The Man In The High Castle - Season 1 Review
March 14, 2016

The Man In The High Castle is the Amazon-films adaptation of the award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick of the same name. The book in question happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, and I couldn't believe when I heard that it had not only been adapted, but adapted to television, with a mega-budget and high production values. It was also produced by freaking Ridley Scott, of all people! I was over the moon. You see, as a fan of Philip K. Dick's work, I have been dismayed by the string of shitty adaptations that his work has suffered over the years. Aside from Blade Runner (which was also a Ridley Scott production), Philip K. Dick's work has been insulted over and over again by terrible treatments including, but not limited to, the unintelligible Minority Report, the Ben Affleck-plagued mess that was Paycheck, the visually interesting but mediocre A Scanner Darkly, and the entertaining but grossly inaccurate Total Recall. So you can understand that I had low hopes going into The Man In The High Castle.

However, I am happy to report that my pessimism has been succinctly quashed this time. For once it seems that Hollywood has decided to treat the author's work with respect. I would go so far as to say that The Man In The High Castle even rivals Game Of Thrones in terms of its level of awesomeness, and I'm not even kidding.

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The story is about an alternate 1964 where the Axis powers have won World War II. It is just as intense as it sounds. The spoils of America have been divided, with the Germans taking the east coast and the Japanese taking the west, with some remaining lawless neutral states existing in-between. Jews live under assumed names and are in constant fear of being exterminated; state-mandated euthanasia programs weed out the sick and handicapped, and political tensions between the Japanese and Germans threaten to plunge the world into yet another war. These are not good times for anybody.

Meanwhile, average people like Juliana Crane and her boyfriend Frank Frink are just trying to get by. Unfortunately, things get complicated when Juliana witnesses her sister being gunned down by the Kempeitai in the streets for having ties to a resistance movement. Things get even stickier when the authorities discover that Frank has some distant Jewish ancestry. You can probably imagine that things do not go well for them, and they sure don't.

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Without giving too much away, let's just say that there's quite a bit of state-sanctioned murder, torture and blackmail abound, as well as terrifying chases and surprising double-crosses. The themes of duplicity, subterfuge, and muddled identities that were the focus of Philip K's book are all present here and recreated with authenticity.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the character of Joe Blake, a Nazi agent who is assigned to infiltrate the anti-Nazi resistance movement. Like most double agents, he ends up developing sympathies for the very people he is supposed to betray. Eventually you get the feeling that his identity is so clouded that he doesn't even know who he is anymore.

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And that is precisely the essence of the story. Totalitarian rule expects total compliance from its subjects, but how can one comply with such a terrible order? The identity of the oppressed becomes two-fold: On the one hand, they must appear as good citizens or else risk imprisonment, execution, or worse. But under the surface they naturally hate their oppressors with a burning passion. How can they not? It is natural to want to resist tyranny, even when the fight seems hopeless.

All of this is presented with a level of detail that you might expect from a Ridley Scott production, and strengthened by near-flawless performances by Alexa Davolos, Rupert Evans, and Luke Kleintank. This troubled alternate America is convincingly presented and immaculately rendered. We are shown a believable world that is unlike our own, yet entirely recognizable. It is like a dream (or nightmare) come to life.

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I really only have one major criticism to note. The Man In The High Castle is sometimes so relentlessly cruel and heartbreaking that it could stand to have some comic relief in-between major events, or perhaps let the good guys win once in a while. Watching unimaginable hardships happen to characters that you care about can be tiresome when it happens in every single episode. Hell, things even get bad for the principal villains, too - in some ways that are pretty shocking. Truly, totalitarianism is a bad deal for everyone involved, whether you are the oppressor or the oppressed.

The Man In The High Castle has impressed me at every turn. It is science fiction - and television - at its finest. This is a show for your must-watch list, though you are duly warned to be prepared for an intense and heartbreaking journey.

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honestgamer honestgamer - March 14, 2016 (09:55 PM)
You really make this sound terrific. This was an excellent review of a television series I somehow hadn't heard about. The referenced pedigree is impressive. Dick's work has certainly produced some interesting movies, even though it sounds like you were less impressed by the results than I was. That might be due to the fact that I've never actually read Dick's work, only seen adaptations.

My honest concern, though, is that if I were to watch this, I would be turned away by how depressing it (apparently) is. That's why I took a break from Breaking Bad, and it's one reason I haven't started the Game of Thrones TV episodes, despite the other elements that interest me. So this sounds like it is probably a show I would love in theory, but may find too much to take in practice.
Nightfire Nightfire - March 14, 2016 (10:13 PM)
On the bright side, The Man In The High Castle tends to keep its main characters alive, unlike Game of Thrones, which practically kills off a principal character every other episode.

Yes, it is still really hard to watch at times, and my advice would be to NOT marathon it. At least watch the first episode and see what you think! :)

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