A woman glimpses a better world and embarks on a journey to understand its mystery. Her adventure is ours, too, but with an ironic twist: The Man in the High Castle seizes our attention with a terrible world—though a creative cut above the usual pop culture dystopia—and gradually wins our emotions with increasingly poignant characters. The series is a bold leap into big-saga TV for Amazon and expands the scope of high-concept existentialism typified by series like The Leftovers and The Returned. It’s serious-minded sci-fi that’s stylish and strange and soulful, and only grows more rewarding over time.
Adapted by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) from the novel by Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle gives us an alternate reality where the Axis, not the Allies, won World War II. The year is 1962. The Eastern United States, controlled by Germany, is a rigorously policed Aryan utopia. The West seems pluralistic, but it’s all Japanese hegemony and conformity. Bravura establishing shots capture the imagination. Times Square is glitzy with neon Nazi pop. Market Street in San Francisco is a bustle of imperial culture. It’s the deeply considered details that sell you. A Nazi version of Dragnet is a hit. “Heil Hitler!” has become a chillingly glib, perfunctory greeting. In a heartbreaker of a scene, Frank (Rupert Evans), alienated from his Jewish roots, weeps as prayers are said for his executed family. His sorrow isn’t just for his loss, but for an identity he doesn’t know, and couldn’t express if he did.
Our heroine is Juliana (Alexa Davalos), a Westerner who comes into possession of a stunning forbidden newsreel, produced by an elusive subversive known as the Man in the High Castle, showing a world where the Allies, not the Axis, won WWII. Inspirational fantasy? Cruel hoax? Does this universe exist? Can it be reached? Chasing answers sends her into a post-apocalyptic wasteland between East and West, where she meets Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a [description redacted due to spoilers]. The oppressor characters, complex and conflicted and very well played, nurture slow-simmering intrigues: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Revenge) as a somber, peace-seeking trade minister catalyzes a subplot involving Cold War tensions between Japan and Germany and a power struggle that looms due to Hitler’s declining health. Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale) as Obergruppenführer John Smith initially comes off as one of those charismatically sinister Nazis, but the story and the actor make the most of every opportunity to humanize him while keeping him menacing and mercurial. He’s playing games. To what end?
The season’s first act suffers from drag and flawed strategies for holding our attention. An assassination plot feels forced. A mannered bounty hunter (Burn Gorman) chasing Juliana is a hoot that stretches the show’s tone, perhaps too far. But then TMITHC recharges with new intrigues and shuffled relationships. Juliana, Frank, and Joe—changed by tragedy, failure, and fate—acquire more complex motivations for their search for truth. “It has to be about something more,” Juliana says at a key point in her progressively Kafkaesque odyssey. She might be wrong. But she, like The Man in the High Castle, finds meaning in the journey. B+