Man in the High Castle Isn’t Great, But It Does Great Stuff
The Man in the High Castle is a fine show; fine as in sufficient, not as in excellent. The series, which premiered on Amazon on Friday, has all of the signifiers of Quality TV Drama—a slow burn with just enough violence to keep audiences interested, mysterious characters, an extremely dark palette. But something is missing.
Sure, there’s a lot to like about the show, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history novel of the same name. The cast is, generally speaking, good, particularly Rufus Sewell as SS officer John Smith and Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa as weary Japanese official Nobusuke Tagomi. The others are at least committed to being good-looking and angstily earnest in the way in that CW way. The action sequences are tense and well-shot, even if the pacing can be rough. Still, something is missing.
A vague sense of paranoia permeates the universe—not that surprising, since the show’s very premise hinges on the Nazis having won World War II. Even the threat of outing someone as Jewish, or of having Jewish ancestry, causes tension. The most important object in the show is a newsreel that depicts an alternate outcome in which the Allies won the war; that’s because, as the characters yell repeatedly, it proves that things can be different (even if we’re not quite sure how). Most of these people intuit that something is wrong with their world.
But what’s wrong with their world is what’s right with the show.
The Man in the High Castle is at its best in the moments when the stakes are lowest, when citizens of the German and Japanese states that have taken over the world simply go about their daily lives. Passing a medical facility, resistance fighter and Nazi double agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) encounters what he thinks is a snow flurry but turns out to be flakes of human ash spewed out by a nearby crematorium. An older cop who explains the phenomenon to him wonders aloud why he ever fought against the Reich in the first place; what good did it do? In another scene, SS officer Smith lives in a near-parody of a suburban neighborhood straight out of the American mid-century idyl. Everyone on his street says “Heil Hitler!” with the same cheer we might say “Good morning,” and in their mouths the phrase transforms into a friendly banality.
What makes these moments pop is the way they function to create a believable, mostly-immersive world that’s just slightly off. Nearly everything about The Man in the High Castle—solemn conspiracies, good-looking people running around looking for answers, law enforcement officers yelling at their subordinates—has been done to death on TV. The thing that hasn’t? A fully-constructed 3D edifice of what it would look like if the Nazis had won World War II. It’s a remarkable, if remarkably squandered, feat of world-building.
TV is excellent at worldbuilding. In fact, it might be the task the medium is best suited to—with years and years of episodes and accumulated hours of screen time, it’s easy to give audiences the sense that they’re spending time in a real place. In fact, giving off this impression might be necessary to a long-term success on TV. Yet the most commercially successful exercise in worldbuilding in American pop culture isn’t happening on television: it’s the Marvel movie series, which have kept a tight enough rein on the various characters and Infinity Gems and gods and such to provide a somewhat coherent picture of an entire galaxy. (Though another Disney-owned company is hot on their heels).
That’s partially because TV tends to focus on its characters more than their surroundings. The best series—like, say, You’re the Worst—do both, but too often they simply immerse viewers in a world that’s like ours. Sensibilities might change, but never surroundings. It’s the kind of strangeness manifested in The Man in the High Castle’s perfectly pleasant Nazi neighborhood that has yet to fully be defined in the current prestige-TV landscape. Even shows with potentially rich genre settings, like the faux-Star Trek world of Yahoo’s dearly departed Other Space, often favor their characters over their milieu—it’s a narrative myopia that’s to the detriment of shows’ worlds.
MITHC’s is the kind of world that, for all that we claim to be in a Golden Age, simply doesn’t exist on TV in nearly the levels we’d like. Anthology shows, which provide the best opportunity at a sense of texture, haven’t quite gotten to this point yet. Though Ryan Murphy claims that every American Horror Story installment takes place in the same universe, each season buckles under the weight of campy, grotesque pointlessness. Fargo has thrilling moments, but doesn’t create a real place as much as a setting for a series of snappy action sequences with unnecessary split screen. And let’s just agree not to talk about True Detective.
Having different worlds, distinct worlds, isn’t just a thing that would be nice to have—it’s a necessity of a healthy narrative ecosystem. The best world-building gives us a sense that there are things happening outside of the lives of the main characters. And while that’s a task at which The Man in the High Castle ultimately fails—its stakes are too high, its view of its heroes too myopic—it’s still a promising glimpse of a storytelling future in which characters’ lives reflect how creators can privilege different types of people. Game of Thrones, one of the richest worlds on TV today, takes great pains to remind us again and again that everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls. What would it look like to craft a world where that wasn’t the case? Maybe one day we’ll find out, without needing an alternate timeline to get there.