I put off watching The Man in the High Castle for ages. It’s based on the classic novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick and it stars Rufus Sewell, whom I love soooooooo much (if you haven’t seen The Pillars of the Earth or Cold Comfort Farm, hop to it!), but, being Jewish, it’s nightmare fuel to see a world where the Nazis won. (Side note: if you want a great movie with central Jewish characters, I wholeheartedly recommend Defiance.) I found out though that The Man in the High Castle isn’t just alternative history, it’s science fiction, and the focus is heavily on the Resistance and fighting against all the horrors of racism and eugenics, so I decided to give it a go. The science fiction angle just sounded interesting. It’s slow to come, but it’s there, so keep an eye out for it. (The show is slow to bring in the sci-fi like Game of Thrones was slow to bring in the fantasy. It’s very political and character based.) And, seriously, epic casting all around: Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank, DJ Qualls, Joel de la Fuente, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and, of course, Rufus. (And more awesome actors come in as the episodes go along. Lots of great guest stars! Lots of rep!)
The show starts off in the 1960s, so it’s a costume drama-dystopian-alternative history-science fiction show. The backstory is that, during WWII, the Axis powers won their separate theatres of war, and so the United States is divided up under German and Japanese control. The Nazis control the east, which is known as the ‘Greater Nazi Reich’, while the Japanese control the west, known as the ‘Japanese Pacific States’. There is also a small sliver of land between the two known as the Neutral Zone. The Neutral Zone is basically keeping the Cold War between the Axis powers from turning hot.
The show begins in San Francisco, which looks totally different, and follows Juliana Crain and Frank Frink. They’ve been together for years, but they worry about having children as Frank has Jewish ancestry and Jews are still in danger in the Pacific States. They try and live under the radar until one day Juliana’s sister Trudy appears, frantic. She tells Juliana that she has a way out. Before Juliana finds out what she means, Trudy’s killed by the police. Juliana then finds a film Trudy had in her possession that’s meant to be delivered to the Resistance. On the film is something seemingly impossible: a world where the Nazis lost and the Allied Powers won. (It’s not quite our world, but it’s close.)
Frank begs Juliana to go to the police, knowing how dangerous being involved with the Resistance is, but Juliana decides to go instead to meet with the person Trudy was trying to give the tape to. When she leaves, it triggers life changing events for everyone: Frank is promptly arrested, as are his family, and their Jewish heritage is used against them; an undercover man named Joe encounters Juliana on the road and, though he has his own agenda, quickly falls in love with her. At the same time, the high officials on both sides are keeping secrets and plotting against each other. We’re introduced to Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high ranking figure in New York who is trying to bring down the Resistance and find ‘the Man in the High Castle’, who knows something.
My favourite character, bar none, is Frank. He’s deeply loyal, loving, kind, and his character progression is intense. His devotion to Juliana and Ed, his best friend, make him so endearing, but he’s also just such an innately good person. I don’t want to spoil too much of his character arc, just know he’s amazing. I like Juliana, but I definitely struggle with some of her choices. Ed is a hero. While I never liked any of the bad guy characters, the actors who play the bad guys are brilliant in their roles, and Rufus Sewell’s character has a very well written storyline. There was one storyline that I really feared would happen, but it didn’t. Huge relief! Without spoilers, if a romance had gone one way, I would’ve peaced out so fast there would be cartoon dust clouds behind me.
Heads up, though: this whole show is tough to watch. There are some truly gruesome, twisted scenes that broke my heart. There’s a storyline where they follow a character with a medical condition and you get to hear all the Nazi eugenics bullshit and it made my skin crawl. The antisemitism is appalling, disgusting, wrong and hard to watch. There’s horrific racism aimed at Blacks by both sides that will make you furious and leave you crying. The scenes with all the propaganda, insignia and symbols are also very painful to watch. But, again, it’s showing how wrong all this is. How we should be free, how everyone should be equal, so if you can handle the grim storyline to watch good characters kick ass against awful racists, it has great payoff.
What I found especially interesting is how the historical events that really happened in history are basically switched for alternative events in the story’s history. It blends the events a little, but it’s pretty much Opposite World. And as the science fiction comes in and you learn the ‘secret’ of the Man in the High Castle, the show spins you on your head while leaving on the edge of your seat.