If there’s one topic in history I am most interested and confident in teaching, it would be World War II. The deadliest conflict in human history excites me and I love reading everything and anything about it. So imagine my surprise when my sister tells me that Amazon.com created a series on World War II titled The Man in the High Castle. The series explores the great big and scary “what if the allies never won the war, the Nazis used the atomic bomb against the US?” Pretty scary scenario and one the series explores quite deftly.
The moment “Edelweiss” plays during the opening credits, I was exposed to somber images of America being carved up into two, the Pacific States controlled by Imperialist Japan and the Greater Nazi Reich by the Germans. Edelweiss was haunting and somber, depicting that this isn’t the United States that experienced the postwar boom and everything feels so gray, placid, and dreary. When the series starts rolling the show introduces its two main characters: Joe Blake and Juliana Crane. Juliana is happily living in the Pacific States while living under the constant gaze of the Kempeitai, while Joe Blake is a New Yorker living under the strict authoritarian rule of the Nazis. At the center of the show are mysterious films released by “The Man in the High Castle”, these films depict the world as it should be, America victorious. The films are controversial and set the series in motion as each character tries to make heads or tales of it while dealing with their own personal struggles and fears. Aside from the film, politicking also plays out over the course of the series, as the two powers: Japanese and Nazis are dead set trying to one up each other, playing out like a dystopian Cold War.
Conceptually the series played out very well, seeing San Francisco and New York controlled by the Japanese and the Nazis was truly haunting. Each state showed how the two powers transformed the United States, in California everything is so distinctly Japanese, sliding doors, the Kempeitai and the total subjugation of the Americas. Then New York with its very German architecture, grandiose and every bit Hitler’s dream of a thousand year Reich. Therein lies the strength of the series, showing what the US would be like if it had lost the war. And then there’s the neutral zone, with a large bulk of the series set in fictitious Canyon city it is a depression-era, rural-industrial community where its citizens live in both fear and freedom from the two superpowers.
While “The Man in the High Castle” got the whole fascist vibe perfectly the story itself felt a bit lost. The first four hours explored the whole concept of the films the Man in the High Castle releases, Juliana, Joe and the resistance exhaust every debatable argument. By the sixth episode, the film and its significance takes a back seat and focuses on just having the Nazis and the Japanese play out their own tensions over fascist-style Cold War. This shift in the storyline and the end of the series left a lot of unanswered questions: who is the Man in the High Castle, what role does Tagomi-san (the Japanese trade minister) play, and god please show me more of Hitler!
10 episodes long, the series definitely felt half-baked and should have spent more time in development. The one redeeming factor, besides the sets, was Rufus Sewell’s character Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith a cold, calculating, and ruthless apparatchik hounding the steps of the resistance movement at every corner. His character embodies the whole series perfectly and it would be exciting to see more of him in the second season.