The Man in the High Castle operates on one of the greatest what if? concepts in history: what if the Allies lost WWII? It’s somewhat of a miracle that this particular hypothetical alternate universe hasn’t already been made into fiction, considering the possibilities brought to mind by the premise alone. It was odder still that Philip K. Dick’s story only really came to light when it was optioned for a television show, considering how fantastic the book is. And the show’s pilot, which aired as a part of Amazon’s Pilot Season back in January, didn’t disappoint. We’re whisked across a mid-’60s America that might have been, an Orwellian totalitarian state consisting of an unsettling blend of the familiar and the strange. We’re in New York — but this isn’t New York. We’re in San Francisco — but something’s out of place here. And it’s not just that the buildings are plastered with propaganda (although they are); something darker has taken root and changed society, changed the people.
“Sunrise”, the second hour, throttled back a bit on all of that (everything’s still plastered in propaganda). Joe and Juliana, the NYC- and San Fran-dwelling protagonists of the pilot, have now met up in the Neutral Zone that makes up the middle third of the Once-United States. They’ve fled the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States, respectively, for reasons that aren’t altogether dissimilar. Copies of the mysterious film known in hushed whispers as the work of the equally mysterious “Man in the High Castle” have been smuggled by each protagonist, which on the surface seems a well-wrought story structure. Here are the show’s two most interesting characters, bringing the show’s most interesting item to a central location, bringing the story inward from each coast.
But Joe and Juliana aren’t yet the most interesting characters in The Man in the High Castle, regardless of the potential they both have. Joe’s potential revealed itself in full at the end of the pilot: he’s a Nazi agent. Having your strapping young male lead bean undercover baddie is a thrilling concept because we know he won’t stay that way. He’ll be outed, or he’ll find his conscience, or he’ll flip-flop between good and evil as the show progresses. But already here in the second hour are there obvious seeds of Joe turning into the good guy, and this before we ever got to m ow him as a bad guy. It might be too harsh to mark this potential squandered after only two episodes, but it’s not at all an inescapable possibility.
Juliana? She’s not the most interesting, either. She’s following the classic arc of the unassuming city girl thrown into a national conspiracy, complete with the somewhat convenient adoption of the one name that gives her access to sensitive material related to that conspiracy (and this without mentioning at all the somewhat convenient prior knowledge of aikido). It’s not that Juliana is uninteresting, but the familiarity of her character is just sort of disappointing within this strange world that’s ostensibly changed the very humanity of those that live in it. Add to that the fact that she — like Joe — is alone for the moment in the Neutral Zone, talking to strangers and getting a job at a diner. We have to juxtapose this with her time in San Francisco, talking to her family and her boyfriend, carefully executing aikido moves and carefully selecting Japanese tea, and we have to be a little disappointed at going from one to the other. The U.S. has been chopped up into three zones, and in “Sunrise” we’re whisked away to the most boring of the three.
Speaking of setting, the scenes on Long Island drop the plastered propaganda and posit something more subtly sinister — it looks exactly the same as the Long Island of our universe. Head Nazi John Smith lives there with his family and coaches his son on taking advantage of his place at the top of humankind’s food chain, but alas, he’s not the most interesting character in this second hour, either. At this point the bad guys are too basic, to mustache-twirly, and that was a bit of a sneaking suspicion in the pilot as well. The West Coast’s Inspector Kido is more interesting than New York’s Smith simply because he’s more of a self-serving bird dog rather than an entitled Long Islander. We have enough of those in our normal timeline.
The most interesting character after “Sunrise” is without a doubt Rupert Evans’s Frank, Juliana’s boyfriend and soon-to-be-sufferer of the wrath of Kido’s inquisitions. He’s neither wrapped up in a conspiracy nor is he a double agent nor is he even a single agent. The one thing about him that Kido and Co. persecute him for — his Jewish roots — are generations removed and do not, in Frank’s mind, factor into his identity at all. And because of this The Man in the High Castle is able to explore the notion that one’s identity is moreso what someone else says it is than what it actually is, a dark notion championed by those in power in this alternate Nazi-led reality. Frank’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s just a guy, a normal citizen of this weird U.S., and it’s his story that seems likeliest to unveil the true horrors at play here. Joe and Juliana are the ones doing the Big Fighting, but the vast majority of the humankind they’re fighting for is doing the Big Suffering with Frank.
That’s potential, too — that Frank will either overcome the pains instated upon him or he’ll succumb to the oppression. I’d like to know more about him, and I’d love to find out that Frank isn’t actually as upstanding as he seems. We’re back to the flip-floppiness of good/evil: we’re rooting for Frank because he’s being punished unfairly by evil men, but we spectators would be challenged if some revelations came through about the actual character. And maybe that film will tie into his storyline more directly someday, doing to Frank what it did to Joe. On one hand it’s disappointing that Joe is so quickly back to being the good guy after only being revealed to be a Nazi agent at the end of the pilot. On the other, it might go a long way to showing the power of the film. This is exactly what Hitler fears: that the film — whatever it is — will turn those in power into those who fight against power. For Frank, who’s currently neither, the possibilities just seem more endless.