First of all, can we just talk about that opening? That beautiful, beautiful credit sequence that starts off each episode where a lady quietly sings "Edelweiss" and black and white images are projected over statues, and oh my goodness I can't even describe how amazing and beautiful it is and I just want to watch it over and over?
|And that's just the first thirty seconds or so.|
In this alternate reality, it's 1962, WWII is over and done, and the world has settled back into a "normal." But nothing is really normal, because the Axis powers -- the Nazis and their Japanese allies -- won the war. They've taken the United States and split it in two. The East Coast and the Midwest is part of the Nazi Greater Reich, and the West Coast is the Japanese Pacific States, with a small neutral zone separating them.
Juliana (Alexa Davalos) lives in San Francisco (essentially now San Fransokyo!) with her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans), trying to feel at home in this new world. When her sister runs into her, and gives her a film only to be shot to death by Japanese soldiers seconds later it starts Juliana's life on a course that could change the world. The film shows footage from the end of the war, but it's not right; it shows the Allies winning. Juliana takes the film and her sister's place, leaves for the Neutral Zone and begins a search for answers -- and the elusive "Man in the High Castle."
How can the films be? Where do they come from, and why are they so important? And who is the man in the high castle? After the first season of this refined sci-fi slow-burner.... none of these questions have been answered. But if it isn't beautiful and entertaining while it keep us in suspense!
|Our heroine, Juliana Crain|
Science fiction is my bread and butter, but this kind of science fiction -- cerebral, elegant, understated and mystifying, set in its own world, playing unforgettably by its own rules -- is more like a decadent cake; with multiple layers, topped with whipped cream, ice cream and a cherry for good measure. In short, (and like I would have said in the first place if I weren't hungry) this show is a treat. Truly. It's hard to describe the perfectly balanced tonal flavor exactly, but it is what is at the center of the show that makes it great. The best I could think of to describe it is, "elegantly heavy." It gives us a lot of brutal darkness -- as it must -- but presents it all with a refined formality.
After the tone is set, everything else just seems to fall naturally into place. The story is based on the Philip K. Dick novel, which I haven't read, so I can't judge on how accurate a portrayal it is, but it's at least his basic premise, and whether it is filled in with his story line or restructured and rethought by writer and show creator Frank Spotnitz, or even re-imagined totally, it seems to be the right choice to go with.
|The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon Prime series. A second season is coming and I eagerly anticipate its arrival!|
There are multiple plot lines to follow. The lead is Juliana, though she probably gets equal time and attention as several others, she is the lead and the show's heroine for three reasons. One: she is the only character with totally clear, completely uncompromising morals. Two: she causes, or is closely connected to every other plot line in the show. And three: she reflects the show's tone. This is the thing that I always notice and love to see in the main character, and in this case, it's impressive, as the shows tone is hard to quantify and seems like it would be hard to personify as well, but she does. She is elegant, and she is heavy; deep and graceful and somber and determined.
There's also Joe (Luke Kleintank) a fellow from New York who also has a film and meets and befriends her in the Neutral Zone -- but secretly works as a spy for the Nazis to bring down the rebellion, but also, maybe, doesn't. Actually, for the first few episodes I was confused, trying to figure out if he was truly a good guy or bad guy. There was compelling evidence for both sides. It took me a while, but finally I realized that he himself didn't actually know. He was stuck in a in between of a job that would give him power, security, and comfort, and becoming a traitor, ruining his life, but doing what is right. And for a long time, he tries to get away with doing both. Once I realized that, he became one of the most interesting characters.
|I do mean that as a complement, but it isn't saying much what with all these incredibly interesting characters!|
There's a plot for Juliana's boyfriend Frank as her disappearance sends repercussions to him that escalate dangerously while he stubbornly remains a reluctant hero. Frank just wants to go on with life; he doesn't see that there might possibly be a way out of it; and as the grandson of a Jew, keeping his head down is a top priority. But he gets a harsh wake up call, and we watch him slowly grow a backbone, and a will to fight back of his own -- some of it is channeled in the total wrong direction, but eventually he seems to head in the right way. DJ Qualls is a supporting character in his plot line as his pesky friend, Ed, and in fact, each story line really does feel like its own stand-alone tale. So if Juliana is the readymade hero of the show, then perhaps for Frank this first season was just an origin story.
|"I've got a gun; you've got a time machine. What the hell? Let's kill Hitler."|
I never in a million years thought I'd sympathize with someone who was a Nazi, but then there was Obergruppenfürer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). John is Joe's boss in New York, a family man, and American who even fought for the Allies, but then willingly gave in to the new leadership. At first, he is the highest powered character around, and he coolly destroys everyone in his path as he searching out rebels. He is cunning and calculating and totally unfeeling -- or so it would seem. The moment one of his superiors from the Motherland shows up, he suddenly seems as much of a good guy as Joe does compared to him. It got to the point where I had to stop and wonder if I was crazy to want to cheer for this guy, and I realized that I wasn't. Rufus Sewell always makes a great villain, but his conflicted baddie here is top notch.
|I love his villains but have always preferred his protagonists. Now, he's both!|
Then there's political tension as the impending death of the Führer threatens to spark war between the Nazis and the Japanese. The drama that comes through all this and the characters that fill it are all so complex I want to re-watch the whole show just to understand it all better (and then again for the enjoyment). This plot give us Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Trade Minister of the Pacific States; a calm and structured gentleman who hides everything from everyone, including us. He conspires with a high ranking Nazi traitor Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) to keep the Japanese in play once Hitler is gone. There's also Kido (Joel de la Fuente), a Japanese police inspector who has a blind and stone cold respect for tradition and rules, and his loyal Sergeant (Lee Shorten). They find themselves in over their heads in a sensitive investigation, and slowly fade from villainous antagonists to endearing characters as we get to know them.
|You'd think (what with the Nazis and all) that this story would have a stark line between the good and the bad, but there's an unexpected amount of grey.|
There is one technical aspect to cover; the show's rating. It's rated MA, and ticks most of the available content boxes. There's disturbing violence, which one could hardly get around, but unlike say, Daredevil, this show didn't stop once it got going into the R territory; it also drops a handful of language per episode and even sneaks in a little very brief nudity. Both of which I found completely unnecessary, but at the same time I gratefully realize it could have been much worse.
A few last things: Cliffhangers. Oh my goodness those cliffhangers. If it were possible to die of cliffhangers... RIP me. And even though it caused me to not understand it all as much as I usually would the first go-around, I love that this show makes you think for yourself and doesn't spoon-feed you everything. And I love that it's slightly controversial by making characters that you can identify with Nazis. Since when is does that even happen? In this incredibly real, uncomfortably close to home alternate universe it does. So, with its premise that's just so amazingly, ideally sci-fi that it makes me giddy just thinking about it, its large cast of talent playing and endless line of fantastically deep characters, and its immaculate, refined tone, the future for The Man in the High Castle is looking deliciously dark.