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Here's everything you need to know about 'The Man in the High Castle' before you binge

The cast and EP give us the lowdown

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Liana Hentcher/Amazon

The Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternate history—and uses three distinct backdrops to depict it. In the years after the Allies lost World War II, the United States has been carved up: The German-occupied East is dark and disturbing, ruled by American Nazis; the Japanese-occupied West is lush with Asian-influenced designs but equally paranoid and oppressive; and the neutral zone between the two is lawless and unpredictable, a deserted landscape in which those rejected by the fascist society can rot.

Within these bleak settings is an ensemble of characters scattered across the divided U.S. Some have been reimagined or further developed from their print counterparts (the drama is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name), while others are completely new inventions who help illustrate the themes of Dick’s work.

The bevy of major players can be hard to keep track of, whether you’ve read the book or not. (For those who have, some of the major characters won’t appear until later, and therefore aren’t in this roundup. Robert Childan, anyone?) To prepare viewers for their binge, showrunner Frank Spotnitz and several cast members broke down the roles for EW, teasing where the characters will be headed in the season:

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos)

Who she is

Juliana is based in San Francisco, where she’s developed an appreciation for Japanese culture even though her father died in the war at the hands of the Japanese. “She can embrace that contradiction,” Spotnitz says. “And that was very deliberate to establish her as that kind of extraordinary person.” Part of what makes her an “extraordinary person” is her capacity for hope in a world mostly rid of it, a quality that drives her forward and fuels her desire to have an impact. “She’s on a mission, this woman,” Davalos says. “To a fault, I think.”

Where she’s headed

Juliana suffers a major loss and is assigned a mission to deliver a mysterious film reel — all in one night. Soon after, she decides to travel away from San Francisco. “She’s trying to do the right thing, but terrible things keep happening as a consequence of her pursuing the right thing,” Spotnitz says. And that night in the first episode will come back to haunt her: “As we go through, the cracks start to happen more, and more comes out in lots of different places, in places where it shouldn’t,” Davalos says. “It’s an incredibly emotional journey for her.” 

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank)

Who he is

Joe begins his journey as a new member of the Resistance, tasked with leaving New York and trekking out to Canon City for mysterious purposes. (Those who haven’t seen the pilot online can stop reading here.) But because of his background — which Spotnitz promises will come up again in later episodes — Joe chose to become a Nazi and is working as a double agent when he joins the Resistance.

Still, Kleintank emphasizes that Joe’s not actually sure on which side he belongs, because his ideology is in flux. “He has this duplicity about him, so he’s an interesting shade of grey,” Kleintank says of his character. “He was raised in this world, so I don’t think there’s a good guy or a bad guy mentality. I think he’s just a human being in this life.” 

Where he’s headed

Joe meets Juliana and gets just as engrossed by the mystery of the man in the high castle and the film reel as Juliana does — though he has a harder time figuring out what it means. “As the show goes forward, you keep hoping he’s going to do the right thing, but you can never be sure, because the pressures on him to do the wrong thing are so enormous,” Spotnitz says. “Joe is one of those characters where you don’t really know who he is, and where he stands.”

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

Frank Frink (Rupert Evans)

Who he is

Frank, a factory worker who makes jewelry in his spare time, is in a relationship with Juliana at the start of the series—that is, before she sets off on that mysterious mission. He’s a rule follower, but that can only take him so far thanks to the fact that he has Jewish relatives, a secret that could result in his death—or others’—if word gets out. “When we met Frank in episode one, he was the guy who was just trying to get along, trying to survive in this world,” Spotnitz says. “But after episode two, he finds that impossible.”

Where he’s headed

The traumatic loss Frank suffers early on in the series triggers “a real change in him,” Evans says of the character, who starts off as someone resistant to, well, resistance. “You see him turning into a … radical,” he continues. “He’s a deeply troubled man now.” That experience—and his reaction to that experience—is part of what makes Frank the audience’s proxy of sorts. “I like to think of Frank as the smartest version of us if we were in those circumstances,” Spotnitz says, “and it’s really difficult. It’s really difficult to find a way forward.”

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

John Smith (Rufus Sewell)

Who he is

Equally charming and threatening, Obergruppenführer John Smith is all-American — and all-Nazi. The New York-based character’s a jarring representation not only of how cruel and evil the society is, but also how far the fascist ideology has permeated. “It’s fascinating to watch how somebody like him justifies to himself what he does,” Spotnitz says. “And it really makes you think about what is the nature of evil when you see somebody who’s otherwise good in service to an evil system.”

Sewell adds, “Nazism contains all of the major signifiers of how we see bad guys. You’d notice that someone would come in to play a part for one or two days and automatically speak with a German accent even though the character was American. [Your] body goes straight, your diction becomes clipped. I would just actively fight against that [stereotype] every step… Anything I could do that was more all-American guy, more guy-ish, more bro-like, I would.”

Where he’s headed

According to Sewell, John is the perfect example of a Nazi officer, but even he has trepidations. “He is someone who is absolutely, 100 percent, seemingly the star, on message,” Sewell says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t something inside that doubts that. Because sometimes the greatest zealots have that.” And yes, “John Smith” is his real name. “I deliberately gave him the most all-American, generic name I could think of,” Spotnitz says. “‘Obergruppenführer John Smith’ just has that, like, [there are] so many syllables in German and then ‘John Smith.'”

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa)

Who he is

Tagomi is the trade minister for the Japanese Pacific States—and the character blessed with the title of “Philip K. Dick’s favorite,” according to Spotnitz. “As we meet him in the pilot, he’s trying to influence the world,” Spotnitz says. “The world is in a dangerous state, and he’s trying to change, to save millions of lives.” To help him do this, Tagomi frequently consults the ancient Chinese text I Ching, a habit that points to his uncertainty. “That’s why he’s looking for answers,” Spotnitz says. “He doesn’t have them.” 

Where he’s headed

Tagomi’s willing to take some big risks if it means it’ll better the world, a trait that will become more and more apparent as the series goes on. “He’s somebody who’s suffered a lot, who’s lost a lot, but has not lost his humanity and he’s really trying to do the right thing,” Spotnitz says. Tagawa, on the other hand, is a bit more tight-lipped about his character’s future: “Here’s a hint,” he says with a smile. “The book ends with him beginning.”

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls)

Who he is

Ed works in the factory alongside Frank, a friend he’s not afraid to go to bat for. “He loves unconditionally,” Spotnitz says. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his friends.”

Where he’s headed: 

Ed was originally imagined as a comic relief, but Spotnitz promises this supporting character has “suffered” and even gets some “pretty heartbreaking” scenes of his own toward the season’s end. “Much more than I expected, he’s like the heart and the hope of the show,” Spotnitz says. “He has this quality of sweetness about him and that’s where his character keeps going in a world that is so dark.”

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente)

Who he is

If John Smith is the epitome of the Nazi forces in the East, Kido is the star officer of the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police enforcing the fascist law in the West. The bespectacled Kido is far more bloodthirsty than his New York counterpart, but, Spotnitz says, the character evolved into someone who’s more a thinking man in a position that requires him to brutal in his choices, thanks to De la Fuente’s performance. “Joel, I think, is just such a gifted actor, and he brings so much to a character who should seem to have no humanity,” Spotnitz says. “There’s a real person there.”

Where he’s headed

The inspector will be just as threatened by the mystery of the man in the high castle. But even more important to him than that is the possibility of war between the German and the Japanese, a conflict that only makes him more steadfast in his ruthlessness and his inscrutable nature. “He’s one of those characters who leaves you wanting to know more,” Spotnitz says. “I think he thinks he’s doing the right thing, which is terrifying.”

Liane Hentscher/Amazon

Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard)

Who he is

When Wegener first appears, he’s disembarking from a jet and presenting himself to Tagomi as Victor Baynes, a Swedish envoy visiting the Pacific States ahead of the Japanese royal family’s visit. But viewers quickly learn that he’s in fact Rudolph Wegener, an undercover Nazi on a secret mission — secret even from the Nazis — to prevent the impending war between the two Axis powers that many believe will happen once the aging and Parkinson’s-afflicted Hitler passes away. “He’s interesting, because he’s a good German Nazi in the show,” Spotnitz says. 

Where he’s headed

Tagomi and Wegener’s machinations are challenging to pull off — they involve plenty of spy work on Wegener’s part — but Wegener believes it’s his duty to do whatever is needed to stop any chance of Germany conquering the Pacific States. “He continues on his path,” Spotnitz says. “It’s all about passing the atomic secrets to the Japanese to create a balance of power, a balance of terror.”

The Man in the High Castle arrives on Amazon Friday, Nov. 20.

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