One of the best compliments I can give to Amazon’s sweeping series The Man In The High Castle is that it’s not an easy show to binge-watch.
The Man In The High Castle is a slow-burning, twisting conspiracy theory feast that combines some of modern television’s most brilliant series without feeling one iota like a copy. It’s set in 1962, so it feels a bit like Mad Men with its hats and misogyny. There’s a struggle between two world powers who keep sending spies after one another, so there’s a bit of The Americans there but with bigger stakes. The world’s on the cusp of nuclear war, so there’s a little bit of every Tom Clancy book ever written. However, The Man In The High Castle has one thing that the other properties do not: amazing visual iconography.
The strongest thing that The Man In The High Castle has going for it from the jump is the way the show looks. It’s a stunning looking programme, absolutely beautiful in fact. The San Francisco scenes in the Japanese occupied territories are vibrant, thriving, like Chinatown spread out over the whole of an entire city. It looks absolutely foreign, but at the same time, it still looks like San Francisco. The show’s New York City settings look and feel like 1962 New York City in the same way that Mad Men captured that era of the Big Apple, but there’s just something… off. It’s the uniformity of the faces and haircuts, it’s the omnipresent swastika, it’s the fact that Times Square has been transformed into something out of Triumph Of The Will, a permanent monument to Nazi triumph in the heart of America’s most iconic city. Every little thing is tweaked just slightly; San Francisco is still a baseball town, but the fliers for the local rec league are in Japanese and English; a youngster in Nazi New York is reading Ranger Reich magazine.
The sheer level of visual detail is thrilling, even before the conspiracies start to be unfurled. Canon City, as played by Roslyn, Washington — the former home of Northern Exposure — is a great example of just what life might be like in a neutral zone between two racially-driven empires; it’s also where the show’s only non-white, non-Asian ethnic and racial groups are shown. The town is a run-down dump with price-gouging and rogue agents intersecting and interacting in a search for The Man in the High Castle, but it’s also a weird place where East literally meets West, with the television being a mish-mash of Japanese animation, American animation, and propaganda. It’s a place caught in the middle of an uneasy truce that grows more and more uneasy as Nazi ambitions and superior technology meet Japanese corruption and bureaucracy.
That’s where the Cold War conspiracies come into play. There’s the struggle between the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese, as the two uneasy allies start to drift apart in the wake of their successful conquests. Then, there’s the struggle beneath the surface as double-agents plot in an attempt to, quite frankly, save the world from nuclear destruction as the two former allies rapidly progress from a cold war to a hot war. Amidst all that is the hunt for the titular Man in the High Castle and his forbidden film strips depicting a world in which the Reich collapses in Europe and the Japanese Empire is pushed back onto their island. Are these clips pro-American propaganda or a glimpse of the world the way it truly is?
The show takes its time, moving patiently, and it takes a while for characters to develop beyond their initial impressions. Some, particularly Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (an awesome Rufus Sewell) and Japanese trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) develop faster than others, thanks in no small part to the awesome actors and their more immediately nuanced characters. Others, like Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) take a little bit longer to fill out, but their slow growth ends up being ultimately rewarding as we learn more about the two of them. Even the least-developed characters, Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) and Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls) are still ultimately interesting; Kido is a great villain while Ed is a solid friend to Frank (Rupert Evans) who gives a common-man view of life under an oppressive thumb.
The attention to detail, the commitment to world building, and the intricate plots are part of what make The Man In The High Castle worth watching, even when as it takes its time getting to where it wants to go. The performances range from good to great, and every character feels like they’re living in the same world. More importantly, all the characters slowly grow to feel more nuanced as the show progresses and we learn more about them, and seem to have solid reasons for what they do and why they act the way they do. The clues and hints and plot threads are doled out slowly, but evenly, and this is the sort of show that is going to reveal all sorts of interesting tidbits when watched at a slower pace.
As it stands, The Man In The High Castle would be a weekly appointment if it were airing on a traditional television network, but as it stands, it’s a compulsive, thoughtful show that will reward patient, eagle-eyed viewers with a stunningly rich world and an intricate tapestry of lies, half-lies, and truths. It’s not the sort of thing that can be watched while doing other things, but it’s the sort of programme that’s going to attract an audience and the sort of show that’s going to merit that promised second season. There’s not a lot of intelligent science fiction on television, and what is there doesn’t last too long. The Man In The High Castle is the sort of prestige drama that can put a network on the map, and it may do for Amazon’s drama programs what Transparent did for its comedy offerings.