Unlike a number of Philip K. Dick’s numerous literary masterpieces, The Man In The High Castle has had a stuttering time of it getting on screen. This is surprising, considering just how compatible its ingredients are with modern television demands. Its captivating stage of alternate modern history in a post-WW2 world where the Nazis won the whole thing seems tailor-made for a TV run, plus an obligatory cult following. But for all the efforts that established networks such as the BBC and Syfy have put into getting it off the ground - not to mention the intense speculation of Ridley Scott being linked with executive production work for both their respective projects - only now do we have have an adaptation of the 1962 novel. Curiously of all, it comes courtesy of Amazon Studios, a production division perhaps better known for flogging its contemporary comedies for the price of a Prime subscription than for turning classic suspense novels into TV serials. But with the lure of Netflix as irresistible as ever, Prime isn’t going to sell itself on reputation alone. It needs content worthy of filling the kind of online ad space and roadside billboards that its biggest rival has prospered on. Amazon’s adaptation of High Castle certainly has the potential and the production values to pull the punters in, but its first season also suffers from both a lack of pace and, more critically, a lack of heart - giving anyone plenty of pause to consider sticking around.
This on-screen journey through Dick’s world of Axis supremacy at least resembles the original blueprint well. A branch of events leading up to its version of 1962 includes the assassination of Franklin Roosevelt and the Germans discovering the atomic bomb first, leading to a comprehensive victory in the Second World War - and naturally, all the spoils that come with it. What was once the United States is now a divided territory, annexed by the Nazis on the east coast and subjugated by Imperial Japan on the west, with an independent ‘neutral’ zone (essentially the Midwest) acting as a significant buffer given the two empires’ darkening relations. It’s a drab, gritty setting that is also well-captured by some complimentary cinematography. Monolithic, stone-grey skyscrapers flaunting flags of Nazi swastikas cast a shadow of iron authority over New York, while the night lights on the streets of San Francisco flicker with ominous threat, a reminder of the ever present watch of the ruthless Kempeitai, Japan’s all-controlling secret police division. The firey defiance of an American resistance to all this oppression has been utterly extinguished in the 15 years that have followed the Axis victory, and the nation’s citizens have largely come to accept their plight with a vacant apathy. Even the show’s opening credits - a film projection of WW2 combat twisting shadows over a backdrop of Mount Rushmore to show its figureheads weeping - are about as sorrowful as you might expect for a nation not very used to losing wars. High Castle casts no illusions about how quickly the American Dream has come to die under a fascist boot, and it most certainly offers no sprinkling of hope for its resurrection either - at least in the outset.
But an America on its knees can still offer a desperate punch to the balls, and despite the prevalence of nationwide civil obedience, insurgency rolls on through the actions of a few people. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) appears to be one of those people. A young man of no real discernible background, his persistence in joining up with one of New York’s freedom movements rewards him with a cross-country truck run across Canon City, Colorado, deep within the neutral zone, to deliver a classified cargo. Julianna Crain (Alexa Davalos), a keen aikido student living in San Francisco, is another - the death of her sister Trudy at the hands of the Kempeitai - just hours after her sibling dispels an ominous message to her about ‘finding the reason for everything’ - has put her on the quest to answers surrounding her murder. Whatever the pair’s initial motives may be though, eventually they end up sharing the same goal - to solve the even bigger question behind a collection of film reels being distributed to American resistance movements by an ominous persona known only as the ‘Man In The High Castle’. These films are without question the most sought-after commodity in the former US - any would-be revolutionary is literally dying to get their hands on one, with the SS just as keen to confiscate them as a matter of national security. The reason for their deadly desirability comes with the very content they carry - in vivid detail, they depict footage of America and the Allies winning WW2, instead of the defeat that created the world they currently live in. Part hope-inspiring propaganda and part time paradox, their existence baffles anyone who comes to view them, and both Joe with his cargo, and Julianna with her deceased sister’s possessions, now have their own separate copies.
The great puzzle of High Castle’s hunted celluloids is therefore one that also spells grave danger for its protagonists, but only occasionally does the show deliver the prospective knife-edge tension that its setup promises so much of. High Castle instead takes the gentle approach to weave an anxious atmosphere into its mix, unravelling a slow, steady development that, while curiously sedate at times, enables the delivery of its major plot revelations to be even more exclamated when they emerge. Its twists can also be very clever - the first episode’s climax in which Joe’s true identity is revealed is probably the most compelling reason the pilot gives to watch its subsequent follow-ups. What each episode then follows up with is more of the same - low-key build, undramatic character interactions, the transitioning of scene to scene with little fuss - before the climax punctuates itself with the sudden bursts of a pay-off. It gives the air that High Castle is desperate to keep its cards close to its chest - too desperate perhaps. But it is a formula used many times before, especially for espionage dramas such as this, and it’s a formula that is executed competently on the most part.
Where High Castle’s greatest strength undoubtedly lies is with the fun it has exploring the alternative reality it’s been given by its source material. We may have already brushed on how much this is reflected in the show’s well-invested cinematography, but the show’s sets really do look fantastic as well. Nazi offices teem with ornate wood panels, regalia and glorified portraits of the Fuhrer, while Japan lays out its San Franciso base of operations - the uninspiringly-named Japanese Authority Building - with an assault of painted shoji doors and minimalist furniture arrangements to counter the lifeless American concrete that encases their command. There’s even a very amusing scene in the first episode where the Japanese passively clash with their German counterparts on their differences on furniture arrangements for the Crown Prince’s lodgings during his diplomatic mission to the Greater Reich, providing a nice visually symbolic example of the tension that has grown between them. In outdoor scenes, the glorious American landscape also has a chance to shine as Canon City (really Roslyn, Washington), with its stunning mountain backdrop and faded American wartime propaganda adorning the walls of its equally shabby buildings, has all the atmosphere of a rugged frontier town where law is merely suggested and rebels can hide away (which they do). It is a contrast of settings that is incredibly immersive and above all, believable, and it also hammers home just how much High Castle relies on aesthetic themes to keep its narrative from losing its focus.
Without such themes, everything about High Castle would come over as muddled, even if it still remains earnest throughout its ten episodes. Liberties have definitely been taken with the book, as certain characters play different roles to their literary counterparts, and other plot elements have been removed entirely. This could be easily overlooked though - frankly, some of the ideas in Dick’s original novel are too antiquated to have a place on modern screen - if not for the fact that both script and direction alike suffer issues of a technical nature. The show’s meandering pace fails to prevent a sense of light dullness creeping into its otherwise decently-weaved web of deception, and both dialogue and plot development can sometimes come across as so ham-fisted that viewers could also be left just as lost and confused as the on-screen characters are. Side-plots come and go, occasionally with no resolution or justification for them. Character depth is definitely attempted, but too often the background of the show’s major players feels either too vague or just plain tacked on. Oddly for a spy drama that trundles along like it does, Man In The High Castle feels rushed from a post-production perspective. Its equally perplexing ending, which does at least stay faithful to the themes of the book, also does little to generate an overwhelming sense of satisfaction for the series’ eventual closure.
The cast make do with these limitations as best they can, with some faring much better than others. Unsurprisingly for a series whose main premise for viewing is ‘what if the bad guys won’, it is the faces of both the regimes controlling America that come out the best. Rufus Sewell (Pillars of the Earth, Parade’s End, The Tourist) steals the show as Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, New York’s SS commander whose ruthless advocacy for torture, deceit and murder contradicts the rosier life he tries to provide for his family away from the job. It’s a cliched paradox for a TV show perhaps - what’s a modern TV drama without moral ‘greyness’ - but it is one that Sewell nonetheless fulfils with both ability and persuasion. Meanwhile on the Japanese side, the unsettling, calculated bloodymindedness that Joel de la Fuente (Law & Order: SVU) brings to his role as Chief Inspector Kido, the Kempeitai’s head of command, really does the job to create a character so unconcerned about the lengths he will go to fulfil his job that he makes for a genuinely despisable villain for the show’s early episodes. His clashes with his compatriate, Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), are also a highlight. The pair regularly exhibit suspicion for one another while simultaneously masking their own ulterior motives, thus sharing some tremendously gripping moments. Tagomi himself is also a fascinating character - both his faith in i-Ching to see the future ahead, and his loyalty to both the Emperor of his nation and the world peace that is now threatened by Nazi machinations, make him the most compassionate out of all the characters stacked against Joe and Juliana’s quest for truth. Tagawa lends him a reservedness that serves on one side as dignified intelligence, and another as an excellent poker face, brilliantly combining the two with great poise. He carries the vehicle of mystery that High Castle hinges on the best out of all of the show’s major players - and resultantly, he’s a primary reason to stay invested in the show’s slow waltz of duplicity.
Frustratingly, where the possible deal-breakers lie are with the heroes and heroines of the piece. Neither Kleintank nor Davalos really come across as settled in their respective roles as Joe and Julianna, and this is definitely in part to a script that doesn’t allow them to be. As a character, Joe Blake is both a cool-handed rogue and a desparate coward - a contradiction that prevents him from being likeable, as well as Kleintank’s attempts to make him so. Davalos meanwhile fails to inject a convincing sense of urgency into Julianna’s story as a fugitive on the run, coming off as mumbly and subdued when moments of high drama demand a more emotive effort. Her on-screen boyfriend - Rupert Evans as Frank Frink - does at least put in some affecting moments as his character’s contempt for the Kempeitai regime becomes further tangled with his long-hidden Jewish identity, but even he suffers from the script’s hiccups in logical cohesion as well as an awkward sense for dialogue delivery. Simply put, the ones taking it to the villains in this show simply aren’t as engaging as the villains themselves. Whereas some current TV shows can get away with this on the grounds of operating on plotlines that are intentionally morally ambiguous, High Castle is a show about freedom defeating fascism. It needs its good guys to be convincing, otherwise it will struggle as a concept - and unfortunately, it occasionally does.
Ultimately though, it’s genuinely hard to completely dismiss this first season. Amazon’s take on a Dick classic definitely nails the atmosphere and setting of a world conquered by totalitarianism, and the quality of the show’s locations, aesthetics and its more experienced cast members will stay in the memory even if the present level of performance from its young protagonists do not. Its streaming rates have been successful enough for Amazon to give it a second series, and that could well be the lifeline the show needs to become truly great. The Man In The High Castle has ten more episodes for both its mix of premise and promise to blossom out of its current naivety. If they need any more than that though, they may find that the request is crushed under the fascist boot of an Amazon exec pulling the plug.