Man in the High Castle (TV Show, 2015- )
Science Fiction | Alternate History
Lead Cast: Alexa Davalos (Julianna Crane), Luke Kleintank (Joe Blake), Rufus Sewell (Obergruppenführer John Smith), Joel de la Fuente (Inspector Kido), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Nobusuke Tagomi), Rupert Evans (Frank Frink), DJ Qualis (EdMcCarthy)
Blurb: In a dystopian America dominated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, a young woman discovers a mysterious film that may hold the key to toppling the totalitarian regimes. -IMDB
pooled ink Review:
This show has completely swept me away. I’ve mentioned it before how I’m not the biggest fan of anything to do with WWII only because it brings me to tears and while I believe it is truly important that we all fully understand and feel for that tragic history, I also don’t enjoy sad books in general nor do I enjoy being stuck bombarded with only tragedy. This show, however, balances the tragedy and truth with curiosity and intrigue in this elaborate telling of “What If?”
What if the Axis powers won the war?
Inspired by the story written by Philip K. Dick, a name you might not recognize but whose stories you very likely will, the creators of Man in the High Castle explore a world if one thing had changed, if the Allies lost and the Axis won. We shudder at the thought and brush it aside gladly, but this show really makes you stop and wonder and to feel an appreciation that we (the Allies) did not in fact lose this world-altering war.
True it is historical fiction, taking place in an alternate version of 1960s U.S.A., but it is also a science fiction show. It’s just sci-fi enough to give it a twist, and I love it, but what I really appreciate is the detail of the historical basis for this show. The costumes, the set design, the actors, the politics, the characters and nightmares that are actually based on historical fact, it’s all so amazingly detailed and quality is what truly sells this show. The idea was bound to grab one’s attention but the passion to detail and the commitment to quality is what makes this an award-winning television series. It’s clear a mountain of research was done and that effort has not gone to waste.
Below I’ll give some of my (mostly spoiler-free) thoughts on the three current seasons of the show, plus I’ll include trailers for each season in case you’d like to watch them, but suffice it to say that the hype is real. Beautifully detailed, gritty and intriguing, impossible yet hopeful, and the perfect blend of fact and fiction, The Man in the High Castle is not a story you’ll be quick to forget.
P.S. As this show is based on a book and this is primarily a book blog you can be sure that I’ve ordered it and will read/review it here soon! I’m intrigued to compare this show to the original source material that inspired it…
In the first season we meet Juliana Crane, she seems soft spoken, kind, adept at Jujitsu, and at relative peace with the Japanese culture enforced upon the claimed western lands of the U.S. But her entire reality shatters when one night her sister shoves a bag into her hands claiming to have found “the answer” right before she’s gunned down and killed by the Kenpeitai. Horrified by what she’s just witnessed she runs home and, unable to dismiss what her sister thought was worth dying for, opens the bag and discovers a film reel. Watching it over and over she’s brought to tears as she watches news reels showing the Allies winning, not losing.
This film shows something impossible, and yet she knows deep down that somehow it is real. And thus she becomes roped into the rebel movement. By taking the train ticket that was also in the bag she becomes swiftly on her way to finding herself entangled in a massive underground plot not only amongst rebel Americans in her own world, but between alternate realities.
In their reality they lost the war, but in another we won.
There are many films being smuggled between realities and by rebels, all smuggled under threat of death to reach the Man in the High Castle, an almost mythical man at the head of a rebellion that could change the world.
During this season we meet many different characters on different sides with varying motivations which made the plot far more dimensional and fascinating than if it had chosen to only focus on the rebels. One perspective? So dull when this show has so much potential, and seize that potential it does.
A few other big players we follow are Joe Blake, a Nazi spy who runs into Juliana by chance and begins to feel a connection with her before and even after he discovers she’s with the rebels. Juliana by contrast believes his story about working with the rebels as well and places her full trust in him. To watch Joe’s internal struggle between fulfilling his duty as a spy and protecting Juliana is something you’re never quite sure which way he’ll go, which will end up higher in priority. He plays a dangerous game.
SS Obergruppenführer John Smith is Joe’s superior and he’s a really fascinating character to study. He fought with the Americans during the war but when the tides turned he joined the Nazis and secured a life for his family. John shows complete loyalty to the Reich in everything he does, but his one unwavering priority is always his family. He plays an incredibly dangerous game because if caught they would execute them all. He and his wife live in a suburban home with their children and depict the picture of a perfect (Nazi) family, but whispered in the privacy of their bedroom, John and his wife, Helen, are completely honest with one another, swapping information good or threatening so that together they can carefully choose their next step. John and Helen show a true partnership throughout the show which I really loved. They’re so good at playing their parts that it’s often unclear if they really do believe in Nazism or if it’s indeed all for show.
Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido of the Kenpeitai in San Francisco is one cold character. He puts duty and honor above all else and he doesn’t waste time on sympathy or monologues. He simply gets the job done. I actually really appreciate this of his character because it separates him from the cliché villains who indulge in flash, drama, and narcissistic cleverness. Kido is sharp and decisive and serves the Japanese Empire above all else.
Nobusuki Tagomi is the Trade Minister for the Pacific States of America (the Japanese ruled Western piece of the U.S.) and it’s never quite clear where his loyalties lie. He’s an enigma you’ll puzzle over even after this first season but the one thing I always felt confident in is that he’s a good person. He is a lifelong advocate for peace.
…Oh, and I guess Frank Frink, Juliana’s boyfriend, plays a main role as well but I really despise his character so I don’t feel like talking about him. Ugh. HE’S JUST THE WORST AND IT’S EVEN WORSE BECAUSE HE’S NOT TRYING TO BE BUT HE JUST IS. I honestly have a giant list of reasons for why I hate that emotional bean burger but that would 100% be spoilers so I shall keep it to myself haha.
This first season is chock full of twists, revelations, character entanglements, and world-building that personally sucked me right in. With each episode I felt like I’d watched a whole movie’s worth of events go by but nevertheless was reaching for the remote to jump to the next episode. The web between all of these characters spin tighter and tighter as each episode, each season, progresses as they all search for the Man in the High Castle and furthermore what those films are/mean.
Season Two features the same riveting leads but now Juliana has sought sanctuary on the eastern coast of the U.S. in Nazi controlled land. The rebels go on without her, John Smith takes the opportunity to siphon information from Juliana personally, the Japanese are in an arms race against the Reich to build a bigger atomic bomb to ensure their “peace”, Tagomi discovers the films and a surprising connection to Juliana, the reality of alternate universes/timelines/realities is official revealed, and Joe Blake is taking some time off to visit his father in Berlin.
I loved Juliana being in the Reich because as a female we get to see a closer look into the home life of Nazi women. So many pretty painted faces and yet beneath they battle with many hardships knowing if they even hint at their unhappiness they could be arrested. I also just really love Juliana’s character. She changes and yet she doesn’t. While she is constantly learning more, discovering more secrets, becoming more firm in her fight for what could be, she never really alters in her true core character. Through it all she remains loyal, strong, compassionate, soft spoken, intelligent, resolved, and loving. She’s able to discern, unlike many of the rebels, between the true enemy and people just trying to survive.
Joe being in the Reich was intriguing because it opened the world a bit (I hope they show us Japan soon!). We get to see how Berlin has thrived off of the Reich’s success but also how some of Hitler’s initiatives have taken root. Joe is the Lebensborn son of Reichsminister Heusmann (Lebensborn was a Nazi breeding program) and is caught in the windfall when Heusmann’s plot to kill Hitler and take over is revealed by none other than John Smith. We get to see the tenuous politics of the higher ups as well as how the blessed Nazi victors live in the capital. (I will admit though that these weren’t my favorite parts, Joe is a bit of a dull plot line by this point honestly).
While the hunt for the Man in the High Castle continues for the Empire and the Reich they have bigger issues this season. A faction of the Nazis desire to rule the world, not just a large piece of it, and this is bad news for Hitler who is either suffering from illness or slowly being poisoned out of the way, and for the Japanese who do not have the same strength in weaponry as the Nazis and therefore worry about what another war might do. It becomes an arms race between the two but neither John Smith nor Inspector Kido can fully set aside the secrets of the rebels and the mystery of the films.
This season is really when the sci-fi starts to bleed through the historical drama plot but even so it’s really just enough to tease. It’s just enough of a taste to make you gasp in confusion and thrill desperate to understand and learn more. Overall this season managed to build upon the impressive foundation set up in the first season and continue to evolve and surprise. Tropes are used when necessary and completely tossed aside whenever they’re not, the characters continue developing, and the plot refuses to stagnate. So far this show has managed to continue breathing freshness and intrigue into the story and has kept me thoroughly intrigued.
EVERY SEASON JUST BUILDS. This season I did a live Snapchat series of my commentary (I didn’t clog everyone with videos though haha I just took pictures of my reactions periodically) because I was so excited for this new season and my brother wasn’t at home to watch and react with me. The release date kept getting pushed back BUT AT LAST IT ARRIVED.
I love how this show is in no hurry to topple empires. I appreciate the realism of the rebel movement being a very slow and sporadic one. The rebels surge and subside but slowly, oh so patiently and slowly, their waves begin tapping on the hearts of people with a bit more power, a bit more sway, a bit more capability to make a change in the world.
We continue following the usual cast but are introduced to many new faces as well, which is great, uh, because we lose a lot of cast members this season. NO ONE IS SAFE. So many people we perceived as vital characters were eliminated which honestly was a good call. Not only did it lighten the load on the plot, add realism, and incite drama and shock, but it helped streamline what is to come in the following season. The reality is that not everyone will live to see the new dawn, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t help the world get there.
There is one particular death that Inspector Kido delivers and it was weirdly poetic. Kido might be cold and unwavering in his actions but he does so from a place of honor. The entire set up, the prayer spoken freely, the majestic scenery with a tragic past, the ceremonial execution, it was all, well, oddly poetic. It definitely contrasted with the other deaths thus far that have been messy, rushed, sadistic, violent, or along that vein. It was a good scene and I loved how it brought those two characters together and concluded their story.
As I mentioned already the rebel movement ebbs and flows so for a while we see different small factions of rebellion (artwork in the streets, Jews in the hills, and Juliana’s continued efforts) instead of that seemingly massive and unified underground network that we were introduced to in the first season. It doesn’t mean that those people aren’t still fighting but sometimes you’ve got to count the bodies and regroup. Juliana however does not sit out of the game for long and when she jumps back in she’s goes straight for the heart.
We see a lot of focus with the Nazi Reich and their very big plans. Ludicrous plans honestly but Himmler doesn’t strike me as completely rational in this show. Essentially Himmler wants to perfect their world and continue on to conquer the world in each parallel universe. Their super secret sci-fi project is a gateway to the multiverse (it’s honestly fitting that the Nazis are the ones with this idea considering they’ve always been keen to dive into science experiments especially those that require test subjects). We don’t spend a lot of time with this whole multiverse and travelers concept but we do see some wild things made all the better by getting to witness John’s reaction when a traveler disappears right before his eyes. The impossible is suddenly within reach.
The season builds with this ambitious Nazi scheme and honestly I had no idea what to expect. With this show you’ve got to be constantly paying attention because it keeps you on your toes. Especially with all the spies and secret motives! Spies and traitors are everywhere!
Season Three goes darker and more risqué than any before and it concludes on the precipice of change. Realities are presented to major players and they will have to make a choice. Soon. John’s number one priority has always been his family. What would he sacrifice to protect them? Juliana holds the truth and a warning for what’s to come. What if she could warn the world beside theirs? The Man in the High Castle holds more answers than his enemies can process. Would he trade them all to save his wife? Frank’s rebel street art speaks the truth about their Japanese oppressors. Will the people listen? Tagomi knows a war is brewing. Can he convince the Nazis to renew their peace? And Kido. What part might Kido play in all of this? Or will he simply continue to clean up the messes left behind by those playing a far bigger game?
Suffice it to say that I AM SO PUMPED FOR SEASON FOUR.
Definitely not a show for kids but I’d seriously recommend you give it a try. It’s so good!
SEASON ONE TRAILER
SEASON TWO TRAILER
SEASON THREE TRAILER
Still curious? Or seeking a similar theme but a bit lighter in delivery? You might be interested in watching the German film Look Who’s Back. A black comedy/satirical look into the question of if Hitler came back today, would we repeat our same mistakes? A truly entertaining film that is largely hilarious but by the end will have you wide eyed and worried. Definitely looking into!
Movie/Book Review: Look Who’s Back lowers your defenses with its absurdity, its comedy, and its dance with the taboo. Undeniably clever, forbiddingly hilarious, and disturbingly insightful, this is a story that can be read and understood by peoples across the world.