Review: The Man in the High Castle
Amazon’s new series, The Man in the High Castle, is ambitious, if nothing else. The show’s fascinating alternate history premise, which shows America circa 1962 divided between the Nazis and Japanese, was enough to convince me to give it a chance. Most certainly everyone has, at some point, wondered, “what would the world look like if the Allies had lost the war?” This is the question that High Castle seeks to answer. And it does so very, very well. However, a beautifully-realized world does not a great show make. While the writers created a powerful and realistic world, they populated it with underwhelming characters and an indecisive storyline that didn’t seem to have an aim or purpose. Just a warning, before I get into this: I have not read the source material and so I am reviewing this show, not as it compares to the book, but on its own. Also, there are spoilers ahead. This is a review for people who have seen it already, so if you haven’t turn around now.
The greatest part about this show’s alternate reality is its ability to avoid the trappings of patriotic and potentially jingoistic themes. Going into the show, I was specifically afraid that the Nazis and the Japanese would be portrayed as cartoonishly villainous caricatures and the American “resistance” would be portrayed as heroic freedom fighters. A show like that would quickly have devolved into the type of Nationalistic propaganda porn that was Red Dawn. However, to my pleasant surprise, the show did a great job of creating believable and complex Nazi and Japanese characters that didn’t fall victim to stereotypes. The show deserves credit for giving us likable anti-heroes on both the Nazi and Japanese side. In this alternate universe, Japan and Germany are embroiled in a “Cold War” of sorts, and there are factions on both sides trying to stop an impending war or initiate one. There are complex geopolitics, political intrigue and espionage, that make determining the “good guy” from the “bad guy” significantly more difficult. This subplot is so engrossing that, in a way, it overshadows the central plot, which sometimes seems trivial by comparison. And the very end, the show goes so far as to convince the audience to root against an assassination attempt of Hitler, in order to prevent all-out nuclear war.
The alternate world that the show creates is quite extraordinary. The attention to detail, in everything from the architecture to the costumes, from the snippets of television broadcasts to the interiors, paints a vivid picture of a dark world, a world made even more terrifying by its familiarity. People sit around the television watching evening game shows, host barbecues for summer holidays, listen to swing music. You could be forgiven for thinking that it looks right, if not for the waving Swastika emblazoned on the American Flag. The most disturbing part is that the Japanese and Nazi ways of life have so easily infiltrated and merged with the American way of life. In 1962, over a decade after the Allies lost the war, Americans have come to accept their new reality, and some, including Obergrubbenfuhrer Smith, actively collaborate with and serve the occupying regimes. People send their children to Hitler Youth, the hospitals euthanize their terminally ill, and people carry on with their day like it’s nothing. In many ways this world is more insidious than a world in which the Axis forces enslave or massacre all Americans, as it does not cling to the myth of American moral superiority and martyrdom. Americans, just as much as Japanese or Germans, are implicated in crimes against humanity. It is fascinating that, on the East, the Americans operate a semi-autonomous collaborationist regime, while on the West, the Japanese actually occupy the territory and have started settling their own people there. The subtle implication in this decision, is that on the east coast white Americans readily accepted Nazi rule and adopted Nazi ideology, while on the west coast, Americans resisted much more fiercely against Japanese rule. Historically, American attitudes toward the Japanese were far more belligerent than American attitudes toward the Germans so this makes sense. While in reality, neither Japan nor Germany held ambitions for conquering America (Japan’s eyes were on Asia and Germany’s eyes were on Europe and Russia). However, it is conceivable that, were the Germans and Japanese able to successfully conquer Europe and Asia in this alternate timeline, North America and Africa would be the next logical step. While the fate of the former United States is fully fleshed out, there is disappointingly little information given about the rest of the world. There are tantalizing bits of dialogue that indicate that Africa is “enslaved” and South America is still free. But what of China, or the Soviet Union? Ridiculously, the map presented in the opening sequence shows the “Japanese Pacific States” gobbling up the West Coast and the “Greater Nazi Reich” gobbling up the east coast, without ever showing what happens to Canada or Mexico, which are just blacked out. I would be interested to see if they will elaborate on the fate of the world outside America in the next season.
In addition to being a monumental world-building feat, the show is also richly engaging and fast-paced. I binged the entire ten-episode first season available on Amazon in less than a week. And unlike other high-octane dramas like Breaking Bad or the Sopranos, High Castle wastes no time in getting right to the meat of the story. The show does a great job maintaining a high level of tension and suspense within multiple parallel storylines throughout the episodes. In this sense, the show was made to be binged.
However, in doing so, the show forsakes other elements that are vital to the makings of a great show, namely quality character development. This is perhaps the show’s greatest flaw and its downfall. Almost none of the primary characters that we are supposed to root for are likable or even charismatic in an anti-hero sort of way, making it difficult to care about their struggles in a personal sense, even if ideologically, we agree with them. Juliana, the show’s central heroine, acts incredibly selfishly and irresponsibly throughout the show, causing all sorts of unnecessary harm to the characters around her, to the point where it’s difficult to care about her well-being let alone her mission. We know the Kempetai killed Juliana’s sister Trudy, but we know almost nothing about Trudy or their relationship. Did Trudy look up to Juliana? Does Juliana feel guilty that she failed to protect her sister? The show explores none of this. Instead, Trudy gives Juliana the film in the first episode, then dies, and then becomes completely irrelevant to the plot. It’s almost as if her entire character exists to give Juliana the film and then provide her with motivation, and not as an actual character, in her own right. In fact, after Trudy dies, which should be a traumatic moment, the show wastes no time lingering on her death, instead jumping right into Jules watching the film like her sister didn’t just die right before her eyes. In doing so, it makes Trudy’s death seem like an afterthought, infinitely less important than the film she carried. The show could have made us care by including dialogue between Jules and Frank, or dialogue between Jules and Karen that hinted at her relationship with Trudy. Maybe Jules asks Karen to tell her about Trudy and the stuff she did in the resistance, because Jules feels like her own sister is a mystery to her. Something. It could have been as simple as Jules looking at a picture of Trudy, like Smith looking at a picture of his son. Such simple gestures can add a lot of emotional depth to characters. But the show forgoes such characterization and just hopes that the audience will root for Jules by the nature of her mission, alone.
Making Jules an even more difficult character to root for is her incessant carelessness, fickleness and lack of concern for others. Throughout the show, she acts on a whim, impulsively, pretty much doing whatever she wants, no matter the consequences. As a result, she gets Frank’s sister and her children killed and almost gets Frank killed. She comes back, apologizes to Frank, and then immediately proceeds to do the exact same thing that got her into trouble in the first place. She’s not even doing it to fulfill some higher purpose but to satisfy her own curiosity, and in doing so, she endangers all the people around her. Worst of all, she can’t seem to make up her mind. First she runs off to the Neutral Zone, gets a job, naively decides to trust a complete stranger who reads her a bible verse, almost gets herself killed, quits her job, runs back to San Francisco, gets a new job, quits that job, puts Frank’s life in danger to go save Joe Blake, then tries to help assassinate him in the next episode before changing her mind again and helping him escape. Throughout the entire show, she gets into all sorts of trouble and it always ends up being other people who have to bail her out or pick up the pieces from her mistakes. All the while, the show portrays her as this earnest, innocent girl who just wants to do the right thing. If they had played her off as a bad bitch who doesn’t give a fuck about anyone else, she would have been more believable, less annoying and probably more likable. Watching this, side-by-side with Netflix’s Jessica Jones really put in perspective how weak this main female character is. Throughout JJ the audience is reminded of Jessica’s trauma, fears and anxiety. She comes off a a strong-willed, determined character with a tough-girl exterior but a vulnerable core. The story plays out within her own psyche and the challenges she has to overcome are just as much internal as they are external. Jules, by contrast, seems to have no convictions or motivations. She is just a vehicle to move the plot along.
Joe Blake, the show’s main anti-hero, is similarly flat and boring. I can only assume it was the show’s intention to keep him a mystery, but the result is a character that we can’t really get behind. In one scene, he’s a loyal Nazi performing his duty to the Reich. In another scene, he’s a star-crossed lover who’s fallen for a girl on the opposite side. And he transitions from one to the other as easily as flipping a light switch. Like Juliana’s, Joe’s arc, instead of making one clear transition from point A to point B, wobbles throughout the season and never seems to find its footing. We never learn anything about Joe’s past or his motivations. We never get a clear sense of his relationship to Obergruppenfuhrer Smith. When Joe lies to Smith, is he betraying his loyalty because of his love for Juliana? Or was he not loyal to Smith to begin with? Is Smith a father figure to Joe? Is Joe afraid of Smith or does he want to please him? What is his internal conflict? Clearly the show is intentionally withholding these secrets, but the problem with creating a character that is a complete mystery is failing to give him any character at all. Because we know nothing about Joe, he just comes off as this Nazi asshole who protects Jules not because it’s the right thing to do or because he suddenly realized Nazis are bad, but because he’s got a huge hard-on for her.
The show does a better job of conjuring up sympathy for Frank, if not simply because bad things always seem to happen to him. However, he is still not much more likable than his other lead co-stars. He is incompetent but not loveably-so, like his friend, insufferably angsty and even though he always ends up doing the “right thing”, it’s only after a significant amount of whining or self-pity. On top of that, he is an obscenely insecure and jealous boyfriend, whose first response to Jules saying she met someone from the resistance is to scream “Was he a man?! Was he a man?!” Granted, he’s been through a lot of awful shit to justify his angst, but the way his character handles it does not do him any favors.
And the worst part is the whole love triangle between these terribly boring characters. The chemistry between Frank and Jules is negative. Their dialogue throughout the entire show sounds like a couple on the verge of divorce. Once again, the show tells us that they love each other but gives us no reason to believe it. Similarly, any romantic tension between Jules and Joe is painfully forced, and seems to exist only to further complicate the plot. To make things even more annoying, Jules shows no commitment to either character, instead half-heartedly vacillating between one and the other, quickly dropping one to go save the other and vice versa.
The show seems much more interested in giving us constant plot twists and turns than it is in giving us satisfying character arcs. None of the characters seem to learn anything and are essentially the same at the end of the season as they were at the beginning. Both Jules and Joe have to make important decisions but they can’t seem to make up their mind or decide who their loyalties lie with. Frank’s decision not to shoot the Prince could have been a powerful turning-point moment. But it ends up basically having no effect on his character throughout the rest of the series. As a result, the central storyline is exciting on an episode-by-episode basis, but deeply unsatisfying on a character level.
While the main characters are exceedingly weak, some of the supporting cast really shines, specifically Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Trade Minister Tagomi and Rufus Sewell’s Obergruppenfuhrer Smith. The latter goes from being one of the most loathsome characters on the show in the beginning to being a somewhat sympathetic character by the end. Smith’s love for his son, and his internal moral conflict between his duty and his family provides a satisfying narrative, and comes off as far more genuine and believable than whatever moral conflict Jules is going through. Tagomi, similarly, is divided between his duty to his nation, and his hope for a better future. Tagawa plays the role expertly, endowing the character with a solemn sort of grief that makes the audience care about his story. Not to mention, the final mind-blowing sequence of the last episode hints that there is still a lot more to this character that we do not know.
The show is also riddled with plot holes that, at a certain point, become hard to ignore. For example, the Crown Prince of Japan is shot at a rally, and yet the next day, Jules’ mother is still confused as to what’s going on. Do they not have TV or Radio or Newspapers? However, these are small fries compared to the show’s biggest plot hole: Joe Blake’s magical ability to convince everyone he’s in the Resistance, despite doing a terrible job of keeping his cover. In the first episode, he somehow convinces a Resistance cel to give him an incredibly important job, delivering a film to Canon City, even though they have no idea who he is and have not properly vetted him. The man who gives him the job quips that he could be a spy, but apparently decides not to follow through on his suspicion because Joe gives a seemingly heartfelt statement about his father. They don’t even send someone to go with him. They entrust this incredibly important duty to a complete stranger who, as it turns out, is a Nazi agent. Then, in Canon City, Lem suspects, rightly, that Joe is working with the SS. Then, as soon as Joe provides the film, Lem just drops all his suspicions and decides to trust him. Then, several episodes later, Joe is “kidnapped” and taken to the SS headquarters with a sack over his head so that his cover doesn’t get blown. Then, in the very next episode, he openly attends a barbecue at Obergruppenfuhrer Smith’s house and even goes with Smith to the airport, out in public. You’d think that if they put in all this effort infiltrating the Resistance, they would be a little more careful about who he gets seen with. Also, Joe frequently reports on his mission to Smith from regular pay phones using his real name, apparently because in this alternate history, there’s no such thing as tapping phone lines. However, none of this is as ridiculous as what happens in the final episode. Jules literally catches Joe with the film at the Nazi Embassy. And Joe is amazingly still able to convince her that he’s not a Nazi and she helps him get away.
All in all, The Man in the High Castle is an interesting show that presents a dark alternate history. It is enjoyable in that it temporarily transports us to a different world and it has enough plot and suspense to keep viewers interested from episode to episode, despite having a rather weak central storyline driven by weak characters. I will probably continue watching it into the next season, just because I want to know what happens and because I am a sucker for anything in the alternate history genre. While I could care less about Jules, Frank and Joe’s vapid love triangle, I am interested in learning more about Smith and Tagomi’s characters and I hope that next season will bring a more compelling central storyline.