Remains To Be Seen
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Based on Philip K. Dick’s fantastic book of the same name, The Man in the High Castle was shuffling around on the adaptation table so to speak before Amazon piped in and put in a fairly decent bid for the show (the budge is evident from the production value standpoint). In this world, the Allies lost World War II when bombs were dropped on Washington and other allied capitals. The United States was then divided up between Germany and Japan. Berlin created the Greater Nazi Reich that stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and Japan created the Pacific States of American. Between the two lies a neutral zone, comprised largely of the Rocky Mountain states that stretches from the Canadian to the Mexican border. Revisionist history is always a tricky feat to pull off, primarily because we already know how everything turns out and creating legitimate narrative tension from that point on is tremendously difficult. Thankfully Dick’s story is a rich and deeply fulfilling one, where thematic depth is not forsaken for the sake of cheap and unduly earned thrills. The Amazon pilot is not as deep as the book, but it is a pilot and I certainly don’t expect it to hit all of the social commentary in the book within its first hour (if it was a film, that would be a different case).
While being a solid and entertaining hour in and of itself, the pilot suffers from something an overwhelming majority of pilots suffer from – overstuffing. There are several characters and plots that move along at an almost ridiculous speed so the episode can reach its admittedly tantalizing cliffhanger. In one sense, it’s certainly understandable that the creators of the show don’t want to stretch things out, but most reasonably there is at least three episodes’ worth of material crammed into one. This is where a more traditional pilot pick-up might have helped the series, with a season order allowing it to tell the story it wants to within a reasonable time frame without worrying fastidiously of whether or not it will be picked up for an actual season or not. With the Amazon system, perhaps there was pressure to ensure that there was a ton of material there so people would be enticed enough to give it a higher rating and thus add to the persuasion that Amazon should pick it up for a full season. If they do (and I hope so, there’s quite a bit of promise here), I hope the show feels free to let things simmer for a bit and the characters to develop more without throwing in the obligatory cliffhanger.
The show’s narrative is largely split between the two American halves in the Nazi capital of New York and the Japanese capital of San Francisco, which already creates a larger narrative scope for the show as the book largely remains within the Japanese Pacific States. For the first hour, the character arcs are split into three distinct sections, with two of them coalescing towards the end for that delicious cliffhanger. Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) is a woman living in San Francisco who finds life under Japanese control to be rather ordinary with her boyfriend Frank as she has known little else since the war ended. Her mother, on the other hand, finds that ease to be nothing less than treason as her husband and Juliana’s father had died in the war. Easily the character who undergoes the most drastic change, Juliana’s trajectory truly begins when she found out that sister had secretly joined the Resistance and had a copy of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as a means of puncturing the propaganda of the Axis governments. Within the show, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a clever mark where it is a story of the Allies winning the war and was rumored to have been produced by someone known as the Man in the High Castle. Trudy is discovered and shot dead, a tragic event that spurs Juliana to pick up her cause. It is an integral plot line that shines in places but is largely and to its detriment, undercooked. We barely see Trudy for longer than five minutes before her death is supposed to ring as an unprecedented tragedy.
The narrative that easily is the most intriguing is the Cold War that Japan and Germany find themselves embroiled in. Italy (in the book, the show hasn’t gotten there yet) largely takes the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern area, down to the Horn of Africa which makes sense considering how little the country was thought of by its allies. The rest of the world is largely spit between Berlin and Tokyo and with those two remaining superpowers, a different sort of Cold War has erupted. Both powers are waiting with baited breath for the inevitable demise of Adolf Hitler. The German leadership is jostling for power and the belief is that using the bomb on Japan is the way to securing global domination and cementing the victor’s power. It’s a complex little piece of geopolitical maneuvering that bristles with the most promise for the show, edging out the shot of the undercover Nazi spy who comes into contact with Juliana in the Neutral Zone. Within that great final shot, however, is a bit of a question mark for the show. Subtlety is easily the weakest point of The Man in the High Castle that has the unfortunate potential of easily derailing its entire narrative structure if the show remains committed to telling and not showing. The aforementioned pace is a bit of a hurdle and the dialogue at places is simply atrocious, reminiscent of those awful monologues that villains have right before they’re defeated in the midst of their triumph. Key note: having a Nazi officer detail his plan right before we see it unfold is not good storytelling and is frankly baffling. But the world-building is sharp, the production design is fantastic, and the slightly clunky narrative is intriguing enough to warrant a return to this world.
Title: Pilot (The Man in the High Castle)
Written By: Frank Spotnitz and Howard Brenton
Directed By: David Semel
Image Courtesy: Borg