Amazon is trying something different with its latest original series, because it’s got a hard sell.
The Man in the High Castle is a Ridley Scott produced high-concept alternative-history dystopia series based on the 1962 book by Philip K. Dick. The story revolves around a version of ‘62 in which the Axis Powers were victorious in World War II, and now Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany have divided an occupied United States. There’s an underground rebel group fighting for America, and the clock is ticking, because an ailing Hitler threatens a power-vacuum that will lead to a Third World War that would begin with the nuclear destruction of America.
Yes, we still want to save America, even if it is mostly populated Nazi defectors.
That’s what gets to the heart of separating this ‘62 from other alt-Nazi fiction: the war has been over long enough that most people don’t remember what “freedom” even was, and now most Americans come up as Nazi Youth, even the folk down in Florida. It’s got a beautiful world building that extends beyond propaganda films and just slapping swastikas on every surface. There’s a rebellion here but not only is it small and over-powered, most members don’t even know what they’re fighting for.
The occupation of the states has the added complication of their division between a Japanese run west coast and a Reich-conquered east coast. Most speculative fiction sees a world over-run by Hitler’s men, but few examine the socio-bureaucratic nightmare of such ideological opponents forced to play nice once all their other enemies have been subdued. At one point, a Japanese officer explains to a prisoner how ridiculous he finds antisemitism as a man from a Jew-less culture, but how he must maintain this stance to keep in line with his allies. It’s a terse arrangement on the precipice of collapse.
Which brings us to our completely stacked central cast. Juliana (Alexa Davalos) is a young SF woman whose sister-in-law is killed while transporting a forbidden film. Abandoning her boyfriend (Rupert Evans) and his friend (DJ Qualls), Juliana travels across the mid-American Neutral Zone to finish her sister’s secret mission. Her travels bring her parallel to secret rebel Joe (Luke Kleintank) who is transporting a similar secret object. Meanwhile, high ranking officers in the Nazi party (Rufus Sewell, Carsten Norgaard) and the Imperial order (Joel de la Fuente, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) plot out the first chess moves of the next World War.
The big twist (and the first glimpse of hope in this heavy bleakness) is that the short newsreel Juliana possesses shows footage of an Allied WWII victory from an alternate universe — ours. While they initially believe this footage is the propaganda fiction of some reverse-Goebbels known as The Man in the High Castle, it soon becomes obvious that there is a power in these images that could rekindle America’s ability to fight, and Hitler himself has demanded their destruction.
The show itself is a cut above so much of what Amazon has produced to this point, and more importantly, is an unreasonably excellent adaptation of infamously un-translatable author. As someone who spent multiple semesters of college attempting to making screenplays out of Philip K. Dick’s labyrinthine prose, I’m simply awe-struck. The book is a convoluted book within a book spanning multiple universes, all within two-hundred pages — a far cry from the in-depth character study and ebbing narrative at work here. The visuals start with a bit of silly green-screen work that re-call the cheap fun of a Sky Captain but by the second episode display a clearly escalated budget.
It’s that second episode that seems a bit of evil genius on Amazon’s behalf. The first episode of the show was screened for Prime customers way back in January of this year, when it was a bit of a shock, considering the project’s long gestation as a possible BBC miniseries from 2010 onward. Then, on the 23rd, Amazon re-released the first episode alongside a second full hour, which is only available for the next few days. Then the series gets yanked until all ten episodes are unleashed on November 20th.
If that day rings a bell for you, that’s also the release of Jessica Jones over on competitor Netflix. If we were still going off the episode of High Castle I saw back in January, this would be a no-brainer, but based on the killer second episode I may have to spend the weekend of the 20th alternating between both shows.
The show is upsetting on so many levels. I really don’t want to tune in for the sort of entertainment that seethes with racial hatred, but the mix of Downfall, The Piano, Mad Men and Fargo with just a dash Sliders is an inexplicable recipe for success. I’m surprised how effective a single extra episode was at selling me completely on the first Amazon series I’ll be powering through on week one. In our new world of full season streaming drops— especially the world where the digital giants are starting to set competing dates— sinking viewers in a limited weekend that offers them two out of ten total hours of programming is a deviously captivating tactic.
(As a bonus, maybe just for me, there’s a female writer behind episode 7 named “Emma Frost” who apparently also adapted the BBC series “The White Queen” and how insane is that?)