Imagine a world in which the Axis powers from WWII won the war. America is now an occupied state — divvied up between the winners. The eastern two thirds of the United States is controlled by the Nazis. The western third is living under Japanese rule.
This is the universe that viewers of The Man in the High Castle will find themselves in when they hit play on the Amazon Prime original series. The first episode has been available for several months, but the rest of the 10-episode first season hits the Internet for binge watching on Friday.
The series is based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. The show picks up in 1962, 15 years after the war ended in 1947. The novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, so here's hoping Amazon doesn't screw it up (doesn't seem to be the case.)
The set design and production are stunning. Subtle and not so subtle changes to iconography that, in reality, signal the hopefulness of the American dream are flipped, some may say bastardized, in a way that gives viewers chills.
The pilot opens with Joe Blake, played by Luke Kleintank, in a movie theater watching a film about the value of work that ends with an American flag, but replacing the stars of the 50 states is a single large swastika. He continues through Times Square to see a swastika front and center framed by the phrases "Work will set you free" and "For the common good."
"Sieg Heil!" punctuates conversations, putting a fine point on how most Americans depicted have learned to adapt to life under their Nazi rulers. Blake, though, is looking for a way into the resistance movement. He finds it and is sent to the neutral zone (roughly the Rocky Mountains) in a truck filled with "good German coffee makers," but not before trouble befalls his comrades.
On the West Coast, Juliana Crain, played by Alexa Davalos, is a model citizen in Japanese-controlled California. She practices aikido, a Japanese martial art, and picks up tea for her ailing mother at the herbalist despite knowing that her father was killed by the Japanese during the war.
She lives with her boyfriend Frank, who is a Jewish artist who creates "degenerate" work. Frank tries to have them live peacefully under the radar, but Crain is driven by a greater force than Frank.
Both Blake and Crain understand that they live under occupation with the knowledge that even if an ailing Adolf Hilter dies of Parkinson's disease, the alternatives of Goebbels or Himmler will not make life any better than it is under Hitler or the Imperial Japanese.
The alternate universe is expertly constructed. The smallest of details build the character of the world and set it apart from our reality. Rather than a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the freeze out is between the Third Reich and Imperial Japan.
The dialog is not the most imaginative, but the sets, design details and thrilling plot make up for it.
Without having read the book, I can say that there is so much room for the series to reimagine the course of history. After watching the pilot I was left craving more. I'm giving myself and you carte blanche to spend your weekend tearing through the series. Maybe then you'll give reading the book a go as well.