“What if the nazis won WWII?” is a popular alternate history premise that’s been done many times across various media, but possibly never in as much depth as Amazon’s drama The Man In The High Castle. The show (based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name) takes place a couple of decades after the war, where instead of being America, the US is divided into the Greater Nazi Reich, the Pacific States, and the Neutral Zone. The Nazis and the Japanese have a shaky alliance, and there are films being smuggled around by the Resistance that depict alternate versions of events, where the Allies won after all. It’s unclear how these films came into existence, but what we do know is that they are important.
The main three characters are Juliana Crain, a woman whose sister gives her one of the films, Joe, a man Juliana meets when taking over her sister’s mission to deliver the film to a contact in the Neutral Zone, and Frank, Juliana’s boyfriend. Frank is possibly the most interesting and engaging of the three, a kind man whose life gets turned upside down when he is interrogated over Juliana’s disappearance. While Juliana sometimes appears bland, she is deliberately understated, as she proves to be adept at adapting to situations and appearing meek for the sake of gathering information. In contrast, Frank has a more obvious emotional struggle, and the directions his character goes feel more deliberate. Joe, meanwhile, is likeable, and trying to figure out where he stands in all of this as his conscience clashes with his career.
Other central characters include high ranking Nazi officer John Smith, the Japanese Trade Minister, Nobusuke Tagomi, and head of the Kempeitai (Japanese military police), Takeshi Kido. One of the greatest strengths of The Man In The High Castle is the complexity of its characters. Even those who are simple secondary or background characters often prove to be multifaceted, and all of the significant players grow and develop in different ways. The writing expertly illustrates how people are rarely simply good or bad, as viewers find themselves empathising with Nazi officers and questioning the methods of the Resistance.
One of the main ideas explored thoroughly in the show is authority. Plotlines that revolve around the chain of command and the butterfly effect perfectly reveal how a system resting on a shaky political climate can be like a house of cards, where one thing going wrong, one card not in its proper place, can bring the whole thing crashing down. This concept plays out in several ways, making the audience watch on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what move certain political players will make, and the consequences it will have on the others. At the heart of it all are themes of morality, loyalty, and sacrifice.
Despite the harsh and bleak nature of its premise, TMITHC doesn’t go overboard in terms of violence. It’s definitely there, but serious gore is rare and reserved for moments when it’s most effective. The real stomach-churning elements of the show are the moments of worry and tension, and reminders of oppression. Many of the horrors of that reality are merely implied with throwaway lines, but the frightening ideology of fascism is always tangible, as we see its effects in the lives of characters who are black, terminally ill, jewish, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Man In The High Castle hooks you from the first episode, and consistently reveals plot twists and “what just happened” moments that keep you engaged and on your toes without feeling forced. The heavy drama with its diverse characters and dark atmosphere has been well-received thus far, and fans will surely be pleased to know that having just been renewed for a third season, it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon. The writers have been slowly upping the ante with the storylines becoming more large-scale, so hopefully season 3 will be just as gripping as the last. There’s still plenty of material to be explored in this story, and many questions about the films, the Führer, and the future of the Reich that have yet to be answered.