Review: The Man in the High Castle, season 1

Alexa Davalos in The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon exclusive. Season 1 has been available for quite some time, but the cast was so largely male I didn’t have much enthusiasm for the story concept. Only recently did I discover that the main character is Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos). I gave it a try. I’m glad I did.

The series is complicated with an intricate plot line and many players. I’ll keep things general in this season 1 review, and not give away too many spoilers.

Here’s the basic premise of this sci fi thriller. America lost World War II. Germany and Japan shared the victory. The United States was divided into 3 regions. One region in the east was governed by the German Reich. A Pacific region was governed by the Japanese. And the region around the Rocky Mountains was considered a “neutral zone.”

It’s now the 1960s. The Germans and the Japanese cooperate to keep the peace, but eye each other suspiciously at every turn. Neither can believe the other doesn’t harbor a desire to rule the entire continent. The Germans have “the bomb.” The Japanese do not.

In San Francisco, Juliana Crane’s sister Trudy (Conor Leslie) gives her a reel of film. Trudy runs off and is shot down in the street by the Japanese. Juliana watches the film. She sees an unexplainable version of America that looks like what would have happened had America won the war.

Juliana lives with Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). He encourages her to forget about the film, which is connected to a mysterious figure known as the man in the high castle. She is determined to carry out her sister’s mission as a resistance fighter. She sets off for Canon City, Colorado, in the neutral zone, to deliver the film.

In New York, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) is given the job of driving a truck full of coffee makers to Canon City. The truck carries a secret cargo from the resistance. Just before Joe sets off, the people around him are killed by the Germans. On the way, he searches the truck and finds a reel of film similar to the one Juliana is carrying.

Joe seems to be collaborating with the Nazis, but he might not be. When both Joe and Juliana arrive in Canon City they meet. Juliana assumes Joe is a resistance fighter. Together they attempt to meet the man in the high castle.

By about half way through the season, they have delivered the films and head back to their respective coasts, without knowing any more about who the man in the high castle is. Juliana tugs at the mysteries of the film and carries on where her sister left off. She finds a job among the Japanese rulers. Joe seems to be completely under the control of the Germans, but disobeys orders where Juliana is concerned.

Luke Kleintank and Alexa Davalos in The Man in the High Castle
Luke Kleintank and Alexa Davalos

Woven around this underlying story of resistance and the activities of Juliana and Joe, there is a swirling kaleidoscope of characters and subplots. The one thing tying all the subplots together is the mysterious films. Family members, Germans, Japanese, co-workers, loyalists and resisters populate the story. Everyone wants the films. No one trusts anyone. Everything is dangerous. People die.

And who is the man in the high castle? I couldn’t help but think of the castle high in the Austrian mountains that Adolph Hitler used as his fortress. In this version of the past, Hilter is alive.

A few of the other important characters who play a part in the story are Frank’s co-worker Ed (DJ Qualls), the ruthless Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell).

As the episodes roll by, you realize that it’s impossible to tell who speaks truth, who has hidden motives, why the films are so important, and the identity of the man in the high castle.

A new film appears late in series. Juliana and Frank are trying to escape San Francisco by this time. Joe is there, too, seemingly helping them. Juliana and Frank watch the new film while waiting for Joe. They see a completely different film from the one Juliana watched in episode 1. This one shows people they know.

That’s when the sci fi aspects of the series finally clicked in with me: the films show alternate realities. Are what we are living through with these characters their only possible reality? As one of the characters says, “Destiny is in the hands of men.” Can the characters move from one reality to another?

Images of German symbols on American symbols and cities.
Images of German symbols imposed on American icons and cities.

The iconography for the film includes German and Japanese symbols inserted into American symbols. For example, a flag with a swastika instead of a field of stars on what otherwise looks like an American flag. That particular image stirred up a pot of trouble when it was used in New York City subways on ads for the series. Amazon pulled the ad, but the image remains in the series.

A bit of trivia that caught my eye about the film is that the scenes set in Canon City, Colorado were filmed in Roslyn, Washington. This is where a huge favorite of mine, Northern Exposure, was shot. The WWII propaganda posters that mask the outside wall of the Sunrise Diner in Canon City are actually covering up the Roslyn Café Mural that has stayed on that wall since the 1990s when Roslyn stood in for Cicely, Alaska in Northern Exposure.

Since I was born and raised in Colorado, I know the town near the Royal Gorge that the film talks about is properly spelled Cañon City. The word cañon is pronounced canyon – a huge gorge, not canon – a big gun. The actors pronounced this word both ways, which drove me a bit crazy.

The Man in the High Castle is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick. Frank Spotnitz created the series. The second season was approved before the last episode of season 1 was filmed so that a cliffhanger could be used to end season 1.

I have not read Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle. It was apparently altered quite a bit to become a TV series. For me, watching this series was much like reading a fast-paced and engaging mystery novel. I felt as if I were racing toward the end, as I often feel when reading a good mystery.

The decision to put a woman at the center of the story worked for me. As I said, I wouldn’t have watched it otherwise. Alexa Davalos gets the credit for me saying that The Man in the High Castle is a terrific series. If you are an Amazon Prime user and haven’t watched it yet, give it a try.

If you’ve already watched the series, please share your impressions of it.

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