Review by C.J. Bunce
Philip K. Dick‘s The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, and is widely considered his best work. Some of his 44 novels and 121 short stories have been adapted to film, including 10 in the past year in the series Electric Dreams (previously reviewed here at borg), and big screen films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Next, A Scanner Darkly, and Screamers. None of those better reflect the depth of Philip K. Dick’s genius than the Amazon television series The Man in the High Castle. Season 3 is available this month on Amazon Prime’s streaming service. In his novel the series is based on Dick delved into the science fiction trope of the alternate history, a parallel world showing a view of a different 1960s after World War II. Often mislabeled as merely a story where Nazis won the war, the fact is the novel focuses substantially on the shared Japanese victory and the resulting assimilated culture in the United States some 20 years later. Series director Daniel Percival and a host of other directors and writers expand upon the novel–and the parallel world–into something much bigger, and something much greater. To call The Man in the High Castle a loose adaptation of the novel is a disservice–the series conjures the spirit of Dick’s unique vision faithfully and one can imagine Dick endorsing the expanded elements were he still with us. The novel is always the backbone of the series (even in this third season’s fifth episode “The New Colossus” viewers are brought back to a cornerstone scene from the novel). As with Dick’s book, the series is an inspired, even noble use of science fiction.
Amazon debuted its film studio potential with the pilot for the series in January 2015, followed that November by the first season, developing not only the lead characters in the book–antique dealer Robert Childan (Brennan Brown) and Japanese Pacific States trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa)–important secondary characters are expanded, too, including struggling jewelry maker Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), his wife (girlfriend in the series) Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) who would venture off to meet the mysterious title character (Stephen Root), their friend and co-worker Ed McCarthy (D.J. Qualls), Nazi spy Joe Blake aka Joe Cinadella (Luke Kleintank), and the enigmatic Nazi attaché Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard). Added to these eight characters by series creator Frank Spotnitz are former U.S. soldier-turned rising Nazi officer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) and his family, Inspector Kido–a cold and ruthless Japanese enforcer (Joel de la Fuente), and Nicole Dörmer (Bella Heathcote), a rising propaganda director. The characters were fleshed out in 2016 in the show’s second season, with chemistry among the cast, plus high stakes life-and-death risks that raised doubt that viewers’ favorite characters will survive from episode to episode–all reason to keep coming back for more. With this new season, viewers have now been able to examine the tentacles of a Fascist state as it infiltrates and annihilates both the average worker and the ruling elite–nobody really wins, everyone loses. Historical parallels to the real world are left for the viewer’s interpretation.
Through Sewell’s Smith we see the inevitable doom awaiting everyone under a Fascist regime–that even the leaders aren’t exempt from application of their code of terror and hatred (Smith as a top official still lost his son for his “inferior” DNA via a genetic anomaly), from Frank Frink we see the struggle to survive for any member of the citizenry who is not of the “preferred” race, through Joe Cinadella (aka Joe Blake) we see how quickly a Nazi can be brainwashed into disregarding life, through Wegener we see the difficulty of defiance and resistance against a giant, stifling regime in power, through Dörmer we see the arrogance and cost of hubris, from Kido we see that torment and terror under an autocratic regime knows no bounds, Childan illustrates the complacency of a detached, disengaged middle class, through Tagomi we see the struggle of a single peacemaker among a field of lunatics, and through Juliana and Ed we see the possibility of hope through commitment and determination–but will they succeed or fail?.
Despite the fact that the parallel history story alone qualifies as science fiction, the novel includes the concept of travel between worlds–a second sci-fi trope–and in Season 3 the series expands on that substantially. The final episode, “Jahr Null (Year Zero),” includes a set inspired by 1960s sci-fi films for a Josef Mengele (John Hans Tester) led time portal experiment. Minor upgrades from the novel, such as swapping the key MacGuffin–a book chronicling a parallel history–for a set of films, only add to the effectiveness and believability of the series. Historical costume work by Catherine Adair is fantastic (the show could be viewed side-by-side with any 1960s movie), Drew Boughton‘s production design really expands the story this season with iconic re-creations and new locations, and Domenic Lewis provides an intense, riveting soundtrack.
Davalos develops a memorable heroine this season. Tagawa gets one of the year’s best scenes during a dinner scene and continues as one of television’s best acting talents. Sewell brings gravitas to the series for the third year. Chelah Horsdal‘s Helen Smith, once a regal elite, sinks deeper into depression after her son’s death at the end of Season 2. Dörmer gets a multi-faceted story arc putting her in the driver’s seat for the future of the show. And Jason O’Mara brings a performance that conjures the heroic swagger of John Wayne in The Searchers with his new Season 3 character Wyatt Price, a former U.S. soldier turned smuggler. Hopefully Price gets an even bigger role next season.
Dick was a genius plagued with the effects of drug abuse taking a toll on his writing later in his career. But his best works are speculative, immersive, multi-layered, vivid, and thought-provoking, and Amazon’s series fits the bill.
All ten episodes of Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle are available now here on Amazon Prime. The go-ahead for Season 4 happened in July and the season is being developed now, likely to air in 2020. Philip K. Dick’s novel is always highly recommended for borg.com readers, available here at Amazon.