This isn’t the first time that Amazon’s pilot season — which sees the simultaneous launch of a dozen or so opening episodes of a variety of new shows — has been mostly a waste of time. Most of these shows don’t deserve a second episode. Finding The Man in the High Castle, the diamond in this season’s rough, might not be an altogether uncommon occurrence either; Amazon’s Transparent just took home a fistful of Golden Globes, so the streaming service is slowly catching up to Netflix when it comes to quality series.
But make no mistake: The Man in the High Castle is anything but common. Like any great what if? story, only one thing has been changed here. This could easily be our world, the exact one we live in today, if not for this one change; though the America of The Man in the High Castle is utterly unrecognizable, that revisionist tectonic shift was borne entirely of the initial tremor, the single change. That change, admittedly, asks the grandfather of all what ifs: what if the Nazis had won the war?
Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, the pilot of High Castle is set in 1962 and seesaws back and forth between two storylines. The first is set in New York City, capital of what is now known as the Greater Nazi Reich, and follows young Joe Blake. He’s 27 years old, which means he was just a boy during the war. But Joe insists on freedom, seeking out an older Resistance member and convincing him that he’s got what it takes to join the cause. Throughout the course of the pilot we get a taste of what NYC is like in this version of history, propaganda on every billboard and movie screen, uniformed Nazis on street corners and even on gameshows. Rikers Island is less a jail and more an SS torture chamber. In short, it’s terrifying.
And then we’re whisked away to the West, to an equally strange and equally terrifying San Francisco in the Japanese Pacific States. We meet Juliana Crain (played by the beautiful Alexa Davalos of Defiance) as she goes to aikido practice, purchases some tea, visits her parents and gets a drink at a bar with her boyfriend. There’s an aging, Parkinsonian Hitler on the Nightly Nazi News (it’s not actually called that), and aside from that Juliana’s life on the Japanese-patrolled coast doesn’t seem all that different. But then her sister Trudy returns, frantically and cryptically telling Juliana that she’s “found the reason” and discovered “a way out”, and before you know it Trudy’s shot dead in the street by Japanese officers. Juliana flees with the small film reel that Trudy passed her minutes before her death.
The Man in the High Castle introduces a whole host of characters alongside these two core members, doing so impressively in an opening hour that feels like fifteen short minutes. There’s Juliana’s boyfriend Frank, who has a more-careful-the-better mindset when it comes to her protection; there’s the Japanese officer that arrests Frank following Juliana’s disappearance, set up to be the West Coast Evildoer; and then there’s the endlessly fantastic Rufus Sewell as the NYC Obergruppenführer, arguably the face of Nazism in America, definitely a face you do not want to see. He hardly lifts a finger for the entire hour, and yet he manages more uncompromising brutality than anyone else. Add to that the fact that Sewell is credited as “John Smith” and that his accent seems not German but New Yorker, and his character is both the most purely evil and the most intriguingly complex.
Alongside thousands of WWII shows and movies and thousands of weak what if? premises, The Man in the High Castle manages a uniqueness that has a lot to do with author Philip K. Dick. The most famous PKD adaptations make you think geez, the future is bleak. Cities like the L.A. of Blade Runner are cities to be avoided if and when our society progresses to that precise future — better yet, let’s just try to avoid that future altogether. But this is 1962, not the future, so it can’t possibly be avoided. We’re just along for the ride. To that end, High Castle actually made me think not of Blade Runner but of the graphic novels Red Son (in which Superman’s space-cradle lands in the USSR instead of Kansas) or the alternate history Watchmen, both of which take that single-change what if? premise to ultimate conclusions.
And still, the most perfect compliment to give The Man in the High Castle is to say that my good friend George Orwell would be damn proud. This might be the most Orwellian thing ever committed to film, and that includes the mostly-okay John Hurt adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is a bright cold day in April and the clocks are striking thirteen. Adolf Hitler, the Big Brother of this alien America, is the colossus that bestrode the world. Orwell’s writing was perfectly pitched to convey the combination of the familiar and the strange, and so too is the darkly inviting tonality of The Man in the High Castle. The war is home, and so the place we live is home no longer.