As a history nerd, this show has everything you would want for a premise. Any history buff worth their salt has tried to imagine a world where the Axis didn’t mess up the Second World War. What might the world have been like? What would have changed?
Well, here we have one answer in The Man in High Castle, inspired from the 1962 novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. The premise is great; the Nazis manage to get atomic weaponry first and fire on Washington DC, which defeats the Allies and allows for a counter invasion of US soil, leading to the occupation of the Eastern and Western United States by Germany and Japan respectively.
That’s an amazing premise for a story, and just to be clear, I’m not usually a contrarian. I can easily get excited about things and have no trouble finding immersion even in things most people don’t like (take Man of Steel or instance). Suspension of disbelief comes easily to me, I like to enjoy the media I consume.
So take it from me when I say The Man in High Castle is a pretty great premise made crappy by a menagerie of robots pretending to be human
I will concede that I have only seen the first episode and the beginning of the second episode in full, but I have no desire to watch anymore. I’ve read plenty of reviews that have said it gets better as you get later into the season, that the characters start to come into their own and their plots become more involved. I may only be twenty five, but I don’t have that kind of time to wait. So in order to spare others like myself the pain of having to try and enjoy this study in bland, allow me to educate you on the happenings of the first episode leading in ton the second and why I feel whoever else wrote this show should be banned from writing anything else until they’ve learned their lesson.
There were things I did enjoy about the show. I thought it was shot well, I know why they added the muted colors so it seemed more like the past and the settings seemed more bleak and ran together. I will say that for those living in occupied Europe during the war, especially in the Axis countries that were happy to be under Nazi or Japanese leadership, the world wasn’t all that dark. We only imagine that way because we see the war in black and white, a limitation of film records of the time. But I can’t help but think that with all of the Nazi flags and symbols of the regime that the world would have been a colorful and vibrant place. I think that might have created even more of the contrast they were looking for in presenting a United States dominated by foreign powers. It wouldn’t have been this nightmare land, the cruel part is it would have been colorful and felt alive, even though there was dissonance within.
The show is very cinematic. I enjoy the way it was shot, I think there’s a good, tense composition that helps supply the theme of the show. Tension, danger around every corner. It really fit what the show was going for.
A well shot show cannot make up for weak characters and shoddy acting. There’s only a handful of characters that at least attempt to be believable, and it’s mostly the Japanese and Nazis, people we’re not supposed to like. All of the main characters come off robotic and stiff, like if the animatronics from the Hall of Presidents tried to recreate real television. I’ve watched the episode twice now, and I have compiled all of my grievances here to explore. It’s a fairly long list, so in my kindness I’ve divided some points into two parts. I shall now present part one of my discontent
First off, where’s my diversity? There’s Japanese, sure, but none of them are the main characters, only villains. That’s not diversity. The show is racist in the kind of way they imagine people would be had they been taken over by the Axis, kind of like listening to your grandfather talking about fighting in the Pacific and how he may describe it. Slurs get tossed around, and although it is true that there were would be some resentment, it seems a little forced when everyone is using it(I thought they were supposed to have no rights? Talking like that would probably be considered seditious and if someone heard you, you would probably be arrested and just disappear. Why would you risk it?). Other than that, all of the main characters (Jules, Frank, and Joe) are white. If you’re going to make the argument that because it’s Nazi America that there isn’t any African Americans, Latin Americans or other nationalities, that’s a weak excuse. There still appear to be Jews and African Americans living in the neutral zone or under the occupation, there is no reason that none of those people would have a less interesting story to tell in this new world. The ones being told for the all white cast are certainly boring enough to supplant.
The opening isn’t as dumb as the end for me, but it’s still pretty dumb. I understand that the long title given to the Nazi general is a legitimate rank, but every time someone says it, it takes me out of the whole show. It’s so distracting to hear people trying to say that whole word seriously that it just makes me laugh.
There’s this kid that hits on Jules in the very beginning, and literally says, “Oh my boyfriend made me this necklace,” to which he actually replies, “Oh… Would you like to get some tea sometime?” I get that you can have friends of the opposite gender, I have several, but the kid’s thirst is real. It’s pretty annoying. This kind of interaction happens a lot in this show. It’s the kind of silly interaction that allows for something very specific to happen later. The whole show is very contrived, nothing that happens feels natural. It all has to be so precise, but it’s played off as though what happens is just kind of coincidence. Well I don’t buy it; the whole plot just feels forced when it doesn’t have to be.
So Jules is where a lot of the intrigue happens, and it’s with her I see the most inconsistencies. I’m sure Alexa Davalos is a fine actress, but her portrayal of Juliana is like an alien trying to fit in among earthlings
Why does she have this British accent and her family is American? There’s some talk of an “accident” that gets no explanation to try and bait us into watching more just so we can try and learn more about her boring backstory. The ploy is cheap and transparent, and it makes me think the script is too lazy. If it was interesting, there would be no problem in revealing everything outright, so we know about Jules and her struggle. Yet the show decides to leave us confused while baiting us with a future explanation.
She runs into her sister, Trudy (I suppose from the family that she’s staying with, she speak without an accent either). Trudy tells Jules she has a job, which is apparently unexpected, before hugging her sister and telling her, with a cryptic tone, to take care of herself. She runs out of the store with Jules just kind of staring, as though judging whether she should act human or sprout tentacles like they do on her home planet. Why on Earth would you let someone walk away from you after saying something like that, especially if it’s someone you’re close to? I’m no expert on stress and suicide, but I’m pretty sure that’s a flag word for “I’m in deep shit and this might be the last time I see you.” But instead, she’s says nothing and just watches her go, looking confused and unsure of herself
Later that night, Trudy runs into Jules again, literally. She’s being chased by Nazis and hands something off to Jules for safekeeping before running off again. Jules doesn’t have the time to ask what’s wrong before she heads off and is gunned down by Nazis pretty much right in front of Jules. Despite this grisly act of murder, Jules just sort of wanders back to her house to see what Trudy gave her. No tears, no crying. Doesn’t even run to her family to tell them. Just leaves Trudy’s dead body in the street with Nazis to find something better to do. Must not have been much of a sister; that’s kind of cold, Jules.
Unmoved by her sisters untimely death, Jules makes it back to her apartment and discovers that Trudy had rolls of film with her, which she starts to watch on her projector. They turn out to be newsreels from our world, where the Allies won the war, and she immediately knows this fact.
What the actual fuck?
What about these films would lead someone to believe that not only are these reels of the Allies winning, but that they could possibly be real? That’s a huge jump in logic, there are so many other things it could be, which Frank explains when he comes home and she tells him what she found. He says they have something to do with the Man in High Castle, and that they’re propaganda films depicting a different turn of a events for the war, probably to just rabble rouse. Makes perfect sense to me, but Jules is confident that they’re the real deal, no matter how ridiculous that sounds. It’s the 1960s, so twenty years or so after the conflict. Frank and Jules look to be in their mid-twenties, so they wouldn’t have any recollection about the war as it happened. Under a Nazi regime, which is used to twisting information, I really doubt they would have had access to the information about the war, like who the major players and battles were. Just because it’s an important conflict in this world doesn’t automatically make everyone an expert in what happened. What would have been more realistic is if she recognized something, maybe just one thing from the film (maybe the shot of Hirohito surrendering to the US). She’s curious and has to do research to find out what the tapes are, rather than just assuming that they’re exactly what they are because the script says she needs to. It’s just a pitcher full of dumb you have to swallow.
And if she really is going to be such an expert, why doesn’t she explain more of what happened? Because if I was being honest with myself, by now I wasn’t watching for the characters. Instead, I wanted to know more about how they changed history in order to make this happen? The best parts of the show are when they actually open up and explain some of what happened, but this is rare that it leaves you wanting. Here’s a great opportunity for her to show how much she really knows and explain some exposition about what happened. What happened to Russia? Or Italy? Great Britain? There are so many other facets to the war other than they United States, and a premise like this necessitates all of that information. But no, she just knows because she knows things, all right? Everyone in this world is an expert on WWII because it’s different now. Obviously..
So Frank is a Jew in hiding. Makes sense, I’m sure it’s something a lot of Jews had to do to survive. Earlier in the show, he and Jules are talking about raising kids in their screwed up world, and he seems confident they can do it, and openly resentful toward the regime. Great, so he’s onboard to join the revolution right? Well that’s what I thought. Instead he tells Jules she should immediately go to the police and hand the tapes over. Because an evil dictatorship would totally understand a mix-up like that and let them go. Obviously…
Jules says she she will go to the police, Frank leaves. What’s her next play? She literally dumps him right there. Leaves the necklace he gave her in the apartment, packs up her things, and does the opposite of what he told her to do. Not that she can’t have agency and make her own choices, but I thought they had a relationship? They were talking about having kids and staying together, they kiss easy and talk easy. Yet it doesn’t even take a moments hesitation for her to straight up leave him and head out to fight the good fight. How can I root for these characters when they engage none of my emotions
In the last part of the first half, the Nazis capture someone from the resistance and are torturing him for information. The lead Nazi general asks him to confess, which he does to some extent, before saying that he already knew the secret information about where Joe was taking the truck and about what was in it. We figure out why this is later, and it’s still stupid, but they just continue to torture the guy and beat him to death. Their reasoning? We’ll dump the body so the resistance can find it. If it’s beat to Hell, they’ll assume he didn’t talk since he would be less hurt if he had.
I don’t know about anyone else, but if I found the bloody body of someone I was in the resistance with, no matter how injured or uninjured, I would assume the worst. They’re Nazis, remember? They torture people because it’s fun and they have the Saturday Morning Cartoon Villain approach to being an evil organization. That is the dumbest reasoning I have ever heard, but I’m sure it’s going to work in this universe because everything is so forced and fake that it has not make sense for the bullshit plot.
The first half is one thing, but the second half is a whole different kind of beast. Stay tuned for the second part of the breakdown, and bring some ice. It’s going to get hot in here.