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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

a few thoughts about The Man in the High Castle S1

Man in the High Castle Alexa Davalos Luke Kleintank

[spoilers… but not in the beginning — I’ll let you know when they start; you can safely read for a bit before the spoilery stuff starts, and you should read it to get an idea of why you need to watch this show]

I was up until 4am this morning binging Amazon Prime’s new series The Man in the High Castle because I simply refused to go to bed until I knew how it ended. There turned out to be a special hell in this. I was totally captivated by the first two episodes when Amazon made them available to everyone a few weeks ago (in the hopes of getting people to sign up for Prime, of course, which was a smart move, because this is brilliant and instantly addictive television). And these remaining eight episodes — so, ten in all, all available now — are more of the same: captivating characters who go on profound personal journeys that include what look like dramatic U-turns but are wholly justified and plausible; almost unbearable suspense; and provocative, engaging world-building. This is already one of the best TV shows ever made.

But here’s the thing. I knew this is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.], so I was worried that this was intended as a truly limited series, and that these ten episodes would be it. But it’s very clear, from all the hanging plot threads and still unresolved personal journeys by the end of the tenth episode, that there is more to come. I haven’t read the Dick novel (though it’s in the to-read pile now), but a quick look at the Wikipedia page for the book (which is not at all spoilerish for the show, and it seems like not for the book either) suggests that the book is more of a jumping-off point rather than a blueprint to be followed slavishly. Which is great. I didn’t want these ten episodes to be over, and I cannot wait for more.

Except now I have to wait for more. *aaarrrggghh*

The basic premise of the show is this: the U.S. and the Allies lost World War II. We don’t see anything of the world beyond the borders of the former United States here, but the West Coast of the former U.S is now occupied by Japan, the Rocky Mountains are a lawless neutral zone, and everything from the Great Plains eastward is part of the Greater Nazi Reich. The year is 1962, and we meet several characters on both coasts — specifically, in San Francisco and New York City — who are seeking answers to the mystery of strange propagandistic films that are being circulated underground that appear to be newsreels showing the Allies winning the war. There are characters who are involved with a resistance against the occupiers, characters who are the occupiers (like a Japanese trade minister in San Fran), and characters who are collaborators (like an American Nazi officer in New York). There’s a rumor that a so-called “Man in the High Castle” is the one who has created these films, but the resistance is also gathering these films to pass on to the Man, which doesn’t make sense: why would he want them back?

Much of what I deem suspenseful in these ten episodes is a result of a certain coyness on the part of the show: clues to what is going on and how much this world differs from our own are doled out very parsimoniously. I suspect that some viewers will find this frustrating or even confusing. I love it. It’s part of what has captured my imagination, and part of the fun is speculating. Here are a few ideas I have about what’s really going on.

[spoilers from now on, and assume spoilers in the comments]

So, the Man in the High Castle is clearly Adolf Hitler himself, still alive but elderly and ailing. We see him, in the last episode, literally living in a castle up on a mountain somewhere in the Alps. And he has a ton of these weird films and is obsessed with watching them… which isn’t unexpected, given how they appear to depict his Nazi reich failing to establish itself in some alternate universe. But here’s the thing: I don’t think he actually created these films per se — or at least the ones in his possession — but I do think the Nazis are responsible for getting them into Hitler’s possession.

See, there are the scientific plans that the renegade Nazi officer, the one who was posing as the Swedish trade delegate in San Fran, was trying to get to the visiting Japanese science minister. I originally presumed — and I think this was the show’s intention — that the plans were for some sort of super atomic bomb, the H bomb, perhaps. (We know the Nazis have the bomb: they nuked Washington DC during the war.) But later, there are references to a “Heisenberg device.” Werner Heisenberg was, of course, a physicist, and when I heard his name, it combined with the clear hints of alternate universes to indicate that the Nazis have the technology to peer into alternate universes and, say, grab newsreels and other information from them. Perhaps it began as a sort of remote-viewing technology that I am certain is behind the apparent mole in the New York Nazi hierarchy who appears to be sharing security information with the resistance. (I’m sure Rufus Sewell had the wrong guy when he pushed his colleague off the building ledge, and we know there is a rebellious presence among the Nazi hierarchy, like the fake Swedish delegate.)

I like to imagine that the only way the Nazis won the war in the first place is by cheating with this remote-viewing technology, which is the ultimate spy tech. Maybe they even took hints from alternate universes, could see mistakes to be made and avoid them. Maybe they can even look into the future. (Is that final film, which shows Joe the New York Nazi shooting Frank the San Fran artist in the head, after San Fran has been destroyed by a nuke, from an alt-universe, or from a possible future of the universe this show is set in?)

But of course Hitler and the Nazi command would freak if information from these alternate universes started showing up from some other source. Which is why the Man in the High Castle wants to collect the alt-universe films he didn’t commission himself. (Though how he convinced the resistance that he was on their side is still a mystery.) And this is that other source: there are people who can travel between the alternate universes. That’s what we see the Japanese trade minister do in the final minutes of the final episode: he travels to “our” San Fran. And I’m guessing, from the look on his face, that it’s the first time he’s done that. But Juliana’s sister — or the version of her from another timeline — has done that too: it’s how Trudy can both be dead in a mass grave and also alive in the marketplace (with her mother sensing her aliveness) at the same time.

I really really really like how the characters are so vivid here, and how tough it is to consider them wholly good or wholly bad, and how their relationships so complicated; Juliana and Frank are one of the most interesting and most realistic romantic couples I’ve ever seen, and wow I haven’t even gotten into how in this universe in 1962, no one seems to have a problem with unmarried cohabiting couples. I love how the writing is so sharp and smart. But mostly, I love how thinky this show is, how it doesn’t spoonfeed the viewer and how it assumes that you’re gonna bring a lot of science-fictional knowledge with you into it.

I need more now.


Watch The Man in the High Castle on Amazon [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] (no video on Amazon Canada, sorry!) You do have to be a member of Amazon Prime to watch beyond the first episode. But you could sign up, binge-watch during your first-month-free, and then cancel shhh don’t tell them I said that. If you do want to try a 30-day free trial, please use these links [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] because it would help support my work here. Even if you cancel at the end of your free trial, I still get a little kickback.


posted in:
tv buzz
  • LaSargenta

    You may end up disappointed in the book. I’ve repeatedly enjoyed films made of the ideas in his books and have been completely underwhelmed by his writing. I’ve also read work of his that has great themes that haven’t been made into anything (he was really prolific) and wished that he was a better writer so I could actually enjoy reading his work.

    This series sounds great.

  • Aaron Jones

    Are different ethnicities portrayed in this world and if so, how?

  • Malby

    We just commented on how the West Coast and the Neutral Zone seemed pretty integrated. One major character is Black, and there are many Japanese and Japanese-American characters on the west Coast. We see more of the west Coast in season 1.

  • althea

    Helpful comment, thanks. I know I’ve read him many, many years ago and don’t even remember what, or what it was like except for appreciating him as a sci-fi/fantasy writer. But he’s an interesting study. He had some extreme experiences, seemingly metaphysical (he thought so), that led him to pursue answers to the meaning of existence. (“High Castle” was written before all that happened, so it may not be a result of his alternate visions.)

  • This show sounds fascinating. I just finished Narcos(another great Netflix show) and am now debating between this and Jessica Jones.
    I only focus on one show at a time, and never binge. I tend to watch a couple episodes a week. I like things to last. Plus, I could never watch that much tv in one sitting anyway. If I even watch two episodes back to back I feel a little bad about doing it.

  • MiceFaces

    Indeed. PKD’s writing, like that of most pulp sci-fi writers, really isn’t that special. What makes him stand out though were the “mystical” experiences he had later in his life. I think that’s the appeal of his writing for most people. People’s obsession with him goes beyond looking for entertainment. I had a friend who in the months prior to a psychotic breakdown was obsessed with PKD, especially VALIS, which he took to be a true story. Literally thought PKD was unveiling secrets of the universe to him.

  • LaSargenta

    For me, it wasn’t a case of “isn’t that special”, it was more just plain unreadable. There’s plenty of potboiler writers whose work I have read and enjoyed — whose writing didn’t actually get in the way of me enjoying the story. This guy doesn’t fall into that category.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Call me a cynical non-Aryan but ethnic diversity is hardly something I’d expect to find in a world where the Axis Powers won WW II. After all, the Nazis weren’t exactly famous for their multicultural attitudes.

  • Tonio Kruger

    It seems shallow for me to say this because so many sci-fi writers that I have admired also admired PKD but I have to agree with LaSargenta here.

    PKD had a lot of interesting ideas in his work but as a writer, he was easier to respect for his originality than to read for one’s enjoyment. I don’t expect Star Wars-level prose every time I read a sci-fi story — in fact, I loathe the idea that every sci-fi story has to imitate Star Wars — but I do expect a certain level of craftsmanship and readability. And there are writers — Robert Heinlein being the most obvious example but also Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Silverberg, Fritz Leiber, Joanne Russ, Tanith Lee, Connie Willis, etc. — who do have the ability to write about complex ideas in their stories without sacrificing good writing. Of course, YMMV.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I like to imagine that the only way the Nazis won the war in the first
    place is by cheating with this remote-viewing technology, which is the
    ultimate spy tech.

    A lot of writers like C.M. Kornbluth with his novella “Two Dooms” and Stephen “Yes, That Stephen Fry” Fry with his novel Making History have managed to come up with credible ways the Nazis could have won WW II without relying on the technological gimmick you mention.

    Then again, Your Mileage Obviously Varies.

  • Aaron Jones

    That’s a concern of mine, as well as a certain tendency for some ethnic groups not to make it into the future created by some SF authors.

  • Tonio Kruger

    True. And even when they do make it into said future, said future tends to be whitewashed when said author’s book gets made into a movie. Just compare the book and movie versions of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Stephen King’s The Running Man.

  • bronxbee

    an interesting take on Amazon’s subway advertising of TMITHC:

    https://bgr.com/2015/11/24/amazon-nazi-symbols-nyc-train/
    which i actually have not seen myself. but which would be pretty creepy if i came upon it unexpectedly. not to mention that i *hate* subway cars with ads by only one advertiser.

  • I’ve got the sample on my Kindle. If that doesn’t grip me, I won’t continue.

  • There are black characters in the neutral zone, where we may imagine they escaped to when the Nazis first arrived as occupiers.

  • I’m sure there *are* ways to tell a story about the Nazis winning that doesn’t rely on SF tech. I just meant that the way it seems to be playing out here is that that would make a good deal of sense.

  • I came across these images from the Vancouver shoot, with Rufus Sewell and (I think) Steve Byers, with the Nazi insignia on their uniforms covered up. I would guess they were covered to protect them from the rain, except Sewell only has a piece of fabric around his arm, with the rest of his costume left exposed to the weather. Then again, maybe because it appears to be leather, it’s not in danger of being damaged by some rain.

    Or maybe the shoot was being sensitive to onlookers? Although I don’t see how this show could have been shot if they were worried about what onlookers might be thinking.

  • bronxbee

    AND… the ads are already being pulled: http://gothamist.com/2015/11/24/amazon_nazi_ad_deniers.php?utm_source=Gothamist+Daily&utm_campaign=fe0f4e6887-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73240544d8-fe0f4e6887-16047129
    you’d think they were advocating nazisim or something instead of just advertising.

  • Finn McCool

    As a guest my comment carries less weight, but as a military history buff it’s EASY to project scenarios where the Axis wins. Star Trek made an award-winning episode written by Harlan Ellison starring Joan Collins “City on the Edge of Forever” where the Nazi heavy water experiments in Norway gave them the bomb first because of her peace talks… Operation Barbarossa was a strategic blunder… Backstabbing Stalin was a huge mistake. What I love about this series is the personal vignettes like Obermanfurher allowing his son to do homework at the breakfast table because the son admits it will honor his family and serve The Reich. The Pilots (all I’ve seen) do include the positive elements of “an armed society is a polite society…”

  • Danielm80

    I can see why the ads would be considered offensive outside the context of the show. Combining Nazis and trains brings up all sorts of terrible associations, especially if you’re not familiar with the story. And a number of the people who are likely to see the ad may have a family history connected to the Holocaust.

    I’m even cynical enough to wonder if the marketing team knew that ahead of time. “No publicity is bad publicity.”

  • clayjohanson

    “So, the Man in the High Castle is clearly Adolf Hitler himself”

    In the novel, Hitler is long dead — the novel starts with Martin Bormann as Reichskanzler and he passes away early in the novel, spurring a power struggle between Goering and Goebbels and Heydrich and others.

    Unless the show makes a major departure from the novel, TMitHC is most definitely in the Rocky Mountain States.

  • Bluejay

    Just finished the show today, and I agree, it’s excellent. So well-shot and so, so well-acted. It was really fascinating to see the characters take on shades of gray — and to feel grudging sympathy even for some of the fascist characters, without ever letting them off the hook for all their moral crimes. Also absolutely chilling to see how you can just get USED to living under fascism; life goes on, and as long as the bodies are being buried out of your sight, you can enjoy shopping at the marketplace or having your V-A Day festivities as usual. (“V-A Day!” *chills*)

    (I’m also aware that that’s actually how a lot of us live today, in our little comfort bubbles, distanced from the suffering of others; I don’t have to worry about being shot without cause 16 times by a police officer, for instance. Depressing.)

    The one thing I’m not sold on just yet: I don’t really understand why these newsreels, even if they DO show alternate outcomes to the war, are so important to the resistance. How does depicting an alternate USA help the rebels overthrow the German and Japanese regimes in THEIR reality? Once history diverges, I imagine the details in one timeline aren’t necessarily strategically useful to people in a different timeline, since all the facts have changed. It would be as if neo-Nazis in OUR reality tried to overthrow democracies and establish fascist regimes by… smuggling illegal copies of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle.” Not really sure how it helps. (And the resistance don’t even watch the films themselves! They’re just somehow convinced that the films are important to their cause and are to be delivered to TMITHC, for… reasons.)

    It’ll be really interesting to see what they do with the alternate universe plotline in Season 2. If Trudy is alive in the other reality, does that mean there are other versions of Juliana, Frank, etc there too? Will the Trade Minister recruit them, and if so, to do what? Will the two realities bleed together, or will one erase the other? And if so, what happens to all the duplicate people? Looking forward to finding out.

  • Bluejay

    There are certainly different ethnicities, but they all exist within the context of this particular scenario. In the Pacific States, ruled by the Japanese Empire, there are plenty of Japanese. In the Greater Nazi Reich, it’s all Aryan types. The Jews are in hiding and don’t admit they’re Jews. Everyone else — black and brown and disabled etc — tends to go to the Neutral Zone.

  • As a guest my comment carries less weight

    Not necessarily. As long as newcomers are smart and/or funny and make an interesting contribution, we’ll buy it!

  • So then there are two men in high castles!

    Unless the Hitler we see on TV and in person in the final episode — and the one that everyone talks about — is a ringer or an impersonator, he is most definitely still alive in the show. The Japanese politicians and the Nazi officers are motivated in different ways by the impending prospect of Hitler’s death being used as a pretext for war between the Reich and Japan.

  • As I said, there’s a lot we don’t yet know, and it can be a little frustrating!

  • Artaxerxes

    There are a lot of Japanese characters, as you might expect. As you also might expect there are very few African-Americans. The only ones we see are from the buffer zone, although the Japanese don’t seem to care if they pop up in their territory.

  • Bluejay

    Also want to share this response by Leah Schnelbach over at Tor (which also deals with the subway ad controversy). Great insights to chew over.

    http://www.tor.com/2015/11/25/the-man-in-the-high-castle-worldbuilding-fiction-and-alternate-histories/

  • I think that the ability to create time travel should not be credited to the human race. Some race who used time travel and who learned to control it – used time travel to genetically engineer first live inhabitants on earth – and used this ability to steer evolution to the point (from molecules – to viruses -to oher higher forms of life)-until and when the human being actually was created (or evolved from the lower forms of life). Simply they were going back in time , fixing any defects of their design, and creating new universe where evolution can continue without problems( existing now only ) in an old universe. Thus great number of parallels was created and naturally only the last one has perfect product of so-called evolution.
    Question is : are we in that one or…. :-) :-)

  • That’s a great piece, and gets at why I love the very practical intellectual exercise that SF — and in particular alternate universe — allows: It forces you to realize that the way the world is is not inevitable, and that it can be changed.

  • And this is relevant to *The Man in the High Castle* how?

    This is not the place to have a debate about evolution.

  • Bluejay

    “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”
    — Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Danielm80

    Yeah, I have to start watching this show.

  • Yes, that is absolutely right :-)

  • Finn McCool

    Thank you for the kind reply MaryAnn. I couldn’t find answers on IMDb, so I’ll ask here: is Ridley Scott no longer producing this? Cuz I didn’t see his name in the credits, and the season 1 seems to suffer from an absence of his style…

  • Finn McCool

    Damn you. You make me want to read a book!

  • Bluejay

    Or maybe the shoot was being sensitive to onlookers?

    Yes, they were:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/arts/television/the-man-in-the-high-castle-imagines-a-red-reich-and-blue.html?_r=0

    “The production did what it could to keep from roiling the emotions of locals during filming, covering armbands between scenes and waiting as long as possible before hoisting inflammatory flags and banners.”

    I think that was the right thing to do; certainly the show is about an alternate-history fascist America, but locals who happened to be near the shoot wouldn’t necessarily have had that context, and would understandably have been upset.

  • The IMDB lists Scott as an executive producer of the show.

  • Do you not read books?

  • Ha! I was right.

    That Times piece is a good read on the show’s production design (which is incredibly good).

  • Bluejay

    Yeah. I was impressed not just with how well they physically built out that world, but how well they thought it through: what America would look like if it never had the 1950s economic boom, or rock and roll, or postwar bright-eyed confidence in general.

    Thanks to the opening sequence, I don’t think I’ll ever hear “Edelweiss” the same way again.

  • Bluejay

    I think I remember seeing his name in the opening credits.

  • Finn McCool

    I stand corrected, I reviewed episode 7 and saw his name briefly. Cause for “things that make you go hmmm…”

  • Finn McCool

    I used to work at a LARGE bookstore, and in a conversation with the manager who quipped how odd it was in interviews people would answer “why do you want to work in a bookstore?” with “I like to read…” and I said, “I’ve read quite enough….”

  • Finn McCool

    … the idea being if you work at a bookstore, you should want to WORK not read, and I earned a lot of bonuses on this basis…

  • So you don’t read books?

  • BraveGamgee

    This idea makes no sense to me. I mean, I get it, you don’t READ at a job, you WORK. But reading makes you more knowledgable about what you’re selling. I’m an avid reader who used to work at a large bookstore, and I helped people find all sorts of books they had never even heard of.

  • Danielm80

    I don’t understand how someone could go into a bookstore and not want to read half the books. I work in a library, and it’s like an alcoholic working in a bar.

    Then again, any time I go to the information desk at a bookstore and ask about a book that’s not on the bestseller list, I just get a blank look. Maybe more bookstores would stay in business if people read on the job.

  • BraveGamgee

    Re: Like an alcoholic working in a bar

    That is EXACTLY how I felt working at the bookstore. Such a wonderful addiction to have, though

  • Danielm80
  • Finn McCool

    I read books, as long as they’re on paper. I hate ebooks… look: spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word “ebooks”… hm…

  • Finn McCool

    That’s a premature conclusion, IMHO. The scene with the Trade Minister and Hitler at the end of E10 blew me away. Hitler deviiated far from the novel version, but tied into the SF “Heisenberg Device” concept. Leading to a fantastic S1e10 finale of the Japanese Minister’s meditation revealing an AMERICAN America…. things that make you go hm…

  • Finn McCool

    Point taken: but instead of saying “I like to read” perhaps they should have said “I’ve read a lot…” ;O)

  • Danielm80

    Or they could say, “I like to read, so I’m always going to be familiar with new books the customers might want to know about.”

  • Bluejay

    So in 1836 they were basically complaining that being around a lot of books causes attention deficit disorder — pretty much the same complaints they’re making about the Internet now. And wasn’t Plato afraid that relying on written text would lead to weakened memories? That sounds familiar too.

    #themorethingschange

  • BraveGamgee

    I never realized there was an explanation behind my insanity…

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I’m about 3 1/2 episodes in (and maybe I should finish before commenting) but here’s where I’m at:

    Likes:
    The production design
    The direction
    The performances

    Dislikes:
    The writing.
    Sweet baby jebus, the writing.

    The way Juliana and Joe go places and do things for no apparent reason than that’s where the next plot coupon is located.

    The way Frank’s sister and her kids *SPOILER* just Frank would be properly motivated to engage in the story.

  • SaltHarvest

    There’s a potentially massive plot hole (and/or woo) in the works if a certain altered detail from the original book doesn’t get a satisfactory explanation next season.

  • steve

    I just finished the show……TERRIBLE! So painfully slow, we learn virtually nothing at the end and what the hell is with the trade minister waking up from a nap in a 1960’s alternate US? The 10 episodes could have been consolidated into 3. So much wasted time. I hate when shows try to build a character. dont! It always ends up sucking and boring! Worst 10 hours of my life

  • DPJM619

    Thanks for the warning.

  • Dan

    The book’s central premise was based on an alternate history book based on the I Ching. Making that a series of films forces a more concrete, less mystical interpretation. I’d like to see them tie Trudy’s dead/alive paradox to Heisenberg’s quantum weirdness as in the Schrodinger’s cat problem. If Heisenberg built the Nazi bomb maybe he used novel principles that caused a rip in the quantum probability of alternative histories causing them to merge.

  • Shawn

    Hitler isn’t the title character. If he were, then why the heck would he be pitting the Nazis against the Resistance when it came to obtaining the films? It’d be so much easier to just let the Resistance do their work for them. Also, it was beyond obvious that the captain that Smith pushed off of the roof of the American SS headquarters knew that the jig was up and dropped his act just before he was killed, and Heydrich knew that Smith had figured out the plot against him.

  • Shawn

    Actually, Hitler is alive, just incapacitated by advanced syphilis.

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