Review: The Man in the High Castle – Season 1

Based on: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Producer: Amazon Studios, Scott Free, Headline Pictures and Electric Shepherd Productions.
Showrunner: 
Frank Spotnitz
Writer: Philip K. Dick (based on short story), Frank Spotnitz (written for television)
Starring: Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank
Distributor: Amazon Video
Genre: Drama, Military and War, Historical, Science Fiction
Rating: TV-MA

Philip K. Dick was an American science-fiction writer, born on December 16, 1928. During his lifetime, he published 36 novels and 121 short stories, with common themes of alternate universes, altered consciousness, and authoritarian governments. Dick died on March 2, 1982. Many films have been based on these works, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1982 and 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Sony Pictures Televisions produced Electric Dreams in 2017, based on the works of Dick

In 2015, Amazon Prime released an adaptation of the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel The Man in the High Castle. The series depicts an alternate history 1962, in which the Axis powers were victorious in World War II. The United States is divided up into the Greater Nazi Reich (most territories east of the Rocky Mountains), the neutral zone (the Rocky Mountains), and the Japanese Pacific States (territories west of the Rocky Mountains). This Amazon Original series has been nominated for three 2017 Emmy Awards.

CONTENT GUIDE

Violence/Scary Images: Fights/brawls including a martial arts fight, man hit on back of the head, woman smacked; intense violence/gore, including seppuku (suicide), hanging of a corpse, bloody eyes, gunfight/shootings with blood, execution-style shooting to the back of the head, use of attack dogs, ambush with machine guns; torture/beating of a man, man being pushed off of building; intense images including the ashes of disabled and mentally ill people, family with children gassed (off-screen), corpses seen individually and in mass graves, man commits suicide by gun to head up chin (off-screen, gun shot heard).

Language/Crude Humor: 14 uses of religious profanity (Jesus, God); 27 mild obscenities (h***, c**p, d**n); 12 scatological terms; two anatomical terms; 11 derogatory terms, including b***h, b*****d and p***k; 23 racial slanders against Asian and Jewish people; Africans are referred to as ‘subhumans’; Albino man called ‘too white’ and a freak; +30 F-word; the Nazi salute is said multiple times throughout series; death threats given throughout series.

Sexual Content: Boyfriend and girlfriend hug and kiss; also talk about having kids. Sex implied after couple kisses. Man strips down to his underwear, then naked, genitalia not seen, but circumcision questioned (side buttocks). A topless prostitute is briefly seen. Sexual harassment/favors, including male interviewing unzipping of pants. Woman seen in negligee.

Drug/Alcohol use: Lead characters drink at a bar. Smoking. LSD administered as truth serum. Adult gives teenager wine. Woman abuses unnamed medication.

Spiritual Content: Various Shinto practices, including meditation.

Other Negative Themes: Talk of torture, including “cracking” genitalia and plucking fingernails; talk of “blowing” someone’s brains out; Nazi imagery, including the Hitler salute and the Swastika; talk of nuclear war; Bible burning discussed; genocide and totalitarian regimes; euthanasia discussed; various Nazi ideologies; shipping of contraband, including swallowing and excreting item; forgery; treason.

Spirituality: Various Shinto practices, including meditation.

Positive Content: A discussion on World War II, Allied vs. Axis, and other historical events.

SEASON RECAP

EPISODES 1-2

Episode 1, The New World, begins with Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) watching an old propaganda film set in 1962, New York, Greater Nazi Reich. Joe meets up with a Resistance leader and is given the task of delivering a package to Canon City, in the Rocky Mountains. On the West Coast, Juliana Crain (Juliana Crain) practices Aikido in San Francisco, under Japanese control.

She meets with her sister Trudy and boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). Frank’s best friend Ed (DJ Qualls) is also introduced.

Trudy then gives Juliana a mysterious package before being killed by Japanese soldiers. The package is of a film reel, depicting the Allies winning WWII. Frank calls the footage fake, possibly made by the Man in the High Castle. Juliana wants to deliver the film to Canon City, much to the derision of Frank. Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) discuses the shaky alliance of the Pacific States and the Greater Nazi Reich.

In Riker’s Island Prison, Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) tortures a Resistance leader, confirming his knowledge of Joe’s contraband delivery to Canon City. Tagomi meets with Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard), a disillusioned Nazi official. Joe also discovers his package is another film reel. Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) investigates Trudy and Juliana; he also imprisons Frank. Juliana meets up with Joe, though she is ignorant of his connection to the Resistance. The ending reveals Joe is actually a Nazi spy under Smith, attempting to undermine the Resistance.

In Episode 2, Sunrise, the Kenpeitai beat and imprison Frank. Joe shows romantic interest in Juliana and she takes a job as a waitress in Canon City. John Smith eats breakfast with his family, and discusses how selfish desire leads to moral decay. Joe and Smith update each via phone, with the superior notifying Joe of a female Resistance member.

Kido threatens Frank with the death of his sister, niece, and nephew unless Frank gives information on Juliana. Imprisoned Resistance member Randall attempts to encourage Frank to not give in. Juliana also meets the Line-Faced Man reading a Bible. German and Japanese officials meet and discuss suspects in search of the High Castle reels. But, tensions between the two nations arise.

Resistance terrorists ambush John Smith and Erich Raeder, leaving the latter in critical condition. Ed goes to look into why Frank hasn’t appeared for work. Joe watches the film reel at an abandoned theater, and the content shocks him. Juliana eventually meets up with Line-Faced Man, who attacks her; Joe rescues her. Inspector Kido finds another smuggler with Trudy’s reels. He then releases Frank from the firing squad. But, Frank’s family is not saved in time.

EPISODES 3-4

In Episode 3, The Illustrated Woman, Juliana and Joe take refuge in his apartment after the killing of the Line-Faced Man. Joe determines the man was most likely a Nazi agent and the Reich will send others to look for him. Frank returns home, tormented by the words of Kido, and meets up with Ed.

John Smith tells Joe to leave town, but Joe is reluctant. Juliana calls up Frank; Frank makes up a cover story after hearing the wire-tap. Joe encounters the Marshall, a sadistic bounty hunter searching for the Line-Faced Man. The Marshall connects his last whereabouts with Juliana. In San Francisco, the Crown Prince and Princess perform a Shinto Ritual. Frank informs his brother-in-law of the death of his family.

The Nazi Embassy tries to persuade the Crown Prince to not give a public address; the Prince refuses. John Smith searches for the informant who caused the ambush from a captured Resistance leader. Juliana and Joe find a list of Resistance leaders including the diner boss. Upon heading back to Canon City, the Marshall attacks and pursues Juliana.

In Episode 4, Revelations, Juliana hides from the Marshall, but Joe rescues her. The Shoe Shine Boy deviates the Marshall and tells the two of the location of Lem. Armed with a real gun, Frank plans to assassinate the Crown Prince, with Ed trying to dissuade him.

Juliana meets with Lem (Rick Worthy), but Lem just wants the film. He also distrusts Joe. Lem agrees to take the two to the Man in the High Castle. Joe updates Smith, saying he will meet the Man in the High Castle. Smith says the Man must be killed, even if it costs Joe his life. Marshall threatens Lem. Lem then retrieves the film reels from Joe and Juliana.

Frank buys illegal antique bullets. Juliana discovers Joe is “lying,” with Joe fronting as a Resistance member. The Resistance leader Smith imprisoned commits suicide. Juliana draws out the Marshall, but Joe confronts him, stating he is a Nazi spy and needs Juliana alive. Juliana fakes her death to the Marshall, with a burning car with a corpse in it.

At the Crown Prince’s address, Rudolph attempts to slip a Japanese Science Minister a microfilm, but fails. Ed updates Juliana about Frank’s assissination attempt. Frank prepares to assassinate the Crown Prince, but someone else shoots first, leaving the scene in disarray. Juliana also heads back to San Francisco on a bus.

EPISODES 5-6

In Episode 5, The New Normal, as gunshots ring out, a Japanese bystander sees Frank with a gun; authorities chase him down. The Crown Prince is rushed to the hospital, as all foreigners’ visas are detained, including Rudolph. He swallows the microfilm to hide it. Despite increased security, Juliana makes it back to Frank’s place in San Francisco.

The Crown Prince is in critical condition, as Tagomi talks with the Crown Princess. Juliana meets with her parents and Joe Blake returns to New York. Tagomi wants Rudolph to flee, but Rudolph wants to complete his delivery to the Japanese Science Minister. Major Klemm reviews Joe on his mission, with Smith joining in. Yoshida interrogates Juliana, with Kido joining in. Both questioning parities are suspicious.

Resistance member Karen tells Juliana to get a job at the Japanese Authority Building to infiltrate it. Frank meets Mark Sampson at the funereal of his family. Rudolph regains the microfilm. Despite Tagomi’s warnings, Rudolph slips the Science Minister the microfilm, as a German official spots him. Smith invites Joe for a family get-together, as Joe eyes a confidential folder. As Juliana leaves a lecherous job interviewer, she bumps into Tagomi.

In Episode 6, Three Monkeys, Joe goes to visit Smith’s family for a VA party. Throughout the episode, Joe seeks the confidential Grasshopper file. Juliana and Frank attempt to reconcile, though the relationship is rocky. She also attends her first day working at the Japanese Authority building.

Juliana speaks with Tagomi. Joe discusses his background with Thomas, Smith’s son. Kido still investigates the Crown Prince shooting. Smith goes to pick up his mother-in-law from the airport with Joe. There, he runs into an old friend, Rudolph. Kido confronts Tagomi, suspecting some collaboration based on Rudolph’s international visa. Kido also tracks the bullets to the antique store Frank bought them from. The antique dealer (Brennan Brown) also confronts Frank.

Juliana discovers a surveillance room in the Japanese Authority Building. Frank joins Mark for an undercover Jewish prayer service. Smith reveals to Joe he knew Rudolph lied, with his mother-in-law pickup being a cover story to intercept the traitor. He turns Rudolph in to the Nazi police. In a cliffhanger, Smith catches Joe reading the confidential Grasshopper folder.

EPISODES 7-8

In Episode 7, Truth, Smith finds Joe in his office, viewing the Grasshopper folder. Smith knew his subordinate lied, and calls on Klemm to confiscate Joe. Frank explains to Ed his initial plan to assassinate the Crown Prince, but the presence of a child discourages him.

Joe tells Smith the full truth. Smith then gives him a new mission: Find Juliana and the film, under penalty of death. Juliana’s father finds her at the Japanese Authority Building; he explains why he works surveillance. Betty, a Japanese buyer, invites Robert, the antique dealer, to dinner with her husband. However, the Japanese couple looks down on him.

Joe meets up with Rita, a single mother whom he has a relationship with. Juliana sees Trudy in a crowded Japanese street market. Kido tells Tagomi of Juliana’s Resistance connection, but Tagomi keeps her on the job. Joe asks Juliana about the film, under wiretap; Smith then sends Joe to the Pacific. Frank and Robert talk forging antique items. Tagomi looks into Trudy’s file; he then sends Juliana to her. Trudy’s corpse lies in a huge killing field. A shocked Juliana walks the Japanese street mart, with Joe trailing behind.

In Episode 8, End of the World, Lem gets a call from a contact to go to San Francisco. Juliana finally tells her parents Trudy is dead, though her mother does not believe her. Frank creates a forged holster, as Ed warns him of the Kenpeitai. Frank tells him he is leaving. Joe meets Juliana again, and inquires about the film.

Robert takes the forged holster, despite momentary hesitation. Lem and Karen attempt to meet a film contact, but the Yakuza kills the contact and takes the film. A doctor diagnoses Smith’s son with Landouzy-Dejerine disease, but Smith is in denial. The doctors offer euthanasia as an option. High-level Nazi official Heydrich (Ray Proscia) comes to remove Rudolph from Smith’s custody. Karen and Lem meet Joe with Juliana, despite suspicions. Smith meets with Rudolph again, but argue about ideals.

Robert manages to sell the forgery to the Kasouras and Frank gains the money. Lem and Karen plan to regain the film from the Yakuza with Joe’s help and Smith’s transferred funds. Frank wants to leave quickly for the bus, but Juliana wants to tell her parents goodbye. Her father informs her the Yakuza deal is a trap and Juliana goes to warn Joe at the Bamboo Palace. The Kenpeitai raid the Bamboo Palace, but mysterious black car occupants abduct them. Kido runs out the back, missing them.

EPISODES 9-10

In Episode 9, Kindness, The Yakuza guard pushes Juliana and Frank into a makeshift jail. Frank decides to skip the bus to wait for Juliana. Thomas stumbles down the stairs, implying the progression of his disease. Joe questions Juliana about her and Frank’s destination. The Yakuza guard then takes Juliana, but leaves Joe. At the docks, she meets with Okamura, a Yakuza leader. Lem and Karen are also present. The Resistance completes the transaction to free Juliana, but leave Joe. Juliana wants to free Joe too, so she promises to gain Okamura’s requested payment.

Smith visits a recovering Erich at the Reich Rehabilitation Hospital. As a trusted contact, Smith hands him a note to give to Hitler, just in case something happens. Ed intercepts Juliana, and she reunites with Frank. She convinces Frank to use his money to free Joe, though he wants to deliver it personally. Rudolph meets with Heydrich, who wants Rudolph to assassinate Hitler (Wolf Muser).

Frank meets with Okamura, and frees Joe with the money. However, Joe starts a gunfight with the Yakuza for the film. Ed gives Juliana and Frank some yen and they part ways. Smith pushes Captain Connelly over the edge of the Reich building, and calls it a suicide. A Japanese general visits Tagomi concerning uranium deposits; Tagomi is then informed of the weaponization of the Heisenburg Device (Atomic Bomb), which he intended for peace. Okamura tells Kido he knows the true identity of the Crown Prince shooter. Heydrich visits Smith’s home, and suspiciously invites him to go hunting, as Juliana and Frank plan to meet Joe at a school. However, to their shock, a Nazi Joe executes captive Frank in the High Castle film.

In Episode 10, A Way Out, Juliana and Frank are still in awe of the film reel. Joe enters, but Frank fights to keep the film away from him; Frank fails. Smith prepares for the hunting excursion with Heydrich. Juliana and Frank meet with Lem and Karen, for a way out of town. The Resistance can provide an escape, but only if they get the film back and kill Joe. Kido finds and kills the true sniper of the Crown Prince, a Nazi instigator. Kido covers this up to prevent war between the Nazi and the Japanese states.

Smith meets with Heydrich and his guard in the Catskill Mountains. Karen gives the game plan to Juliana: Infiltrate the Reich Embassy with a fake passport and get to Joe. In Germany, Rudolph meets with his family; then, an aged Hitler himself. At the gun factory, the boss sees Ed attempting to destroy Frank’s gun; the Kenpeitai capture him. Heydrich loses face, and pressures Smith under gunpoint to an alliance. Joe escapes the Reich Embassy with Juliana, but realizes their destination is a Resistance trap. Juliana has a change of heart, and lets him depart on the boat.

Rudolph does not kill Hitler in order to prevent war with Japan. Instead, Rudolph commits suicide. Heydrich’s guard is shot, and Smith apprehends Heydrich. Kido apprehends Ed, with Frank struggling to let the Kenpeitai know he is the assassin. Finally, Tagomi goes into meditation, and slips into an alternate 1960s San Francisco, presumably our world where the Allies win.

REVIEW

Season 1 quelled my concerns from Episode 1. The series went past the initial intrigue of the “What If?” scenario and really made me care for the characters.  Visually, it is stunning. They did a great job using Vancouver and British Columbia as the set for many locations. The music set the tone for several scenes, especially those of tension and cliffhangers.

One important note involves the format of Amazon streaming. I loved the X-Ray notes, which appear when you move the mouse on the screen. They provide so much background information that the series almost becomes a mini history lesson. It is not obtrusive, like Pop-Up Video from the 90s. But, it is there when you want it. For example, when Rudolph returns to Germany, a production note discusses Volkshalle and Germania, Hitler’s prosed revitalization of Berlin realized in this alternate universe. Other production notes of interest include Japanese culture and 60’s American culture.

I appreciate that High Castle does not stray away from the source material, at least not to my knowledge, in Season 1. I familiarized myself with the book, although I didn’t read it. The basic premise stays the same. This is unlike the adaption of Electric Dreams, which drastically changes the original source material of Philip K. Dick.

Surprisingly, one of my favorite characters is a minor character: Robert the antique dealer. Up until he was introduced, the High Castle didn’t really have much comic relief. I thought maybe Ed (DJ Qualls) would provide this role, given his past comedic roles. When Robert was first introduced, I thought Betty and Paul were taking advantage of his interest, and setting him up for Kido. I was relieved the writers didn’t kill them off. As dark as this world is, Robert provides some humor to give relief from the overall miserable state. I also really liked the fortitude and nobility of Trade Minister Tagomi, as he helped to bring hope to this dark world.

John Smith still ranks as one of my favorite characters. Season 1 gives him more depth, giving sympathy to the SS Officer. Rufus Sewell remains threatening, but his family provides him a more relatable side. The debilitating disease of his son makes Smith vulnerable and sympathetic, despite the brutal actions he committed and commits. His hesitation to kill or imprison his old-friend Rudolph also reflect this.

Episode 6 highlights what’s best in this season. Smith invites Joe over for a VA party and he (along with us) sees the seemingly wholesome Smith family. We hear Rudolph’s disillusionment with the Nazi regime after the extermination camps, despite the victory of the Nazis in WWII. Smith clearly vocalizes his conscience vs. his duty. The episode ends with a perfect cliffhanger: Smith finding Joe shifting through his confidential files.

MAIN CRITICISMS OF HIGH CASTLE

My main criticism of High Castle is visible plot armor given to certain characters. The death of Frank’s family establishes the danger from the dystopian government. But, Season 1 does not seem like it follows through with this. There are points where Joe, Juliana, and other characters should have been killed.

No more is this realized than in Episode 7. Where Episode 6 is my favorite, leaving me questioning what will happen, the following deflates this completely. According to Smith’s duty, Joe should have been killed, as he collaborated with the Resistance and is shifting through confidential files. But, Joe isn’t killed. Klemm even states during the subsequent interrogation they should have already put a bullet in Joe’s head. I couldn’t agree more.

Rudolph’s suicide helps break this, but it is a little too late for me. I don’t expect a bloodbath, but a few more unexpected deaths may have aided the gravity of the series. I must note, my friend who has already seen the rest of the series says this plot armor for characters is removed.

Another main criticism is the love triangle between Joe, Juliana, and Frank. Though typical fare for any series, it makes all three of them look dumb. Frank holds out for Juliana, despite her diminishing affections for him. Joe almost gets himself killed for treason due to his affection for Juliana. Protecting Joe really distracts Juliana from her initial (and better) goal: Why was her sister killed and what is the purpose of the High Castle films? I don’t mind characters making bad decisions, but it would be nice if these characters grew from their mistakes.

Spiritual Application

One of the X-Ray notes that really caught my attention discussed the issue of ‘Positive Christianity.’ This note appears about halfway through Episode 2, Sunrise. According to the note, ‘Positive Christianity’ attempted to reconcile Christianity and Nazism. German philosopher Alfred Rosenberg greatly supported the movement, desiring the “extermination of foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany.”

Rosenburg wanted to replace the Bible and the Christian cross with Mein Kampf and the swastika. In addition, this movement sought to deny the Semitic origins of Jesus Christ and the Scripture. In contrast to the title, Rosenburg deemed Catholicism and Protestant sects of Christianity as ‘negative Christianity,’ according to the Jewish Virtual Library. Although Hitler claimed to be a ‘Christian’ in speeches and Mein Krampf, it was a means to an end: He desired to maintain the political support of Christian churches in Germany, according to historians.

In the radicalized world of High Castle, the Greater Nazi Reich fully embraces ‘Positive Christianity’ and the Bible is banned in the Reich. One major thought that can be pulled from this fictional depiction: The removal of the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. Although not as extreme as ‘Positive Christianity,’ this important connection is often times forgotten in modern American churches.

Romans 11:11-24 says we (Gentiles) are wild branches grafted into the natural branches (Israel) of the olive tree. We share in their promises and inheritance of salvation. Unfortunately, Gentile believers tend to dismiss Israel, as Paul predicts the Gentile question in Romans 11:1 which says, “I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall?” Again, although not as extreme as ‘Positive Christianity,’ this dismissal manifests today even in replacement theology, which states the Church completely replaced Israel.

However, God is not finished with Israel. Romans 11:26 says “all Israel will be saved,” in order to fulfill His covenant with His people. This promise to restore Israel is a testimony to the faithfulness of God, and a testimony to His ability to fulfill His promises in our lives as followers of Jesus.

The Bottom Line

Season 1 of High Castle proved to better than a simple one-shot “What-If” scenario. Although the three main characters suffer from a love triangle and bad decision-making, many of the other characters will surely grow on you. The production value is high, and shows the increasing importance of streaming media. Tagomi’s vision provides a great cliffhanger for Season 2 and I do feel invested enough to keep watching.

 

8.9

Armand Azamar

Armand J. Azamar is a freelance writer and artist from the Chicagoland area. Armed with the Word of God (and a love for superheroes, comic books and speculative fiction), he teaches at New Life Assembly Church and Kankakee Trinity Academy.

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