Something I started doing around Episode 2 of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” was writing down the names of songs I recognized. Because every time I did recognize a song, it was an unexpected shock to the system. Not because I’m ignorant of American music pre-1962, but because the series, based on the book by Philip K. Dick, is built on the concept of an alternate America, one ruled by Germany and Japan after they won World War II. It’s a very different world, in many respects, one with citizens living in fear of fascist rule, but it’s also a world that has Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” playing on a record player near the end of Episode 2.
How does “Strange Fruit,” a controversial 1939 blues standard about lynchings in the South, still survive to be heard? How did Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World” (1962) still get written in this new world, but this time in Japanese? What’s the story there? The songs picked are just some of the rich and impressive details of “High Castle” that you want to dig into and unpack because, like so much layered into the series written by Frank Spotnitz (“The X-Files”) and produced by Ridley Scott, there’s a clear sense that nothing happens by accident.
“High Castle” is set in an America split into territories belonging to the Germans and Japanese, where its citizens have relatively stable lives with low unemployment and crime. However, eugenics programs are active, being Jewish is a crime punishable by death and a resistance movement is growing; something Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans) find themselves ensnared in when Juliana is given a mysterious film strip to protect.
Meanwhile, the alliance between Germany and Japan may be in danger, as both Nazi officials (including American Obergruppenführer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell) and Japanese (such as trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) navigate the delicate balances of power both within and between their respective governments. The one commonality between all of them: Survival is not something to take for granted in this world.
It’s an exciting premise with huge breadth and ambition, but “High Castle’s” biggest flaw is, perhaps, also that. The series features a sprawling ensemble cast and set of locations, and while no one feels particularly under-served, anyone in search of an emotional hook into this world might struggle. Juliana and Frank feel like our best window, but there’s simply so much happening that their stories don’t really feel fully serviced.
This isn’t to say that this show lacks a human touch. There are plenty of great character moments scattered across storylines. Many of them are tied to some truly dark tragedy, including a few deaths that are real kicks in the gut. Sewell especially shines as a powerful cog in an evil machine. One of his more intimate scenes, an otherwise prosaic doctor’s appointment that takes a horrifying turn, is perhaps one of the season’s most haunting moments.
Again, the details are what make this show so interesting. And it’s not just the Easter eggs planted for X-Philes (like Lariat Trucking) or fans of other Ridley Scott/Philip K. Dick properties (origami, anyone?). It’s the way the show commits so completely to creating a sense of an entirely different culture built from familiar elements. From a housewife folding laundry while watching sumo wrestling to a Nazi official dressed like Rob Petrie in his suburban home, “High Castle” takes our familiarity with this time period (thanks, “Mad Men”!) and turns it into a constant onslaught of cognitive dissonance.
It’s worth celebrating the fact that alternate universes, as a sci-fi trope, aren’t too often utilized in a serious way on TV. The Fox series “Fringe” made them a cornerstone of the storyline, “Star Trek” had its Mirror Universe narrative — which stretched across the franchise’s five decades on and off the air — and others have dabbled. But alternate universes are always some place to escape from, rather than home base — the way they are here. Committing so fully to a world just different enough from ours makes the show a thrill to watch — especially when you get to the end of Season 1, and the full possibilities lurking here explode.
In the end, the idea of “Man in the High Castle” may be better than the actual show. But it’s a damn good idea.
“The Man in the High Castle” Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
READ MORE: Nazis, New Worlds and Surprising Heart: Get Excited for Amazon and Ridley Scott’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’