Yes, I know it’s nearly the end of November, and over here in the UK that makes it very late to still keep calling it the Fall, especially after the weather we’ve been putting up with this month. But it’s too early for the Mid-Season shows, so let’s stick with the title and look at a late addition.
The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon show, which means that the whole series, all ten episodes of it, was released, Netflix-fashion, in one fell swoop. But you still can’t watch it any more than one episode at a time and, in Thanksgiving week, when half my weekly American shows have been pre-empted, I have down-loaded the first couple of episodes and just come off the Pilot.
The series is based upon the legendary Philip K. Dick 1962 novel of the same name. I read the novel many years ago. Dick is not among my favourite writers and I remember little of the story save its basic premise: that the Axis powers won World War 2 and occupied America between them. Nor have I been back to remind myself of any other details from the book.
The pilot episode is superb, rich in detail and atmosphere. Wisely, it hasn’t been updated, meaning that the two regimes have been in control of the USA for almost two decades, but that a significant part of the population is old enough the remember defeat, and the world before that. The Nazis occupy all of America east of the Rockies as a Greater Reich, the Japanese hold west of the Rockies as the Japanese Pacific States, and there’s a neutral zone between, a buffer between seeming allies in conquest.
Enter our two main characters (though TV.com has one of them as merely ‘recurring’ and a thus far supporting character as the other star. In New York City, Joe Blake, seemingly in honour of a commitment to his (deceased?) father, joins the Resistance and is tasked with driving a truck to Canon City in the Neutral Zone, where someone will contact him – if it’s safe. En route, he checks out what e is secretly transporting: a reel of film.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, in San Francisco, Juliana Crane stumbles inadvertently into the western Resistance when her half-sister Trudy is shot dead on the street, seconds after handing her a bag. The bag contains a reel of film, film that in our world is authentic, well-known newsreel footage about the Allies’ victory, but which in this world can only be fake: or is it?
Juliana watches it over and over, in delight. Her live-in boyfriend, repressed artist Frank Frick (the other ‘star’) knows it comes from some mysterious individual known only as The Man in the High Castle, and that possession of the same is treason. He wants Juliane to turn it in, explain it away, but instead she runs, taking Trudy’s place, heading for a meeting in a Diner in the Neutral Zone. In Canon City.
Much of the pilot is taken up in establishing this situation and moving Joe and Juliana – who come off mainly as cyphers so far – towards their meeting in the episode’s closing minutes: Juliana as damsel-in-distress, robbed of bag and money, unable to pay 2 Marks for her diner meal, Joe the White Knight, a friend-in-need with obvious interest in the fair Juliana’s warm and fair body.
There are two other significant strains started in this episode. In one, we learn that the white-haired Hitler is seriously ill, with six months left to live. There is a power-struggle going on over the succession, but all three candidates plan to begin their term as Fuhrer by bombing the Japanese Pacific States…
And back on the East Coast is the fanatical Resistance-breaker, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. To whom, his cover safely established, Joe Blake reports at episode end.
What impresses most about this first episode is the sheer detail, the volume of it. Familiar American scenes have not merely been recreated in their form of 1962 with stunning authenticity, but they have been twisted into the world of the series. New York is littered with swastikas, San Francisco with rising suns, to an extent far too intense to take in at once. Money has not been spared in creating this visual scene, nor in creating a sombre, slightly darkened colour palate that mutes the eye. It feels real: hopelessly, inescapably reel.
I shall be here for the duration.
Two last things on which to comment. I haven’t yet mentioned the seemingly minor role of Japanese Pacific State Trade Minister Mr Nobosuke Tagomi (beautifully and gravely etched by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) who is one of the central characters in the book.
And there was one moment, midway, that had me shuddering: Joe blows out a tyre and needs help from the local law, a war veteran with a swastika armband. As they finish, ash starts to descend from the sky. Don’t worry, the sheriff says, it’s the Hospital. Every Tuesday they haul in the deranged and the old and dispose of them. The mental image goes off like a bomb. But it’s the sheriff’s casual approval, not just acceptance, that scares the bejasus out of you.