It’s been almost a year since we first went nuts over the pilot, but on November 20th, Amazon Prime premiered all ten episodes of its first season of The Man in the High Castle and it was well worth the wait. We here at XFN are here to tell you if you never buy a single thing, every penny of that Prime membership will be money well spent. If you read no further, read this: Man in the High Castle is the must-watch new show of the season.
In Frank Spotnitz’ and Ridley Scott’s new drama, it’s 1962, in the former United States of America, and the characters are living in an alternate universe where the Axis has won World War II by beating the US to the atom bomb and devastating Washington D.C. This is no idealized Mad Men type of show, people. This is a gritty look at what might have been.
The country is split into two, with the Nazis controlling the East, Japan controlling the West, and an ungoverned and somewhat Wild West-like Neutral Zone splitting the country at the Rockies. To make matters worse, the two former partners are locked in something of a cold war themselves and Hitler’s rumoured impending death might be the lightning needed to spark the fire.
Post WWII America is not a particularly happy place for our main characters, or for the population in general; the post-war peace is shaky and Americans are oppressed from both sides. Some accept the occupying forces, some even seem to embrace their new lifestyle, but there’s an active resistance made up of people who remember how things used to be and they intend to fight.
Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and Joe (Luke Kleintank), our main characters, are drawn together by a separate but mutual quest revolving around the underground opposition: deliver a newsreel that depicts an alternate history where the Allies have won the war. The films are highly sought-after, especially by the Nazi’s, who won’t rest until they are all destroyed. Not much is known about the newsreels other than a mysterious man known only as “The Man in the High Castle” is possibly behind them.
The attention to detail and world-building in this gloomy and intense series is stunning and the visuals will blow you away. The narrative is swift but effectively played, weaving multiple storylines into a fluid whole that leaves you on the edge of your seat and wondering who you can trust. Though the action is fairly low in this series, it's the quiet moments that draw you in and keep a low-level hum of dread thrumming in your veins.
Hit the jump for a spoiler-filled recap and more in-depth review of episode one.
The New World starts off quickly and we meet Joe, a handsome truck driver looking for work; work we soon find out is a little more subversive than simple delivery boy. We follow as he makes his way from a secret meeting in a movie theatre, through an alternate Times Square, to his final destination, where he meets his new boss, Don Warren (Michael Rispoli). The visuals in this opening sequence are jarring but gorgeous and quickly get the point across regarding the changes that have taken place since the Axis won the war. Joe wants to be part of the resistance, and citing his father’s service and sacrifice, he is soon sent on a mission smuggling contraband into the Neutral Zone. He’s to ask no questions. Right as he’s climbing into the driver’s seat, the Nazi’s arrive, and it’s a bloodbath as all hell breaks loose. They take Mr. Warren captive and execute the workers in the factory as Joe narrowly makes his escape.
Across the country in San Francisco, we meet Juliana, serenely practicing Aikido, apparently having kneeled to the Japanese way of life in the West. The visuals are just as compelling as we are introduced to Japan’s spoils from the war. Juliana leads a seemingly normal life with her Jewish boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). Why make the spiritual distinction, you ask? Well, his heritage will become vitally important later on, but I digress. Their fairly peaceful, if oppressed, life quickly changes when Juliana’s sister, Trudy (Conor Leslie), is killed by the Japanese, accused of being a traitor. But not before she find Juliana and hands off a film reel, thus beginning her quest.
The newsreel is the core of the series, presenting an alternate world where the Allies won WWII. Called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, the film has a visceral effect on Juliana as she watches the images play out over and over again. It’s clear there’s no turning back for her once she’s seen it. There are rumors Hitler considers the film a threat to the Reich, and the Japanese, led by Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), while not quite so obsessed, will still stop at nothing to get their hands on any copies.
Juliana leaves San Francisco to seek out answers to what Trudy’s been doing with her life and her cause of death, and this inadvertently leaves Frank in trouble. Having a Jewish grandfather, Frank’s already a target even though the Japanese aren’t overtly anti-Semitic, but the Japanese are under pressure from the Nazi’s to get the newsreel and her actions will soon come back to haunt Frank.
In prison, Mr. Warren is being tortured. He won’t budge and tells his abusers the truck that left contains coffee makers and is headed off to Alabama, a bold-faced lie. Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), informs him they know exactly where the truck is going and what it’s holding. This doesn’t sound like it will bode well for Joe.
Joe is on his way to the Neutral Zone. Along the way, he gets a flat and there’s a notable scene where it’s both beautifully and poignantly shown the casual disregard for human life and mankind’s ability to accept all kinds of atrocities to maintain the status quo in their own lives. I won’t spoil any further, but the scene is truly affecting and it will stick with you for days, if not a lot longer.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Swedish trade ambassador Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) is in town. He meets with Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a senior Japanese official and all is not as it seems. Are these two trying to avoid a war between Japan and Germany, or are both of them up to something else entirely? With the Fuehrer ailing and the leadership of the Nazi party up for grabs, a new war might not be too far-fetched and the stakes are high for everybody. The two share an ongoing battle between superstition on Tagomi’s part and pragmatism on Wegener’s. As vague and elusive as the two of these characters and their intentions seem, I really enjoy their interactions and hope to see a lot more of this storyline play out on screen.
As Frank, and his friend and coworker, Ed (DJ Qualls) work in a factory to make Americana goods the Japanese can’t get enough of, Juliana meets and befriends, Katie Owens (Shannon Day), on a bus on the way to Canon City. However, the friendship is very short-lived as Juliana wakes to find Katie off the bus and absconding with her bag. Luckily, Juliana has stashed the film under her jacket and her mission can continue.
Arriving at the Neutral Zone checkpoint, Joe gets curious about his payload and digs around under the truck, finding his own copy of the newsreel hidden below. Our main characters are set on a collision course. Stashing the film and passing through the checkpoint, Joe continues on his way.
Back in San Francisco, Frank realizes Juliana has left for Canon City rather than the police like she had said she would. Inspector Kido and his men arrive, trashing the place and demanding to know where she has gone. He refuses to cooperate and they roughly arrest Frank and take him away.
In New York, Mr. Warren is flogged, his body dumped out on the streets as a message.
Finally, Juliana arrives in Canon City and the Sunrise Diner. After eating her meal, she tells the owner, Lem Washington (Rick Worthy) she can’t pay him as all her things have been stolen; naturally, he is not amused. Joe, arriving right on time, saves the day. He follows her out and they share a soda. Notably, or perhaps I’m reading too deeply into these things, it’s not a Coke but instead an orange soda they drink. Is the lack of this iconic American drink a result of the alternate history, or a lack of product placement deals? I like to believe it’s the former as the attention to detail in this series is just that high, from the largest of Time Square billboards to the smallest of phone booth details. The two feel each other out, Juliana trying to find out if he’s the contact she should be meeting. However, it appears he’s just a nice guy doing a good thing.
He checks his watch and excuses himself, and that’s when my heart sinks and I yell at the screen. Joe places a phone call to none other than Obergruppenführer Smith. The boy is a double agent!
I want to speak to the writer immediately!
Joe tells him that everything is going smoothly, and Smith informs him that his father would be proud of him. The episode ends.
I thank my lucky stars the rest of the season is available and carry on.
The Man in the High Castle is gripping, diving into the murky intricacies of human behavior. The alternative world is both believable and horribly beautiful. The attention to detail is extraordinary, right down to a reimagined “Dragnet” playing on the TV, complete with a new and Reich-bent intro narration. The characters are well rounded, and even minor characters that start out a little irritating, and perhaps even cartoonish, eventually pay off with fleshed-out storylines.
For those of you who have read the book there are some noteworthy changes, but in my opinion, they are necessary for television and well executed; the overriding themes stay the same, and the texture hasn’t been lost. I’d recommend you go into this show with an open mind but feeling excited about how the creators of this show have handled the source material. The Man in the High Castle is powerful television and I strongly recommend you grab a friend, load up on snacks, get comfy, and prepare for a binge. Once you begin, you won’t be able to stop this timely work of art.
Though we doubt you'll be able to wait to watch all the episodes, we will be doing a weekly recap. Come back next week for the review and recap of episode two, Sunrise.