TV Review: ‘The Man in the High Castle’

Man in the High Castle Amazon
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

One of the oddest pop-culture memes of the moment has political candidates and regular citizens contemplating what they’d do if they came across Hitler as an infant. “The Man in the High Castle” takes a related tack: What would have happened if the Axis powers had not only won World War II, but had taken over large portions of North America? An elderly Hitler who has survived into the early 1960s lurks like an ominous ghost in the background of this handsome series, which expands the Philip K. Dick novel into a thoughtful meditation on the ways in which oppression worms its way into relationships and the fabric of societies.

This is a measured show — at times, truthfully, a trifle too measured — thus a welcome element of unpredictability is supplied by Rufus Sewell, who plays John Smith, a suave and seemingly unflappable Nazi official. Sewell gives his character a rich interior life, hinting at difficult war memories that drive Obergruppenfuhrer Smith to act ever more resolutely in the name of the Reich. What may be most chilling about Smith is his warmth; the man can turn his charm on and off at will, and his watchful eyes indicate a steely soul that’s wiling to go to any lengths to ensure the Nazi definition of “peace.” His green protege in the intelligence-gathering service, young Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), looks up to his boss, but is also understandably afraid of Smith’s intelligence, will and quicksilver temperament.

Smith has an equivalent in the Japanese intelligence service: Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) is equally devoted to the Japanese empire, and thus every bit as formidable and ruthless as his Nazi counterpart. Scenes featuring de la Fuente, Sewell and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a high-ranking trade minister, Nobusuke Tagomi, benefit from these actors’ gravitas and magnetism. In the “High Castle” scenario, Germany and Japan are engaged in a high-level Cold War, and these men make the stakes wrapped up in that unsteady alliance come alive.

Other characters are a bit less well-defined and their relative naivete makes them somewhat harder to invest in. It may be unfair to wonder why a character in an alternate-universe 1962 doesn’t realize that phone calls can be traced, but TV has given us too many good spy thrillers to let that kind of thing slide too often. “The Man in the High Castle” also takes full advantage of the binge-able aspect of streaming (two episodes are online now and eight more arrive Nov. 20), but it often forges ahead without revisiting previous plot points. The series might actually benefit from the occasional injection of exposition: Certain connections and story elements are sometimes a little murkier than they could be, especially when viewers are expected to recall incidents that occurred several episodes earlier. 

That said, “The Man in the High Castle” has a solid opening episode and gains weight and heft as it goes, in part due to fantastic world-building: Every single element of the Japanese Pacific States’ San Francisco and the Greater Nazi Reich — which has a major presence in New York — has a tactile, detailed reality. The production design for the drama, which was shot in Vancouver and Seattle, is second to none. It’s vitally important that any alternate reality allow the viewer to believe the alien setting is real, and that’s the case here, thanks to the show’s detailed prisons, apartments and offices. The no-man’s land of the Rocky Mountain neutral zone is suitably forlorn and windswept, and the cities’ blend of classic Japanese design, mid-century modern elegance and the scuffed, sad trappings of poverty feels complete and well thought out. Thanks to the series’ command of visuals and tone, it’s simultaneously jarring and natural when all-American trappings like apple pie and fireworks are used for a wholesome family holiday celebrating the Nazi victory. 

This version of “The Man in the High Castle” is not so much a character study as a meditation on how powerful and corrosive forces work their way through society, from the top of the food chain to the factory workers and secretaries who have to find ways to live within a system that leaves them few avenues of real dissent, let alone rebellion. Every secret told is dangerous, every one kept is like acid eating away at a relationship or an ideal. There is not much hope in this serious, ambitious drama, but there are moments of real connection that make one believe that individuals — and even images — can make a difference.

Is that belief an illusion? Author Dick built a career out of the question, and this adaptation of one of his most famous tales explores that in an intelligent and visually exhilarating way.

For a discussion of “The Man in the High Castle,” “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” and “The Expanse,” check out the most recent installment of the Talking TV podcast

TV Review: 'The Man in the High Castle'

(Series: Amazon Prime, Fri. Nov. 20)


Filmed in Vancouver and Seattle by Scott Free, Headline Pictures, Electric Shepard Prods., Big Light Prods., Reunion Pictures and Amazon Studios.


Executive producers, Frank Spotnitz, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, David Semel, Stewart MacKinnon, Christian Baute, Isa Dick Hackett, Christopher Tricarico, Jace Richdale, Richard Heus; producers, Michael Cedar, Erin Smith; director, Semel; writer, Spotnitz; camera, James Hawkinson; production designer, Drew Boughton; editor, Kathryn Himoff; costume designer, Audrey Fisher; music, Henry Jackman, Dominic Lewis; casting, Denise Chamian. 60 MIN.


Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank, D.J. Qualls, Joel de la Fuente, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rufus Sewell

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  1. Bill says:

    Both of the episodes to date have been completely incredible.

    I enjoy the very realistic point of view that having been defeated, Americans simply embrace Nazi tactics like extermination of Jews, mentally ill and political enemies as an every day norm.

    Both this show and one Spotnitz previously worked on, Millennium, have embraced the philosophy that evil wind not by brute force, but by getting people to slowly stop fighting it.

    • anubis says:

      Dick is turning at very high speed in his grave.This master of the sci-fi genre would find more holes in the plot than a ton of Jarlsberg. For example: Heydrich is ascertaining Smith’/s loyalty befor a very important call. Why is that ? Smith is a relative nobody. Wasn’t Heydrich fighting Hitler? So why is Hitler on the phone. There are so many of these lapses that the whole thing falls apart. Amazing how easy it is to please and fool so many people with nonsense and art work. The best part of the show is the opener “Edelweiss”

  2. That Guy says:

    Where’s the review? This reads more like an overview or tease. Chuck had a better review in his comment.

  3. EK says:

    And what of the Holocaust and anti-Jewish sentiment in general? The Nazis are based in New York, a city where there are arguably more Jews per capita than any other U.S. city. Is this just ignored and, if so, on what plausible grounds is it not addressed, considering the cornerstone nature of anti-Semitism in Nazism?

  4. Having seen the first two episodes, my opinion is that the premise of the show is highly intriguing and the aesthetics of the sets and the CGI backgrounding is top-notch. You really do feel like you are there, even though there is this foreboding darkness that pervades the scenes, probably through the use of excessive filtering (understandably, to convey the moroseness of the characters and scenes). The storyline so far is pretty good, particularly as it contemplates the political and ideological portions of the show. I haven’t gotten far enough into the series to see whether there is a superfluous and pointless romantic B-story. Please, God, don’t let there be.

    Where the show really lacks is in the performances. The actors deliver their lines and movements as though they are ACTORS (read: ac-TORS). There is not enough subtlety in the performances, and everything by the characters is delivered in such grave and earnest fashion that we’re not seeing so much of their humanity. If that had turned the tone of their performances down a notch–after all, this is television, not the stage–they could have elevated the show to the dramatic level of The Wire, the Sopranos or Mad Men, rather than to the dramatic level of your run-of-the-mill procedural.

    One other irritating element in the show is in the use of melodramatic music underpinning the scenes to cue the viewer that there is HEAVY BUSINESS transpiring. To my way of the thinking, it betrays a confidence in the level of the actors to convey the gravitas needed the keep the viewer in thrall to the proceedings. The great shows I just mentioned didn’t need to use music in this way.

    Shortcomings aside, the first two episodes made for very good TV overall, and I’m looking forward to the release of the other eight episodes this Friday.

    • Bill says:

      I disagree; I love the somber and serious tone of both the show and the music; even an ironically lighthearted touch would never work with this material.

      However the use of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” in episode two is brilliant, much the way music was used to similar effect in Millennium.

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