The Man In The High Castle Succeeds Where Germany Failed

The new Amazon pilot based on Philip K. Dick's novel about Nazi triumph is a surprising victory.
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The new Amazon pilot based on Philip K. Dick's novel about Nazi triumph is a surprising victory.
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Amazon got audacious with its third round of pilots, unveiling (among others) the much-awaited Man In The High Castle adaptation, in which America is partitioned between Japanese and Nazi forces after the Axis runs away with World War II. Opening in a movie theater with a newsreel extolling the virtues of Hitler’s America in 1962, the series immediately establishes a New York City dominated by Nazis and a Washington emptied out after a Manhattan Project-style urban renewal.

With extremely high production values, the show follows a young American (or Nazi or whatever) who would like to join the resistance. We follow him on the technologically advanced U-Bahn subway and to an auto repair shop where he explains that he wants to bring the Nazis down, and a sympathizer explains how he saw his buddy’s brain blown out at Virginia Beach. A grim beginning to be sure, but life under the Fuhrer is rough: So much so that there aren't any Jews or Black people is high-kicking through Times Square. It's impressive set dressing to be sure, but the pilot actually succeeds by holding back: It doesn’t go to deep into specifics, letting the fake history bleed through (there’s no Rock & Roll on the radio, only Wagner).

Still, a scene where the ashes of the mentally ill and disabled literally rain down on the countryside comes on a bit heavy. Apparently world domination didn't mellow the Third Reich.  In fact, they’ve now started their own cold war with the Japanese, who control the Pacific coast of America.

Switching over to Japan, we see that life under imperial power actually doesn’t look so bad: The Japanese have banned modern art, but there seems to be a lot more autonomy of movement under the Emperor. You can take an Aikido class if you like and you don’t have to join the Hitler Youth. On top of that, Imperial Japan looks pretty cool. The fascist forces are firmly in control, but high-ranking officials have incorporated Chinese ideas like Chi following their own imperial conquest of Asia. Because Mao never happened, the Chinese are still a fairly religious people. But enough of this speculative history, because soon that pesky resistance rears its head, as an unassuming American gets delivered a mysterious roll of 16 mm film. The film reveals a past where Americans actually won the war, and one character speculates that it’s the work of "The Man in The High Castle." Both of the leads, played by Julianna Crain and Luke Kleintank, are drawn to the buffer zone between the two empires, a no-man’s land in the Rocky Mountains.

Considering that pulling off a watchable adaptation of a timeline where the Nazis won is a feat in itself, the fact that the series is more than watchable is a triumph in and of itself. The pilot suffers from the usual moments of pilot-driven melodrama - there's a lot of premise being crammed into an hour - but that should be ironed out once the series is picked up, which it absolutely should be. We didn’t win that war not to see this show play out its twisted future, with Swastika-emblazoned Concordes and news footage of an aging Hitler.  Just make sure you stick around for the twist at the end of the episode, where the series sheds its initial gimmick and hints at a dense world of espionage, betrayal, and doomed romance.

Photos by Amazon Instant Video