Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is built on an ambitious fiction. The Nazis and the Japanese fascists have won World War II and now (1962) divide the territory of the United States, or most of it, between them. There is a resistance based in the so-called Neutral Zone, a strip roughly along the crest of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico, where neither occupying power rules.
As the series opens, we meet Joe, a young man from New York, who wants to join the resistance, and is given the assignment of driving a truck to the Neutral Zone. Joe, however, is a Nazi agent, and his truck mission is actually set up by the Nazis. The truck’s cargo, he discovers, is a 16-mm film consisting of short WWII newsreel clips showing the Allied victory, contrary to the film’s scenario.
The scene then shifts to San Francisco, in the Japanese occupation zone, where we meet Juliana and her live-in boyfriend Frank. Juliana, a quiet clerical sort, turns out to be a black belt in aikido who regularly trashes opponents twice her size in the dojo where she practices. She sees her half-sister Trudy shot by the Japanese secret police, but before she dies, Trudy passes another can of film to Juliana and tells her to take it to a small town in the Neutral Zone — the same destination as Joe coming from the East. So Joe and Trudy meet and in the course of various adventures, an attraction forms between them, but without carnal consummation.
Gradually we learn that the strategy of this so-called resistance is to pass these newsreel movies — origin unknown — to the chief of the resistance in the Neutral Zone, the “man in the high castle.” What this unseen man does with the movies and how this helps the resistance is never explained.
Meanwhile, to distract us from the obtuseness of this central plot line, there are various subplots centering around the Nazis’ plan to attack Japan and take over the whole of North America as soon as Hitler dies. Hitler is the pacifist, got that?
The Japanese Trade Minister turns out to be a sentimental fool who gives Juliana a confidential inside job in his office even though she is wanted by the Japanese secret police. There is a subplot involving the attempted assassination of the Japanese crown prince, in which Frank is a key suspect. Yet another subplot involves a Nazi officer who passes the secret of the German atom bomb to the Japanese, then tries to assassinate Hitler but ends up committing suicide. In the process we see, at the end, that the man in the high castle is Hitler himself at a Schloss in Austria, who spends his time watching the movies (origin unknown) that the so-called resistance in the US delivers to an unseen resistance chief in the Rockies.
At the end, the lovable Japanese trade minister, clutching a little brass heart necklace belonging to Juliana, goes to sleep on a park bench and then wakes up in the “real” universe as we know it in 1962 on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. This ending suggests that the whole Nazi-Japanese occupation scenario was only the trade minister’s dream. It is a weak and arbitrary ending, a Hollywood cop-out.
Philip K. Dick, whose book is the basis of the story, is a science fiction writer, and he’s of course entitled to create fantastical universes. But the suspension of disbelief to which writers of fiction are entitled has its limits. The map of the United States that leaves a huge north-south strip of territory unoccupied — from Montana to Colorado to Arizona — violates the characteristic behavior of both of these occupying powers. No such strip was left in the division of Europe, and no reason appears in the plot why it was left here. Naturally, this unoccupied or free territory would be the base of a resistance.
But what kind of resistance is this, whose main activity appears to be smuggling movies into the Rocky Mountains — movies that apparently end up in Hitler’s castle in Austria? If the movies came from a clandestine studio in the Neutral Zone and the work of the resistance were to distribute and show them in underground theatres in the occupied cities, it would make sense. But neither in the plot nor in the development of the main characters is there the kind of logic, drive and passion that would make one love them. Juliana starts strong but in the end her crush on Nazi agent Joe leads her to betray the resistance and save Joe’s life, at the peril of her own and Frank’s. Frank stumbles from one disaster to another without ever rising above confusion. There are minor characters in the resistance who show heroism, but they remain marginal to the story. The characters who get the most lines and whose internal conflicts — the stuff that makes fictitious characters three-dimensional and worthy of our empathy — are Nazis and Japanese bureaucrats.
The basic conceit here, namely what America would look like if the fascists had won World War II, makes for poignant anecdotes. Thus Joe in his truck is stopped by a kind-hearted country sheriff wearing the swastika. Later Joe is a guest at his Obergruppenführer John Smith’s house on the occasion of VA day (get it?) and we meet his lovely family looking just like Ozzie and Harriet greeting neighbors with Sieg Heil. There’s a moving scene of Jewish survivors saying secret prayers, Mostly, everyday life in occupied America in 1962 seems pretty much the same as it was without the foreign symbolism. The series might be suggesting that an America occupied by Nazi powers in 1962 would be little different than it actually was. That’s a point that’s been made more or less explicitly by others in view of the country’s experience in the McCarthy years, but The Man in the High Castle hints at no such topical reference. Ultimately, the whole historical fiction is vacant, an idle conceit exploited for its superficial shock value. Watching it was a waste of time.