This weekend, something truly amazing happened – I managed to completely clean out my DVR. Though I usually like to keep my DVR as empty as possible, there is inevitably always some programs that I just don’t get to in a week since – as you may have surmised – I watch a lot of TV. But since most of my plans are on hold for a while due to my broken ankle, I spend a lot less time out and about and a lot more time laying on the couch. So it was probably only a matter of time until I finally got myself caught up; Notre Dame football having a bye week this weekend and The Tonight Show being off last week certainly helped. This meant that I had some extra free time to check out the first few episodes of Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle.
Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, The Man in High Castle imagines an alternative history in which the United States lost World War II. Instead of the nation that we know today, the U.S. was broken into three sections after the war – the Nazis rule over the East Coast, South and most of the Midwest, the Japanese Emperor has taken control of the West Coast, and a neutral zone (around the Rocky Mountains) divides the two. The series takes place in 1962 in an America that looks vaguely like the one that we are used to, but is under totalitarian control and has the influences of the regimes that govern. It’s a little disconcerting to see Times Square with Nazi propaganda. There is an underground resistance movement that looks to change things, especially with Adolph Hitler’s health worsening and concerns that whoever is his predecessor will simply drop a bomb on the United States and be done with it. There are also tensions between the Japanese and Nazis, who have peacefully coexisted for the most part, but the uncertainty about the future threatens this détente. Further adding to the unrest are a series of film reels that are allegedly created by “the man in the high castle,” which have news footage that shows a U.S. actually winning World War II. Hitler wants all these films destroyed, while citizens who see the film are inspired by this vision of what life could have been. Members of the resistance are smuggling these reels and anyone caught with them is surely to be executed.
I watched the first two episodes of The Man in the High Castle and while it is something of a slow burn it absolutely drew me in and made me want to see more episodes. The pilot episode does a really great job of world building and introducing the main characters. There are a lot of twists and turns – people may not always be who they say they are – but that only adds to the intrigue. All of the performances are great and most of these actors were new to me (the exception is DJ Qualls, who you might know from Road Trip or the series Legit (R.I.P.)). This film is absolutely beautifully shot and a lot of thought went into the creation of the sets and the set design; they did an excellent job of creating a bizzaro U.S., where there are hints of the world as we know it as well as the imprint of the new leaders. Also impressive is the mood of paranoia that the series effortlessly creates; because things unfold slowly – though there are spurts of action – there is time to let things simmer and build the tension and unease. I found myself liking some of the characters, but trusting absolutely none of them, which is the sign of a good espionage film or series. There is a surprise at the end of the first episode that I didn’t see coming, but wasn’t necessarily unexpected given the suspicion that is built into the show.
I’m definitely looking forward to watching the rest of the series to see how this all shakes out. It’s a fascinating alternative reality that they have created in The Man in the High Castle and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the series since I’ve watched it. The downside is that you need to be an Amazon Prime member to see it, which isn’t necessarily inexpensive. I tend to fall off the wagon with online series; I’ll start watching something online and then kind of forget about it. I’m still kind of old school in that way – if it’s not automatically showing up on my DVR, I may not get around to it (especially if all the episode aren’t dropped at once so I can binge watch). However, I was into The Man in the High Castle enough that I think I’ll make more of an effort to see this through. I’ve never actually read any of Philip K. Dick’s work, but I do tend to enjoy the adaptations (Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly). The Man in the High Castle offers an interesting dystopian future that is grounded enough in reality that I think it’s pretty accessible. I look forward to seeing where this story takes me.
Episodes of The Man in the High Castle will be available through Amazon Prime on November 20th.