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.

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