I really don’t watch much TV. Movies, sure; books, I’ll devour; but TV is a medium that I’ve found difficult to get into, with very few shows holding my attention. Partly, this is because most modern television is very popular and I’m the sort of ivory-tower nerd who prefers obscure things, but it’s also because a multi-season show is a huge time commitment, harder for me personally to sit through than just reading a novel. That being said, I’m not above binge-watching something if it really grabs me. The last time I did this was with the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, an absolutely outstanding piece of fiction, superb enough for me to overcome my aversion to TV and finish all 40 episodes last December. Today I will be composing my review for this alternate-history tour de force. Some spoilers ahead probably, because they’re pretty much unavoidable:
Our story begins in the year 1962. But it is not our 1962—the world is divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the victorious Axis Powers of World War II. Europe and Africa are under the Nazi jackboot; the Pacific is a Japanese lake; the Americas, meanwhile, are partitioned, the US in particular being split into the Japanese Pacific States in the west, the Greater Nazi Reich1 out east, and a neutral Wild West-style buffer zone in the Rockies.
How did things get this dire? The point of divergence, best as I can tell, is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt is assassinated in 1933. America never gets out of the Great Depression and thus completely sits out the early years of World War II. Nazi Germany, somehow victorious over the Soviet Union, goes on to develop the atomic bomb and deploy it against the US in their 1946 invasion, forcing a quick surrender after the obliteration of Washington, D.C. The partition of the Americas with their ally, the Empire of Japan, follows shortly thereafter.
Decades later, the world is uneasy. Relations between the victors have cooled, though they pretend that they are still allies, and in Berlin, a city utterly reconstructed in the grandiose image of National Socialism, the Fuhrer grows deathly ill. The stage is set for a brutal power struggle between the members of his inner circle, some of whom have less than peaceful intentions towards the Japanese. When Hitler dies it may well plunge the world into war and cost millions of lives…
Germany would handily win such a war, though. Its leaders know that. The Nazis boast supersonic passenger jets, a nascent space program, and an arsenal of fission bombs known as Heisenberg Devices, while Japan lags far behind, its main assets a large but ageing fleet and the sheer fanaticism of its soldiers.
The worldbuilding in this show is really something else. There are a few goofs, such as the substitution of T-62s for Nazi tanks, and of course the fundamental premises are implausible, to say the least—how did the Nazis get the bomb when their real-life nuclear program was a total shit-show? How did they launch a transatlantic invasion with their puny navy? How on Earth did the Japanese occupy the entire West Coast?—but the showrunners utterly mastered the little details that make a setting feel real and fleshed-out. Everything down to the little swastikas on the Greater Nazi Reich’s pay phones. The megalomaniacal architecture of Berlin, envisioned by Hitler in our timeline for construction after the war, is also faithfully depicted here. Feast your eyes:
All right, that’s my gushing about the setting over with. For now. On to the plot and characters! Our first character is our intrepid protagonist, Juliana Crain, a young woman from Japanese-occupied San Francisco. Her entire life is turned upside down when her sister Trudy hands her a bag of film reels, before promptly getting shot by the Kenpeitai. The film reels show an alternate timeline where the US wins World War II; intrigued, she seeks out the Resistance, the underground guerilla movement resisting both the Nazis and the Japanese, and dives into the mystery behind the films, which are rumored to be made by someone known only as the Man in the High Castle.
OK, real talk. While this is my favorite TV show, it has one of the least likable or interesting protagonists I have ever seen. Juliana doesn’t really do anything. She just drifts around, being humorless and aloof, and not even humorless in the fun, edgy way, either. Scenes with her in them tend to be tiresome. Furthermore she makes stupid decisions all the damn time, at one point getting numerous Resistance members killed because of her idiocy. As someone put it so wonderfully on Reddit2, “What exactly is there to like about Juliana Crain in season one? She’s a dummy rampaging through the plot, unapologetically making a mess. Her best character trait is that she means well, I guess? Adolph Hitler is a more likeable character in this show, and I do not mean that as a joke.”
It’s OK, though—rest assured that some of the other characters more than make up for Juliana’s deficiencies. Meet Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, a former American war hero turned brutal SS officer, and Inspector Takeshi Kido, an equally ruthless secret police detective operating in the Japanese Pacific States. They are both on the hunt for the Man in the High Castle’s films, driving a long drama of intrigue and suspense…
Another very interesting character is Trade Minister Tagomi, who, despite being a trade minister, does some cool stuff, such as helping a German official smuggle nuclear secrets out of the Reich in order to prevent a war. He’s all wise, stoic, and zen about things, in contrast to nearly everyone else on the show.
There’s also Frank Frink, Juliana’s boyfriend, and Joe Blake, Juliana’s other boyfriend (also a Nazi spy). They’re just as highly billed as any of the other characters I just mentioned, but they’re not nearly as charismatic as Kido, Smith, and Tagomi, nor are they as annoying as Juliana, so I’m not going to say as much about them.
Anyway, the plot for the first season revolves around the mysterious films. Who made them? What do they depict? Both the German and Japanese authorities are very interested in confiscating them, though, which puts Juliana, Joe, and Frank in grave danger. And other plotlines emerge as the show goes on, bringing us into the dark heart of the Nazi government, while Smith and Kido get remarkably well-developed character arcs, instead of being one-note villains.
All that and I haven’t even mentioned the sci-fi element, which becomes very prominent in the later seasons. I’ll leave you with this tantalizing image:
Let’s just say it involves some entertaining multiverse-hopping! Enough to add another level of flavor to what is already a remarkably engaging, sophisticated, and riveting show.
It’s fantastically well-made, trust me. Great production values, great music, a great setting, (mostly) great writing; ignore the fact that its protagonist is insufferable and the series finale is stupid3, and you have a near-perfect piece of television. Highly recommended! Being an Amazon production, you can find it on Amazon Prime.
Also: on the topic of Nazi victory scenarios—one of my favorite alternate history tropes, sue me—I may dedicate a couple future blog posts to the Robert Harris novel Fatherland and AP246’s “Thousand Week Reich” timeline, so stay tuned!
- This was a research failure on the writers’ part. “Nazi” was viewed as a derogatory term by the Nazis themselves, who referred to their ideology by its full name of National Socialism. They would have called their North American puppet state something else.
- I’m not the only one. Everyone hates the ending of the last episode, along with most of Season Four, though I maintain that Season Four was actually pretty good overall.