When Philip K. Dick released his novel The Man in the High Castle in 1962 (the year in which both it and this adaptation are set), he seemed to know all too well that though his premise shone brightly with the charge of metaphysical fantasy, he was manipulating a very real, and very tragic, timeline. Less than 20 years after the end of World War II, the atrocities the world (barely) endured were still fresh, the consequences and loss post-conflict still manifesting. In imagining a world in which the Axis powers succeeded, Dick was shouldering double the responsibility of any historian, both putting his formidable creative powers to some daunting world-building and respecting a complicated history—which was then still being told.
Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle adaptation, premiering with a full first season’s worth of episodes on Amazon Prime November 20th, benefits from the distance of time that Dick didn’t have. Loosely adopting the book’s framework, the plot is—despite the boggling backdrop upon which it’s set—pretty simple: The U.S., following the Allies’ loss (in 1947, not ’45) is split between the Japanese and Nazis, with the West Coast overseen by the former, and the East Coast by the latter, a sort of neutral zone, largely centered around the Rocky Mountains, buffering between. The two powers are in a Cold War type scenario: Japan waits for Hitler to die (he’s got Parkinson’s) to figure out who will replace him, and then to figure out what that successor will do, which everyone is pretty sure will be to wipe the Pacific states off the map with a stockpile of nuclear weapons.
In San Francisco, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a star Aikido student and an attractive Westerner respectfully lusted after by polite Japanese men of all ages, seems pretty on board with the Japanese occupation. That is, until she witnesses her sister’s murder at the hands of the Kempeitai (Japanese military police), but not before her sister hands her a mysterious film canister with a reel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Via a noir-ish rendezvous and some sumptuous chiaroscuro cinematography, Juliana eventually learns the film was on its way to Canon City, Colorado, a town in the heart of the neutral zone. Juliana, of course, watches the film, discovering a deck of seemingly fake news clips from a reality in which the Allies win World War II, and, flabbergasted, she tells her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) about the film before leaving to finish up her sister’s mission. Frank is reluctant to become involved in such world-shaking stuff, what with his secret Jewish lineage and all, so he stays behind.
On the other side of the former United States, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) narrowly escapes a Nazi raid to hit the road (bound for Canon City), to deliver a mysterious package—supplied by resistance fighters—which he discovers is, obviously, another canister of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Joe Blake is about as all-American as a white person can get, his heroic visage buttressed by, as he claims, having a war hero father. Meeting Juliana almost as soon as he reaches Canon City, Joe lays on the charm, and the two forge a flirtation that’s bound to be more—even though, back in San Francisco, Frank’s apprehended by the Kempeitai, who know his girlfriend’s absconded with the mysterious film reel. This, as anyone can imagine, will not go well for him, pit between giving up the whereabouts of the woman he loves, or standing by as Japanese officials surreptitiously let it slip to the Reich that Frank’s sister, who lives on the East Coast, is covering up her Jewish ancestry.
Meanwhile, in the higher echelons of power, Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Trade Minister of the Pacific States of America, meets secretly with Rudolph Wegener (Carston Norgaard), a Nazi official pretending to be a Swedish businessman, so the two can ready themselves for Hitler’s eventual passing. Simultaneously, in New York state, an SS officer, Obergruppenführer John Smith (a dead-eyed Rufus Sewell), uses all means necessary to investigate the whereabouts of the Grasshopper canisters, because both the Japanese and the Reich know about the subversive films, in addition to knowing that the films are intended to find their way to the titular Man in the High Castle, where…what? Something happens—though no one on the show seems to really know what that could be, besides the vague end to the still-nascent world order.
Aesthetically, the show is a thrill to behold, exactly what we can feel privileged to expect—and should expect—from this so-called Golden Age of television. Though Dick did much of the work decades ago, Spotnitz and team lace every frame with such levels of detail and nuance, that understanding this alternate reality is more an act of absorption, of osmotic transfer, than it is of lugubrious world-building. From deep-focus panoramas of a hilly San Francisco street, to a Colorado diner with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” lilting through dust motes and visibly pungent bacon grease, bearing the cosmic weight of America’s shared history of hate, The Man in the High Castle rarely wastes a second on unneeded exposition. Instead, it trusts you’ll understand, choosing to put its effort in making this “New World” (the unfortunate title of its pilot episode) feel lived in, rather than simply believable.
It’s a difficult balancing act the show attempts—but then, so is the very existence of the show itself. Everything comes ready-whipped with symbolism, from the mundane conversations between statesmen, to the ways in which an SS officer speaks, un-ironically, of “peace.” A particularly unnerving scene finds Smith at the breakfast table with his kinda-Aryan family, rewarding his teenage son’s steadfast devotion to the Reich by allowing him to study at the breakfast table. With this, the show points to the domestication of 1950s and ’60s suburbia: Here, it admits, be monsters. Here were always monsters. In fact, one text the show barely addresses, which the novel delves into rather obsessively, is the I Ching, which presents a literal way of seeing the world beneath this one. What Dick stated clearly this series follows in spirit: There are universes of meaning beneath the façade of reality.
Which is why, throughout his novel, Dick puts distance between his ideas—those of history as a near-incomprehensible web of events; of power as a finite quantity; or of the efficacy of individual agency against such power—and the reality of what actually happened to our world in the 1940s. In this way, he can respect his subject without flinching from the task of manipulating it, carving out a gray area in which he can operate. So, while the novel is a collection of mind-bending ideas, eschewing a propulsive narrative for headier concerns, the series—again, more removed than Dick’s novel—is a pitch-black thriller, part potboiler and part lengthy moral play.
And this is why the series doesn’t quite work: It wants to be everything to everyone. Stylized like a gritty reboot of The Rocketeer, yet mired in scenes of torture bearing the persistent echoes of some of humankind’s worst atrocities, the series never quite finds a tone to call its own. See only the second episode, in which Frank’s sister faces the consequence of Frank’s decision regarding Juliana’s whereabouts, and the camera lingers over images that intuitively recall the nightmarish, mundane glimpses of the Nazi death camps we’ve over time suppressed into our collective subconscious. In other words, it’s not insensitive on the show’s part to portray the Holocaust in such a melodramatic way, but the victim is that of a woman we know nothing of, and so her (assumed) murder, and that of her two children, is an act of moving the plot forward, building Frank’s character and probably getting him involved in the resistance, as opposed to providing something palpably empathetic to the reality of what’s being dramatized.
The show’s dialogue, too, is often egregiously on-the-nose, especially when digging into sentiments regarding individual responsibility for the greater good. Frank’s scenes in the Japanese prison, where through a hole in his cell he’s able to talk to the resistance fighter who first guided Juliana to Canon City, could have worked like an abridged Brothers Karamazov kind of interrogation about free will and divine indifference. Instead, the script just marches down the well-tread path of Edmund Burke quotes and unflappable moral black-and-white. As if it’s all so simple. As if Nina Simone didn’t release her version of “Strange Fruit” in 1965, three years after this is supposed to take place. As if, given the chance, an anti-Semitic graffiti-er would only scrawl “SEMITE” on the movie poster for a Marx Brothers flick, and not something so much more believably disgusting.
From its first moments, the series wheezes beneath the weight of both its functional concept and its fictional politics. The actors, all game, don’t so much struggle to keep up as they just check themselves over and over, making sure they remember that what they’re working on is super serious stuff. Because it is super-serious stuff: Dick didn’t need to remind his readers of that, but seemingly Spotnitz feels the need to remind his viewers of the same. And maybe he does need to—look only to the most popular podcast ever, “Serial,” to understand how easy it is for us as a collective culture to forget the human cost behind some of our most celebrated entertainment. For this reason, I don’t blame The Man in the High Castle for being too ambitious. I just wish its writing was even as remotely compelling as the source from which it pulls that ambition.
Though there is something comforting in knowing that even in the worst of possible alternate timelines, Nina Simone is still Nina Simone.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.