The Man In The High Castle tv series
Until recently, I watched very little television. The news, the Simpsons, and a few good documentaries on BBC4 were about as far as I went. Recent events both in my life and in the world at large brought a change in that, and a couple of nights ago I and my partner finished watching the four series of The Man In The High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award winning 1963 novel. Here, I present a few thoughts.
This review contains spoilers and is of the entire 40 episode production.
Well, I enjoyed my first tv box set very much. I have only a passing acquaintance with Dick’s work, but I do recognise and celebrate his considerable importance to the SF genre, though The Man In The High Castle isn’t a novel I’ve read. Essentially, the book posits an alternate world where the Allies lose WW2 and Germany and Japan carve up America, so that the Japanese take the states west of the Rockies (which turns into the Neutral Zone) and the Greater Nazi Reich takes everything to the east. Hitler and Himmler are alive, the Nazis have the atomic bomb, and an American Resistance has failed.
The main characters are all linked to the central premise of alternate history lines. In the novel, the titular man has a book, but in this tv series Hawthorne Abendsen has a number of films, all of which depict a reality where the Allies win – exactly as our own history. These grainy black and white films, which we are so familiar with, are a marvellous way of emphasising the strangeness of Dick’s alternate world. I think here the writers hit upon a particularly brilliant hook, which in part explains the excellence of this series, especially the first half, where the films are the central plot device.
The other aspect of that excellence is the acting. A number of actors really shine. Rufus Sewell as the American-born soldier-turned-Nazi John Smith stands out; and what a wonderful irony that bland name is when attached to the word Reichsmarschall! He holds much of the Nazi side of the story together, supported by many great actors, but, as the series approaches its conclusion, it’s the dilemma of his family life which becomes compelling. Here Genea Charpentier, playing his middle daughter, stands out. Alexa Davelos as the main “resistance” focus Juliana Crain is brilliant, as is her early foil Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). One actor though who I think was miscast is Rupert Evans as Frank Frink. I wasn’t convinced by his acting, though that’s not to say it is bad. But I don’t think his face fit; he looks more like a chorister from Winchester Cathedral than anything else. A more compelling actor is Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who in one sense is the human heart of the production, trying to achieve peace when working amidst a brutal, dehumanised, xenophobic Japanese military. Joel de la Fuente is exceptional as the loyal Chief Inspector Kido, but I think his personal story is dealt with too late. In the first couple of series he comes across more like a machine than a man, which may have been the point but which acts as an irritating barrier to learning more about him earlier on. I found myself alternately interested and annoyed by him.
The general tone of the screenplay is terrific. I loved for instance the historical and poetic justice of John Smith’s final scene, which echoes what happened to Hitler in the bunker. As somebody who can’t watch much violence on tv and who despises American gun culture, I had to accept that, in a post-war situation, there was always going to be violence portrayed. Much of this I thought was acceptable in context, but as usual with American productions a lot of the violence is gratuitous. Other aspects are sensitively done, for instance a wonderful scene where Nobusuke Tagomi, the peace-loving Japanese Trade Minister, brings a perfectly wrapped tray of strawberries to his intended: a beautifully acted and observed scene, and so redolent of the aesthetics of Japanese life.
The opening episode of the fourth series brings in a novel new force, the Black Communist Resistance, and, although this episode is noticeably weak, this part of the scenario – the African American experience before WW2, and the Nazi response to finding African Americans in the country they dominate – is very well done, and certainly not out of place. A final scene with Jennifer Smith (the middle daughter) and her mother encapsulates the obscene barbarity of Nazi ethics, leading to John and Helen Smith realising that they have become, inch by inch, and in part propelled by the twisted logic of male hierarchical politics, utter monsters.
The tenor of the series as a whole is serious, but there is one lighter strand, which is that of the Americana dealer Robert Childan, played by Brennan Brown. Here I also felt there was a mis-step, not because Brown is a poor actor, more because, as with Rupert Evans, his face didn’t seem to fit. I also think his style of acting was not best suited to this kind of drama. Some of the “comic” scenes are amusing, but too many seem out of place. That said, he is an important part of the mix, and I didn’t dislike him.
The series isn’t perfect. Even Sewell has a few scenes where he somehow mis-acts, while the tenor and plot of the third series – the weakest in my opinion – is a bit shoddy. I also found the Anomaly completely out of place. This is the heart of the SF bit, set deep underground in Pennsylvanian mountains, but alas it seems the series developers couldn’t think of anything more appropriate here than to bolt on part of Stargate. I loved the eerie atmosphere of the abandoned mine workings – and here the alternate black and white films are a marvellous counterpoint – but the Spielbergesque “bright light at the end of a tunnel” did not work at all for me. Even the final redemptive scene smacked too much of Close Encounters.
All in all however these four series, each of ten episodes, are definitely worth trying. It’s been a real joy over the last few weeks to watch them, following the stories of all the main characters, and in particular watching what I think is the personal heart of the thing (as opposed to its plot heart, which revolves around history and life choices for individuals). That personal heart is the conflict men make for themselves and others when humane norms are set aside for infantile, brutal, aggressive goals, a conflict symbolised by the disintegration of John Smith’s family. It is of course in 2021 a deep irony that in Dick’s alternate world there are fascists leading America, a nation founded on slavery, genocide, misogyny, fraud, corruption, and an obsession with materialism. For we in our world of 2021 know what it is like to see fascists leading nations. With that in mind, it is perhaps the situation of the Black Communist Rebellion which most stands out to me now – that struggle of an enslaved people against supposedly Christian overlords. When will all of America see itself as it really is? Not for a long time, I suspect.