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.