WARNING: This article contains significant spoilers for season 1 of The Man in the High Castle. If you intend to watch the series, or haven’t yet watched it to the end, I suggest you come back later.
First a quick recap; TMitHC explores 1960s America in a world where Nazi Germany won WWII. East-coast and middle America are now the Greater Nazi Reich, the West coast has become the Japanese Pacific States and a lawless neutral zone lies between them. Resistance fighters on both the East- and West-coasts chase down propaganda films, showing newsreel footage of an alternative history (our own) where the Nazis forces were defeated, which they give to the eponymous castle-dweller in exchange for valuable intelligence. Meanwhile the Nazis themselves pursue the same films, as Hitler (aged and nearing death) is obsessed with them.
There’s so much about the series that is good. Sure, the pace sags a little in the middle and, in a world where people are routinely killed by the state on a whim, the central characters seem to lead charmed lives, but the cliff-hangers alone make it difficult to resist watching all 10 hours in a back-to-back marathon.
Visually it’s fantastic, there are no huge historical gaffs (although a moment’s thought would lead you to conclude that it’s unlikely that Nazis would refer to the atomic bomb as ‘the Oppenheimer device’) and some of the acting is superb; Rufus Sewell is especially worthy of note here, for his doubly chilling role as Obergruppenführer John Smith, both the face of Nazi evil and all-American family man.
If this sounds like the sort of thing you’d enjoy then I suggest you go back and re-read the warning at the start of this article. Last chance.
The big problem with the series, that drove me mad time and again, is selective omniscience.
The rot sets in from episode 1, when Smith dismisses a tortured resistance member’s plausible lie by telling him that he already knows about the next film and where it is headed.
Later on we find out that Smith knows this because Joe Blake, the courier for the precious film, is his protégé. Except, at this point, Joe hasn’t contacted Smith and doesn’t yet know what he’s carrying…and if Smith knew in advance that Joe had a film why didn’t he arrange for the SS to collect it from him? Why send Joe into land the Nazis don’t control, carrying a film towards the resistance, when Smith could have taken the reel, given him a fake and not had to risk the valued film?
Let’s not get hung up on that one case, though, as, time and again throughout the series people know things just because it advances the plot for them to do so.
Both Smith and Inspector Kido (and, it’s implied, Adolf Hitler) know about the plot between Trade Minister Tagomi and Rudolph Wegener to give Japan the ‘Oppenheimer device’…a plot that, so far as we ever see, involves exactly 2 people, is known to pretty much everybody (it’s also ridiculous, who thought a reverse pick-pocket at a hugely public event was a better idea than Tagomi just walking up to the science minister and saying, “A Nazi contact give me these”?)
Smith also knows that Joe may be keener on the resistance than he’s letting on and knows which of his secret files Joe will try to read (based on a label on a film reel that Smith never saw).
Hitler, meanwhile, quite aside from apparently playing the resistance off against his own storm-troopers (a move that can only make it harder to get the films he wants) knows about Heydrich’s plan to have him assassinated to the level that he’s happy to have the assassin get within 20 feet of him, and furnish him with a loaded gun, and can also get a sniper ready outside the exact remote forest hut to which Heydrich happens to take Smith.
The Yakuza are also all-seeing. They known exactly who to kill and rob to get the final film (after Smith had passed off his knowledge of its existence so nonchalantly that I honestly thought it was a rumour he was making up to draw out the resistance), they knew the name of the Nazi sniper who shot that the Crown Prince, they even knew which door of the club/whorehouse Joe and Juliana would run out of when pursued by the police. Although their crystal ball may have been on the fritz when they decided to let an unknown man waltz into their HQ to speak to the head Yaku without bothering to pat him down for weapons.
Literally anywhere that the forces of overwhelming authority need to be rolled into action they just happen to know what they need to know to put them in the right place at the right time…and that sort of lazy writing sucks all of the fun out of the series.
The resistance are obviously out-gunned, and I want to see them survive and fight backs with their wits and guile. If their enemy is going to just know their plans to set up a good cliff-hanger then what do I care?
The machinations with the Nazi ranks are no less interesting, and watching Smith piece together who set up the ambush on him was excellent, why put any less effort into him tracking down the films and rounding up the resistance?
(And keep it consistent – Smith pushes one of his subordinates off a building and has it chalked up to suicide without breaking sweat. If senior Nazis make the law then why go to the trouble of ambushing him in the first place?)
I know I’m going to watch the 2nd season when it appears, but when so much effort and thought has gone into imagining a world where Germany won WWII why fob us off with so little of either in terms of character motivation and knowledge?