by Lew Ritter
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is an Amazon Studios series about an alternate history in which Germany and Japan triumphed in WWII and divided up the American continent. Adapted from an award winning novel by noted Sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick, it is produced by Ridley Scott and was developed as a series by FRANK SPOTNITZ, one of the writers behind the X- FILES.
The tone of the series is established at the beginning of the pilot with the haunting theme song in which a woman sings EDELWEISS, a paean to the German Father Land, while in the background, the map of the US shows the advancing German and Japanese forces.
The series begins in the United States, circa 1962. The eastern half of the country is part of the “Greater Nazi Reich,” and the western half now is called the “Japanese Pacific States.”
Times Square is adorned with Nazi flags and symbols. The Gestapo, the feared German secret police, hunt down saboteurs and the Resistance. In the Japanese Pacific States, armed Japanese soldiers patrol the streets and the Kempeitai, the Japanese version of the Gestapo, search for potential disloyal Americans.
In San Francisco, JULIANA CRAIN (Alexa Davalos) loves FRANK FRINK, (Rufus Evans), a starving artist, who hides his Jewish identity. Frank reveals that he changed his name to avoid being identified as a Jew in the occupied lands. JOE BLAKE, (Luke Kleintank) is hired by the Resistance to deliver a mysterious cargo into the Neutral Zone between the two empires.
When Juliana’s sister is murdered after giving Juliana a film, Juliana watches and sees in it a different world in which America was triumphant. Convinced that the film holds the key to freedom, she becomes obsessed with making it public.
In a later episode, FRANK plots to kill the Japanese Crown Prince on his visit to San Francisco. It is an act of revenge for the death of his Jewish relatives, but the big twist is that he hesitates at the last minute – and someone else assassinates the prince instead, leaving us with a whole new issue. One of many ethical, moral and pragmatic problems which continue to come up at every turn.
The sets are perfect. The vintage cars, dress, and television shows are a convincing touch.
The show is the work of Spotnitz and a very strong writer’s room. Adapting Dick’s work has been a long tale in and of itself, and the series has been incubating in various forms for decades. But for this viewer is’s been well worth the time and efort. Especially riveting is the mystery of the meaning of the films showing the alternate dimension in which the Allies won the war.
ALEXA DAVALOS is completely believable as the vulnerable Juliana. Davalos has had many supporting roles in movies such as DEFIANCE and MOB CITY. In MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, she establishes herself as a star.
RUFUS SEWELL is the stand-out actor of the series. As Obergruppenfurher JOHN SMITH, he’s the epitome of what historian Hanna Arendt termed the “Banality of Evil.” In Arendt’s book, the Nazi killers were just ordinary bureaucrats who carried out the monstrous deeds known as the Holocaust, and in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, John Smith, possessor of a name that’s as ordinary as they come, is the personification of Arendt’s argument.
Sewell is terrific at being a bad guy who doesn’t even realize that’s what he is. He is chilling, even – or maybae especially – in scenes that show him as an ordinary family man concerned with raising his children.
CARY-HIROYUKI TAGAWA brings a level of sympathy to his role as the Japanese Trade Minister. He portrays a peaceful man who has witnessed the evil brought on by the triumph of the Axis and has taught himself to live with it.
RICK WORTHY plays Lem, owner of a small restaurant in the neutral zone and a key contact within the Resistance. The part is smallish, but he brings strength t it.
RUFUS EVANS makes us believe that Frank is an obsessed man haunted by the past who finally decides to take matters into his own hands.
As Joe Blake, LUKE KLEINTANK is the only weak spot in the cast, lacking the personal force that would make his character as compelling as he needs to be.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE has been developed with a five year story arc in mind. This show is a thought-provoking and chilling look at the triumph of evil in the modern age, and the last episode ends with a major cliffhanger. Fortunately, it already has been renewed for the second season, so we should see the resolution of the current problem – definitely worth tuning in for. Besides, where else can you see not one, but two actors named Rufus kicking emotional butt?