Based on a a Phillip K. Dick novel, Amazon’s Man in High Castle is a series brimming with possibilities. Set in an alternate universe, where the United States lost World War II, it sees America sliced up into pieces. The East Coast becomes a Nazi colony, while the West coast comes under the control of Japan.
It’s a compelling premise, and one that Phillip Roth also explored in his 2004 book, The Plot Against America. Unfortunately, while Frank Spotnitz’s (The X-Files) series is tense, well shot, and completely captivating, after ten episodes, it has very little to show for itself. Rather than fully explore its premise, or give us a better idea of what it’s like to live in this universe from day to day (as Roth did in The Plot Against America), Man in High Castle spends almost the entire first season chasing after a MacGuffin, and it may very well continue to do so for seasons to come. Indeed, it gets bogged down by its sci-fi element, but there’s not enough interesting sci-fi to sustain it.
The series is too sprawling to attempt to reduce to a simple plot synopsis, but the show revolves around a series of newsreels that show an alternative universe (ours, I assume) where America won the war. We don’t really understand who is making these films, why they might help the resistance, or who the Man in the High Castle is or why he wants to collect them. We only have a vague idea that the newsreels hold some clues to a larger truth, and that leaders in both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan want the newsreels kept away from the resistance.
The series is led principally by Frank (Rupert Evan), whose Jewish sister and children are killed by the Japanese in an attempt to coerce Joe into leading them to one of the newsreels; his girfrliend, Julianna (Alexa Davalos), who comes into possession of one of the reels after the death of her sister; and Joe (Luke Kleintank), a Nazi double agent sent to recover the reel from the resistance. Blake ultimately ends up feeling sympathetic to the resistance, or so it appears. There are a number of other characters and arcs that also keep us somewhat invested — most notably, the one involving the Japanese trade minister and his efforts to prevent a war from breaking out between Japan and Germany — but what drives the story are the efforts to locate and secure the film reels. Against the backdrop of this, Führer Adolf Hitler is also ill with syphilis, and others are vying to replace him after he dies. Rufus Sewell is also in this, and surprise! He plays a Nazi.
It’s an often tense, nail-biter of a series, but by the seventh or eight episode, a familiar pattern begins to avail itself: It’s a pure cat-and-mouse game. The good guys are trying to deliver the newsreels to the Man in High Castle; the bad guys are trying to secure the newsreels before they fall into the wrong hands; and Frank and Julianna — despite nearly escaping San Francisco several times — always get pulled back by their allegiances to others. No one can seem to stay on the bus long enough to get out of the damn city and after a while, their ability to survive and inability to leave begins to feel inevitable.
Essentially, it’s one near-death experience after another, and while it’s exhilarating to watch in the moment, it doesn’t amount to much in the end (save for the game-changing final scene). There’s a lot of filler, and the fact that it’s well-made, anxiety-inducing filler doesn’t make it any less so. Viewers could watch the first two episodes and the last two episodes and easily fill in the gaps. It works a lot like The Walking Dead: The writers are attempting to stretch a short amount of source material into a lengthy television series, which means there are a lot of dead spots.
Weirdly, that doesn’t make me any less excited for the second season, which arrives to Amazon next week. There’s a lot of ground yet to cover, and a number of exciting details from Phillip K. Dick’s novel yet to come. My only hope is that Spotnitz doles out those details and revelations more quickly, even if it means chewing through much of the novel and coming up with more of his own original story. I expect that, like The Walking Dead, the second season premiere and finale will be great. My only hope is that he can bring more to the rest of the series beyond forcing his characters to circle the runway before he can finally land the plane.