The Man in the High Castle Season 1: A masterclass in world-building and what-ifs
Ivan Radford | On 14, Dec 2016Reading time: 10 mins
With Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle on the way, we look back at the final episodes of Season 1. Warning: This contains spoilers.
“A wise man once said to me, fate is fluid, destiny is in the hands of man,” says Rudolph Wegener as The Man in the High Castle comes to a close. The fact that he’s saying it to Adolf Hitler only adds to the weight of it.
Yes, that’s where the end of Season 1 of Amazon’s gripping, fascinating, disturbing alt-history thriller takes us – all the way to the top of the Reich, in more ways than one. From there, it’s possible to really admire just how gigantic this world is. Ever since its opening episode, with its jaw-dropping shot of Time Square, world-building has been the biggest strength of the series, creating something creepily believable and wonderfully immersive. It dares to ask the question “What if?” – and then it answers it too. But the very act of world-building is precisely what the people within this world are doing; Imperial Japan and the Reich are both crafting their empires amid an unseen Cold War, determined to stop the people on the ground asking that same question.
“Take this,” Juliana was told way back at the start of the show, as she was handed a film reel by someone in the resistance. “What is it?” she asked. “It’s a way out,” came the reply.
The mystery surrounding the film reels has only grown as the season has continued, a puzzle that’s as ambiguous as the Nazis we see on screen. Rufus Sewell has been key to that, his Obergruppenführer John Smith becoming more complex and nuanced with every minute he spends on screen. Compared to his recent role in ITV’s Victoria, the actor’s as unrecognisable and versatile as he is relentless charming. (Read our interview with him here.)
He has the intimidating air of a man who knows everything. “I know you’ve been lying to me,” Smith informs his double-agent, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). “Tell me about the girl.”
The girl, of course, is Juliana Craine (Alexa Davalos), who’s sucked into the resistance and whose relationship with Joe continues to blossom, much to the displeasure of her husband, Frank (Rupert Evans). But Sewell, undoubtedly the most menacing man in a cardigan since Tom Hardy in Lawless, increasingly emerges as uncertain as the rest of them.
He’s summoned by Heydrich to go hunting, where he’s informed that the Fuhrer is weak and Heydrich plans to depose him. Smith is cautious, not just because he’s loyal, but because he’s unsure about where this path is leading.
“If I don’t come back alive,” he tells his wife. “Don’t let that man near our children.” That’s the kind of detail that humanises his Nazi enforcer so horrifyingly well. Smith’s son, we learn, has a congenital disorder, which means that he’ll get weaker and weaker until he dies – a brief glimpse of him falling down the stairs at home is the kind of innocuous example that reinforces the relatable day-to-day nature of it all. The thing is, as we learned early on, the Reich will kill the infirm without a second thought. Smith’s brother suffered as a child in a wheelchair; he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his son.
When Heydrich arrives to take Rudoph Wegener into custody, as punishment for selling industrial secrets to Japan, we see Rudolph’s family too. His young boy is reading a comic book: “Ranger Reich.” It’s never said out loud, but the programme gently suggests that there’s no difference, in some ways, between us and these characters; they just grew up indoctrinated into a world that was built around different (horribly different) values, whether that’s through law and order or kids’ graphic novels.
Wegener, of course, is Heydrich’s choice of assassin to dispose of Adolf, who’s getting older and more frail by the day. As the narrative comes to a head, Season 1 should be speeding up, becoming stripped down to race towards a climax, but The Man in the High Castle does the opposite: it continues to pause and make things more nuanced and more emotional. A sequence where Rudolph puts on his uniform one last time with pride is soundtracked by A Town Without Pity. “People talk about how bad we are,” sings Gene Pitney in the background. But by the time we’re in a cabin in the woods with Smith held at gunpoint by Heydrich, we’re firmly on his side – we think of Smith as a good guy. And he is. He’s just also a Nazi. Compare that to Heydrich, who, as Smith notes, says he does his work for the glory of the Reich, but clearly enjoys what he does. In this world, there’s loyalty to the fatherland, and there’s taking things too far. And the most chilling thing is that we can appreciate that distinction – a fact that you don’t realise until you stop playing and step back into our world.
The cabin sequence is nailbitingly tense – hats off to Smallpox director Daniel Percival, who follows The Invitation’s Karyn Kusama and Game of Thrones’ Michael Slovis in helming the three masterful final episodes – as we and Smith (again, the show subtly puts us in his shoes) await to find out what’s happened with Rudolph. If Adolf has been shot, his response to Heydrich will be one thing. If he hasn’t, it will be quite the opposite. Everyone in the room knows this.
That’s where The Man in the High Castle’s first season finds its sharpened narrative point – in the fine line between alternate outcomes that faces every one of its characters. Everyone is constantly making a choice between one future or another, a duality that the writers return to again and again.
Frank, who made a real gun in a factory of fake replicas with the aim of killing Japan’s visiting Crown Prince, chose not to do so – but the Prince was shot at anyway. When his friend, Ed, takes the gun to dispose of it, but gets caught, he ends up becoming the scapegoat for the attempted assassination. Frank, then, is free – but he chooses to go back to the Kempeitai HQ to help Ed. In a world where we sympathise with Smith, Frank is a noble guy doing the right thing, but it only seems to put him on the wrong path. That’s confirmed once again at the end of Episode 9, as he and Juliana finally watch one of the film reels – and discover footage of an alternate San Francisco, where Joe is in an SS uniform and shoots Frank in the head.
Confused, scared and angry, Frank and Juliana confront Joe, but he’s as mystified about the film as they are – there’s a distinction, he insists, between the film Joe and the real Joe. Juliana, Frank and Joe have spent a lot of the show’s first season being relatively blank figures moving around a complicated chess board, conveying ideas rather than necessarily engaging us with them. The pacing surrounding them, too, has sometimes dipped around the mid-season mark. Here, though, they finally burst into life when it counts, as Davalos’ emotional conflict between Evans’ decent husband and Kleintank’s charismatic young outlaw also boils down to choosing whether she believes the film reels are fact or fiction.
Blurring the lines constantly are her job at the Japanese embassy, where she is treated well but also meets her stepfather, Arnold (Daniel Roebuck), who betrayed her sister, Trudy, leading to her death. And, of course, there’s resistance leader Lem, who was meant to meet Trudy way back at the start of the show to collect her film reel, but who only presents himself as a figure of deception, ambushing her once in Episode 3 to get the video and proposing another ambush of Joe in Episode 10. And let’s not forget antiques shop owner Childan (Brennan Brown, off Mozart in the Jungle and those Orange adverts), who is duping the Japanese with fake trinkets, made by Frank – in a world where nothing, yet everything, is real, a wonderfully witty act of subversion.
“I’m not the guy in the film,” Joe insists. “I don’t believe the film, I believe you,” decides Juliana. And so, after she and Frank rescue Joe from the Kempeitai, while also getting back that reel, Joe ends up escaping on a boat meant for her. Their climactic showdown at the docks is decidedly low-key, but is choreographed as suspensefully as the confrontation with the Kempeitai in a nightclub at the end of Episode 8 – accompanied, in another stylish flourish, by hit country song The End of the World, which is performed with Japanese lyrics.
All the while, Japan continues to avoid World War III breaking out with Germany, because they know that they don’t have the technology to match the Reich, even with the help of Wegener’s information and Adolf’s worsening illness. It really would be the end of the world. It’s a goal they, particularly Trade Minister Tagomi, has in common with Smith. Neither of them see Rudolph drive into the Austrian Alps to the Fuhrer’s isolated castle (another piece of stunning production). But what they would witness is scary, indeed, as Rudolph realises that Hitler already knows he’s been sent there to kill him.
How does he know? It might be that he has informants and spies everywhere. But, and here’s the curious part, it might be because he has a massive archive of these film reels gradually filling up his living room. The videos, Hitler tells Wegener, show him “what might have been”, which suggests he understands them in a way many people don’t.
When he asks if Wegener if he believes in destiny, then, it’s a hugely weighted question. “A wise man once said to me, fate is fluid, destiny is in the hands of man,” comes the reply. The Man in the High Castle is a magnificent exploration of the fluidity of fate, always returning to the hands of its characters to decide the world’s destiny. Tagomi, especially in these last episodes, is constantly trying to glimpse what’s in store, or step back through meditation to perceive reality more clearly. The film reels, for Hitler, do the same thing. We know that the eponymous figure of Philip K. Dick’s book is a recluse who collects – and perhaps even makes? – the reels. In his Alpine retreat, is Adolf, in a way, the man in the high castle? Is he collecting the films to learn something about what could happen and then avoid it? The announcement of Stephen Root as playing The Man in Season 2 suggests Hitler’s not literally him, but nonetheless, these reels are potentially a source of power that takes propaganda to mind-boggling levels.
Tagomi, meanwhile, finds his meditation transports him from the show’s alternate history to our 1960s, opening his eyes to find a San Francisco where the Allies won WWII. Has he really jumped between dimensions? And if so, can the film reels achieve the same thing? Episode 10’s title tantalisingly takes us back to Juliana in the very first episode. The Man in the High Castle Season 1 is an epic feat of world-building. It’s a world that’s hauntingly real and endlessly provocative, confirming Amazon Studios as bold storytellers to rival Netflix in the prestige TV stakes. Its ambitious cliffhanger dares to ask one more big question: what if there really is a way out? Season 2 can’t come soon enough.
The Man in the High Castle Season 2 premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 16th December. All 10 episodes of Season 1 are available to watch online now, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you also want free next-day delivery and access to Spotify rival Prime Music, a full £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.