There’s a scene in the pilot of Amazon’s newest original drama, “The Man in the High Castle,” that will stick in your mind regardless of whether you choose to continue watching. It involves a routine traffic stop where resistance truck driver Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank, “Gossip Girl”) is stopped by a highway patrolman. The encounter feels normal and neighborly despite the patrolman’s swatstika. Then, out of nowhere, ash starts snowing down on the characters. The highway patrol man explains, in a casual tone, that the ash comes from the hospital where various “undesirables” are being incinerated. The characters then go along with their day.
“The Man in the High Castle,” based on the acclaimed novel by the late Philip K. Dick, represents Amazon’s latest foray into original content, and it does not disappoint. The series comes to us from executive producer Ridley Scott (“The Martian”), whose classic film “Blade Runner” revolutionized science-fiction for the screen and brought Dick’s work to the attention of Hollywood. Since then, the once-ignored author has received a plethora of big-screen adaptations including “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and the criminally underrated “A Scanner Darkly.”
“The Man in the High Castle,” however, represents a huge leap forward in adapting Dick’s work. Free from the restrictions of mainstream feature films, “The Man in the High Castle” is an epic, sprawling dystopia that is one part political thriller and one part horrifying parable of what happens to a nation engulfed by fascism. Though the series does feature many characters connected to the struggle of the resistance — a major but welcome change to the source material — the most unsettling aspect of the series aren’t big set pieces (though there are plenty) but the quiet moments of resignation, where we witness Americans who have moved on with their lives following the most heinous war crimes in human history.
Like all great speculative fiction, “The Man in the High Castle” is as much about today’s world as it is about post-World War II America. In both “The Man in the High Castle” and, unfortunately, our own world as well, challenging authority and people’s personal perceptions is a near-impossible task. The only hope for a better future exists as a series of film reels called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which shows an alternate reality, one where the Allies have won the war. Ironically, it seems the only hope for us to have any meaningful, intelligent discourse is through platforms like “The Man in the High Castle.”
As in the novel, we follow a number of different perspectives, including Juliana (Alexa Davalos, “Clash of the Titans”), a young woman seeking the film reels’ creator, the mysterious Man in the High Castle. On the way, she runs into fellow resistance fighter Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank, “Max”) who may have some secrets of his own.
The series also sees Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (“Mortal Kombat”) as Nobusuke Tagomi, the Trade Minister of the fictional Pacific States of America, whose allegiances lie against the tyranny of the Reich. Tagomi, along with Juliana, are truly the main heroes of the show, and Tagomi’s storyline on the show will hopefully mirror the tremendous arc he goes through in the novel.
Finally, Rupert Evans (“Hellboy”) plays Frank Frink, a half-Jewish factory worker and boyfriend of Juliana whose luck finally runs out after his significant other becomes the target of the SS. Rufus Sewell (“Dark City”) rounds out the cast as Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, whose solid, albeit par for the course performance might be unfairly compared to the Jew Hunter played by Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.”
It’s the world of the “Man in the High Castle” itself, however, which truly stars as the series’ main character. Despite the show’s bleak tone, the cast and crew create a highly engrossing alternate universe that is always believable. In particular, the much freer Japanese territories showcase a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures that reminds American viewers how ignorant the view of the Allies as all-good and the Japanese as equal to the Nazis truly is.
The series has already ignited a great deal of discussion, and for good reason. Despite its genre and its more fantastical elements, “The Man in the High Castle” might be the most political show currently produced. Though some of the characters, notably Tagomi, aren’t given their deserved spotlight in the pilot, the first episode of the “Man in the High Castle” proves that Amazon can stand on its own as a creator of quality content and that the time for challenging, thought-provoking entertainment is far from over.