all around you, but have just successfully blended in until they’ve become boring. Eery, right?
I hope I haven’t provided any spoilers. This show is a wild ride, but one that feels cohesive and tight the whole way through. I give it six cheerful Aikido throws out of 10.