There is something amiss with The Man in the High Castle. When the pilot for the series was released on Amazon's proprietary streaming service back in January of 2015, the response was positive enough to warrant the production of a full ten-episode season, which was released late last November. However, the reaction to that release has been decidedly mixed. While the show has been praised for the verisimilitude of its depiction of a 1960s America under fascist occupation, such praise has been leavened with criticism over its lackluster characterization and weaknesses in plotting. While many of these issues have been noted and discussed widely online, there are other, more serious, thematic issues that have remained unaddressed.
Many of the show's issues ultimately stem from the inherent troubles of adapting novels for television. The Man in the High Castle is, of course, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel of the same name. A classic of alternate history, the novel is set in a world where the United States lost the Second World War and was divided into a Japanese-occupied West Coast and a German-occupied East Coast and Midwest, with a small strip of states along the Rocky Mountains as a neutral border. While the specter of fascism triumphant has always made for good copy, Dick's novel would seem to be a poor choice for adaptation. The novel is a calm, measured affair, depicting a number of mostly unconnected characters trying to get by in Japanese-dominated San Francisco while mulling over the nature of reality, authenticity, and the philosophical nullity of the Third Reich. The closest the novel gets to a thriller is in a storyline about a German intelligence officer trying to pass to Tokyo secret Nazi war plans for a nuclear first-strike against Japan. Additionally, the novel itself is only about 260 pages long, a length far better suited for a film adaptation than for television.
To solve the problem, the showrunners have opted for a hybrid approach, trying to merge the structure and events of the novel with more traditional mystery/thriller elements. The first season of The Man in the High Castle has a number of plotlines on the go simultaneously, but overall the show is dominated by two major story threads. The first, taken mostly from the book, concerns a plot by German officer Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) to pass atomic secrets to Japan. The second, which eventually intertwines with the first, concerns the mystery of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." In the original novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was an alternate-history novel depicting a world where the Axis lost and the globe was dominated by America and the British Empire. While appearing to be a hacky science fiction novel in all outward aspects, it had a persistent attraction for the characters of The Man in the High Castle, at times appearing less like a novel and more like a "glitch in the system." In the series, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" is reimagined as a set of film reels containing snippets of news footage from our world, and as such are avidly sought by both the American resistance and the Nazi authorities.
Unfortunately, the hybrid approach simply does not work. There is not enough material in the novel to sustain 600 minutes of television, and as such the show resorts time and again to wheel-spinning and contrivance. The first half of the season parks two of the main characters in Canon City, Colorado, in the neutral zone, waiting for people who never come while fending off Nazi spies and a ridiculous bounty hunter (Burn Gorman in a truly unfortunate turn, snarling his way through an ersatz Clint Eastwood impression). What novelty there is in exploring a run-down American rump state is quickly exhausted, and the scenes just drag on and on. Later in the season, the delivery of a film is held up for two episodes thanks to the sudden appearance of the San Francisco yakuza. The show concocts plots and situations that seem to promise tension and progress, only to meander on and on to little purpose. As a thriller, it is uninterested in constructing proper thrills, but the characters and details of the world are too sketchily drawn to function as a slice-of-life story. Rather than drawing from the best of both the book and the medium of television, The Man in the High Castle instead combines only the weaknesses of the two.
The show's characters only further compound this problem. While the show has an ensemble cast, the characters of Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), her boyfriend (and hidden Jew) Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), and Nazi agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) are established early on as the primary viewpoint characters. When compared to their original incarnations in the novel, they are, without deviation, younger, prettier, and more gratingly vacuous.
Juliana, introduced as a nondescript, aimless young woman, is spurred to track down the source of the mysterious films after her half-sister is taken in by the kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, under suspicion of acting as a courier. However, her quest is motivated by nothing more than a vague, unformed desire of "needing to know," and almost all of her actions seem to be driven by the needs of the plot rather than by any deep personal beliefs. Her boyfriend Frank pays the price for her whims, ending up incarcerated and beaten by the Japanese authorities, who also arrest and gas his sister and her children in an attempt at coercion. The experience radicalizes Frank to the point of his making an attempt on the life of the visiting Crown Prince of Japan, a move that does bring a touch of energy to the early episodes, in spite of cribbing heavily from Taxi Driver. However, Frank ultimately pulls back from the brink, though the Crown Prince ends up attacked anyway. Unfortunately, after this the show runs out of things to do with him, and he spends the rest of the season at loose ends, brooding in his basement apartment, coming up with various ephemeral plans to get out of the city or not, and physically threatening everyone who gets in his way. Ultimately, Frank becomes a victim who wallows in his own victimhood, a character whose plight inspires not empathy or pity, but contempt. As for Joe, it is a testament to Kleintank's skill as an actor that his character—a man divided by his loyalty to his superiors, his need to provide for his family, his attraction to Julia, and the mystery of the films—so completely vanishes from the mind when he is not on screen. Indeed, none of the three main characters evinces much in the way of interiority, self-awareness, or even distinct worldviews—leaving the audience to react to their travails with nothing more than a vague irritation. Stories live and die by their characters, and these characters, better suited to a generic young adult dystopian potboiler than a Philip K. Dick adaptation, break The Man in the High Castle.
Perversely, the show has a much better handle on its fascist characters. Part of this success doubtless lies in the fact that the antagonistic characters are played by older, more experienced actors; but it must also be said that the show finds a way to unite and develop them in a way it fails to achieve with its younger cast. The antagonists of The Man in the High Castle are of the prewar generation, men who fought and rode with the victors to comfortable positions in the new order, only to find both state and ideology making increasingly severe demands on their lives and person. Each man deals with the crisis in his own way. Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) of the kempeitai, the man who ordered Frank's arrest and the deaths of his sister and her children, spends most of the season as the epitome of faceless repression, but the final episodes of the season reveal that he has been misdirecting the investigation into the attack on the Crown Prince—at the risk of dishonor and seppuku—in order to maintain peace between the superpowers. While Kido is hardly a virtuous character in any sense of the word, his actions grant him a certain selflessness that can be respected, if nothing else. Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuke Tagawa) is much as he is in the novel, a decent man drawn into the hall of mirrors of superpower spycraft. In reaction, he worries and consults the I Ching, looking for a path out of the maze. Rudolph Wegener's role is expanded and reworked in the show, depicting him as a true believer who has come to deeply regret his youthful actions, only to be punished for his regret by his political masters.
The real standout of the antagonists, however—indeed of the whole show—is Rufus Sewell's Obergruppenführer John Smith. An American collaborator who rose to high rank in the American branch of the SS, Smith is introduced as a fearsome interrogator and a devoted family man who has seemingly internalized all the values of Nazism. However, events of the series put increasing pressure on him, from the illness of his son, to the betrayal of his old friend Wegener, to the power struggles inside the Nazi Party becoming an increasing threat to life and limb. Sewell plays Smith as a man who has tried to become a decent human being under an alien worldview, only to begin suspecting that such a compromise may ultimately be impossible.
However, the fact that a character like Smith could gain the sympathy of the audience in spite of being an unrepentant Nazi lays bare the deeper problem of The Man in the High Castle: its treatment of Nazism. In Dick's original novel, Nazism is an enigmatic horror. The fact that there are no openly Nazi characters, and no scenes set in the American territories under the sway of the Reich, only made the success and power of the movement all the more of a mystery. Much of the book is taken up with speculation about the nature of the Nazi mind by the cast, with many coming to the conclusion that Nazism is a cancerous nullity, a lifeless expansion of nothingness that will not rest until all of humanity is consumed. While Dick may have found the depiction of a mind that wholly identified with such ideas too repulsive to do it proper justice, it could be argued that his depiction of the petty, insecure antiques dealer Robert Childan was his attempt at depicting the neurotic crucible of the Aryan consciousness. (Childan [Brennan Brown] himself appears in the show in a plotline that replicates his arc in the novel, but the change of context and lack of access to his inner thoughts leave him as an anomaly, a character who appears in the show because he appeared in the book.)
Now, no one historical interpretation can last forever, and the writers and producers are perfectly within their rights to reinterpret Nazism for the modern era. Indeed, Dick's interpretation relies on a psychoanalytical approach that has long since fallen out of favor. However, The Man in the High Castle's handling of Nazism is so pedestrian that it calls into question whether the writers understood anything they were writing about. Throughout most of the show, "Nazism" seems to be interchangeable with "authoritarianism," a pernicious confusion that seems to be ineradicable from modern liberal-democratic thought. When the Nazis of the show speak, they do not talk of Jewish contamination or Aryan glory or of bloodlines, but of duty and the state. There is none of the wildness, of the irrationalism and unchecked energy that characterized the National Socialism we remember. Even the show's depiction of violence seems off: Nazism, from first to last, was characterized by the cult of cruelty, but the show struggles with handling that aspect. On the smaller moments, like the revelation that a "snowfall" is an ash cloud from a nearby hospital incinerating its incurable patients, the show excels, but when the time comes to show honest, horrific cruelty, it always resorts to half measures, assuming a prisoner being beaten or a pile of long-dead bodies will do the job. When Frank's sister and her children are gassed, they are poisoned with a new variety of Zyklon gas that leaves their bodies serene and pure, rather than bloated and twisted in agony. The most pungent slur any Nazi can muster for a Jew is a halfhearted "semite." Meanwhile, in the Pacific States, the Japanese authorities pick Americans off the street, brutalize them, and dump their bodies in pits in the woods, yet none of the main characters seem particularly afraid of them, or exhibit any of the behaviors common to people living under a police state.
Now, the reason for this failure of nerve can only be guessed. Certainly an argument could be made that, in the year of 2016, Western society has moved far enough away from the Second World War that the rationales and mindsets of that time are passing from memory, and that we as a society are starting to see the Nazis more as a generic image than a particular evil. However, a counter-argument to this can be provided in, of all things, a video game. Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by Machine Games and published by Bethesda Softworks in 2014, which I have written about elsewhere, took the venerable shooter franchise into alternate history, setting the game in a 1960 where the Third Reich has conquered the northern hemisphere due to super-science. The game cribs a great deal of its setting from Dick's novel, and while the game is pitched more towards high action, it does slow down enough to consider the nature of Nazism, borrowing from Dick the idea of mindless growth and exterminationist colonialism, and has its own take on the nature of Nazi sadism. Strange as it may sound, Wolfenstein takes Nazism far more seriously than Amazon's The Man in the High Castle.
It is unclear where the show will go at this point. Most of the book's plotlines were covered in the first season, and the last episodes hint at incursions into and from other timelines. Still, while the show has shown improvement in properly using its most interesting characters and in determining how to craft compelling drama, the simple fact is that there is no clear idea of what the show is or what the endgame is going to be. The show has been renewed for another season, but at this point there is no reason to suspect it will depart from the wheel-spinning and irritating young people of its first. For now, it seems that The Man in the High Castle is another story, like so many of Dick's, that works better on the page than on the screen.