The Man In The High Castle: Season One - Online Review
The Man In The High Castle is typical of a lot of Amazon's output. There's an idea here, but the execution is off. Budget, but not quite enough of it. Stars, supplemented by some so-so support. It's a frustrating mix that continues to hold Amazon back behind Netflix's own behemoth. Yes, you'll probably make it to the end of Season One, but you won't do it all in one sitting.
At its best moments, Frank Spotnitz' show follows separately Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Set in an alternative future where Germany has won World War Two and divided the United States into The Greater Nazi Reich in the East a neutral central zone and the Japanese-led Japanese Pacific States in the West, the three characters broadly represents this new world's groups. Smith is a died-in-the-wool Nazi convert, an agent of the Reich whose belief is unquestioning. Stuck in the new world, Juliana is initially a passive observer, slowly graduating to rebel agent. Tagomi meanwhile, aware of his nation's weak position, moves behind the scenes to avoid further war, whilst attempting to follow some sort of honourable code.
In their own way and not consistently throughout the series, each of those three central performers and characters can be compelling. Davalos has the most obvious arc, graduating from passive acceptance of her country's fate to knowledge that something can be done about it, but in her hands Juliana is never a cliche. Her journey has honesty and she, as a character, has agency. She is not just a simple vehicle for the audience to identify with and she doesn't cave in to the whims of the male characters, even when offered the chance. The always watchable Sewell only finds real conflict come the final episodes of this season, but his casting alone is almost enough to convince you that Smith has hidden depths, even when little really happens to him. Tagawa is the standout. Subtly and with great acting heft he levers and plys the behind the scenes machinations, slowly allowing more emotion as we find out more about his personal motivations.
The problems with the show though are quick to emerge whenever any character other than those three are given the focus, most often the case when Spotnitz allows time to be spent with Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) or Sergeant Yoshida (Lee Shorten). Neither performance is great, particularly in Kleintank's case, but the bigger problem is that the characters just don't have much of interest to do. We spend the entire season watching Blake struggle with whether he is American or Nazi, whilst Yoshida has the fairly uninspiring job of winding up Tagomi and finding out just enough during his investigations to advance the plot. Similar problems of both performance and subject afflict other parts of the ensemble, notably Rupert Evans' Frank Frink, though to a much lesser degree which slowly ebbs as Frink finds a genuinely interesting and tragically motivated purpose, not tied to Juliana.
In the final reckoning the show comes up wanting in the pay off for the much-teased idea behind what the filmreels wanted by the titular bloke in the grand domicile actually contain. The reveal purposefully makes no sense in order to sell you on potential answers in Season Two. A particularly dangerous game, especially considering we appear to be flirting with Lost territory.
The Man In The High Castle is streaming on Amazon Instant Video.