The premise of The Man in the High Castle is undeniably fascinating. What if Hitler had won the second world war? What if America had been conquered by the Axis powers, and partitioned into a German-occupied east and Japan-controlled west? Amazon Studios’s newest show, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 virtual-history novel of the same name, is just as strange and horrifying as the dystopian classic, vividly realizing the what-if world Dick created.
Developed by Frank Spotnitz (best known for his many years of work on The X-Files), The Man in the High Castle is a fairly loose adaptation of Dick’s novel, taking in the entire scope of the Americas rather than just focusing on Japanese-controlled San Francisco and the “neutral zone” in the Rocky Mountains, as Dick did. Set in the 1960s, this is a world with swastika marquees in Times Square and a discomfiting (though obliquely remarked-upon) amount of racial harmony. It’s a world where a graying Hitler, now in his 70s, helps maintain a fragile peace with Japan that many think will expire upon his death. On a macro-scale, the series is absorbing, but it takes a few episodes to settle into the smaller stories that are unfolding.
The show’s hero is Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a San Franciscan who gets sucked by her sister into a larger rebellion against the Axis occupiers. On the run from police, she ends up in the neutral zone with Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), another rebel with secrets of his own (revealed at the end of the pilot episode, which Amazon first aired last January before picking up the series). Juliana knows Aikido and is introduced as a smart action heroine—an impression that’s undercut by her looking constantly confused as she’s swept up by events she doesn’t understand in the early episodes. Meanwhile, the most compelling thing about the square-jawed Joe is his secret, which takes a while to pay off.