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‘The Man in the High Castle’ Review: Amazon’s Alternate-History Thriller Is a Beautiful Nightmare

Frank Spotnitz’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick novel is expertly executed

A compulsively compelling series that grows richer and more emotionally nuanced as it gains momentum, “The Man in the High Castle” milks its provocative what-if premise for plenty of smart suspense and subtle shading. Based on Philip K. Dick‘s 1962 dystopian novel that imagined what became of America after Germany won World War II, this Amazon Studios drama crafts its nightmare scenario with consistently imaginative detail, but the show’s real highlight is its deft weaving between storylines, resulting in a nicely paced, endlessly engrossing saga.

Amazon made the first six episodes of the show’s 10-episode run available to critics, a wise move considering that some patience is required for this series’ cumulative power and ambition to sink in. Not that “The Man in the High Castle” doesn’t grab viewers from the start: We open on an alternative 1962 in which the Germans and Japanese have carved up the conquered America between themselves. (The Midwest and East Coast are now the Greater Nazi Reich, while the West Coast has been renamed the Japanese Pacific States, with a Neutral Zone in between.) But with an aging Hitler’s health failing, the brittle truce between the two nations could collapse, leading to new bloodshed.

As gripping as the show’s setup is, setting the stage for plenty of clever and disturbing tweaks on 1960s American life, showrunner Frank Spotnitz foregrounds his diverse characters, letting their personal dramas drive the plot. In San Francisco, the beautiful Juliana (Alexa Davalos) receives a smuggled 16mm film from her half-sister Trudy who’s part of an underground American resistance. After authorities kill Trudy, Juliana hops a bus to complete her sister’s mission, which was to transport the mysterious film to an unknown contact in the Neutral Zone. Meanwhile, Joe (Luke Kleintank), a young New Yorker posing as part of the resistance, is actually working for the Nazis, specifically the icily villainous Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), and his latest orders put him on a collision course with Juliana.

Those are just three of the characters that bring “The Man in the High Castle” to life, as Spotnitz and his writers shift effortlessly between different narrative strands, which also include opaque political machinations being conducted by Japan’s trade minister (a marvelously tight-lipped Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the relentless pursuit of resistance fighters by Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), and the traumatic transformation that befalls Juliana’s pacifist artist boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans) once Kido detains him for questioning. It’s a testament to the show’s skillfulness that when individual characters end up bumping into each others’ storylines, it never feels contrived but, instead, creates a sense of shared destiny that these divergent personalities have all been drawn into the same grand drama in which three nations’ fate hangs in the balance.

Despite the potentially paranoia-inducing subject matter, “The Man in the High Castle” isn’t particularly alarmist or hysterical, the show preferring to let the implications of its conceit slowly descend onto the viewer — much like the silent ashes of the bodies the Nazis have incinerated, which float through the sky in one particularly chilling moment. And because the show is set in 1962, the producers make room for casual critiques of period-specific sexism and bigotry, the twist being that, now, it’s the outsiders who are in the positions of power, not the white Americans.

None of these thematic undertones are presented with thudding obviousness: Even an episode in which John Smith invites Joe into his home to meet his deceptively all-American family manages to make its central point — even sadistic Nazis are people, too — in an offhand, subtle way. Likewise, the performances ground the fantastical premise in realism, with Sewell and de la Fuente first among equals in a cast that expertly keeps their characters’ motivations murky on occasion.

Alongside the show’s disturbing alternative history, the series’ other great hook is the teasing question of the identity of the so-called Man in the High Castle, a shadowy figure who is connected to this 16mm film that, remarkably, contains footage from our reality in which the Allied forces triumphed in World War II. Is this man real? And how does this footage exist if the Axis powers won the war in this alternate reality? Such is the spell that “The Man in the High Castle” weaves that, frankly, those are merely the sixth or seventh most-captivating elements of this crackling series.

“The Man in the High Castle” premieres Friday, Nov. 20 on Amazon.