Monday, 30 November 2015

The Man In The High Castle: Season 1 Review

The Man In The High Castle
Season One
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)


In A Nutshell

Having watched the pilot episode several months ago, I was quietly awaiting the start of the series to be streamed on Amazon. I wasn't OTT with salivating eagerless, but the pilot was undoubtedly very good and well put together. Seeing where this show would go, and if it could possibly keep up the standard, was going to be worth my time I hoped.

So, has it maintained standards?


Episode 2 was right up there with the opening one, as Frank Frink (try saying that ten times quickly) was tortured by the Japanese and his sister's family gassed, in order to get information out of him about his girlfriend Juliana's disappearance. This was a tense and horrific episode on emotional levels, what with Frank's sister knowing exactly what was "going down" and reassuring the kids anyway. Frank's emotions in the jail were about as award winning as things get, not least the aborted firing squad that was stopped at the last moment. With a new show, you don't know who is important and have no concept of who could and couldn't possibly be killed off, so this episode, along with Juliana's struggles in the neutral zone town, were naturally tense and dramatic. For me, episode 2 trumped the pilot episode. Juliana's meeting with her "contact" who turned out to be a Nazi Spy at the very last moment, was a shock reversal for me, although her rescue much less unpredictable. The attack on our senior Nazi official character, John Smith (not very umm, german name?) was also dramatic and quite breathtaking.

Episode 3, sadly, didn't quite continue on in the same vain. Sure, it can't be action and intense drama every week but there were some flat sections this episode for me, not least that the Japanese segments came across as dull, emotionless and somewhat feeling like it was keeping us from all the interesting parts of the show. The tension and concern that they felt regarding the Nazis was clearly evident. Gathering people's true intentions is not easy in this show, and almost feels impossible with the Japanese who maintain great poker like expressions in every scene. However, as things progress over next couple episodes, we do get further emotional and expressionate sentiments from them, not least when the Crown Prince is taken out at the end of episode 4. The drama and fallout from immediately after that shooting is outstanding filming, along with the tension of the Trade Minister and maintaining his secret operative's disguise, actually genuinely making me feel slightly nervous for both their lives. The only slight disappointment perhaps from their whole segments is that the prince isn't at this point in time anything more than severally injured. You'd think two clear shots would have been enough for any assassin to finish someone off!

The emotion at times in this show is unbearable, and at others times always very good. Frank's interactions with his brother-in-law initially tense as hell, although somewhat strangely "friendly" at the latter funeral. It's poor Frank who really gets the most serious of emotional rollercoasters during the opening episodes. Julianna's, notwithstanding her altercations, seems less affected by what she's been through, continuing in episode 5 to search for the answers to behind the tapes, by strolling into her sister's boyfriend's house nochartely. The conversation she has with the lady there, who one assumes is resistance, was rather straightforward, given the whole cloak and dagger stuff we've had her go through previously. Her return home in episode 4 has presented her with probably the most plot convenient transition, with that house visit at Randell's home, and job at Japanese HQ being creamed with her bumping into the Trade Minister in that building. All rather too convenient for me, and certainly very out of place with the twist, turns and rather non-processional like storylines the show has consistently turned out.

Episode 6 and Juliana and Frank squabble like the dysfunctional couple they are, although in some ways at least their relationship makes more sense than Juliana/Joe which I really can't fathom out at all. They've both got their own relationships going on, but seem to be drawn to each other. This isn't going down the Star Wars Luke/Leia thing is it? I really hope not, but at least that'll make more sense than the stupidity Julianna has in repeatedly risking everything for him. Sure, he saved her life ... once ... but then she keeps doing all these things for him, and doesn't really ever give a reasonable explanation. Even on her first day working at Japanese HQ, she's being instantly stupid, by snooping for info and so clearly eavesdropping in the meetings, that she may as well sit at the table with everyone. The most interesting revelation from this rapid 1st day in the job though, is that she finds the room that the resistance wanted her to locate, sees that keyword "grasshopper", nicks some document with the writing on, and then sees her dad! It was a surprise to see him there. Seems he's working for the Japanese? Although not one of us would believe he's doing it for love. Meanwhile, Frank turns on another burst of emotion after his earlier torturing scenes in episode 2 when he stormed off from arguement with Juliana and meets up with a relation to find out the guy is a practising Jew. It's a tender moment with him, the family relation and children praying.

By far the biggest chunk of scenes in episode 6 are at Nazi Smith's house on "VA Day", which is a big celebration for Nazis.  Joe and somewhat unexpectedly, the "Swiss operative" (come Nazi and seemingly Smith's old pal) Rudolf Wegener are both invited to the family dinner which turns out to be a very clever ploy by Smith to essentially interrogate them both whilst stuffing them with food and drink. Smith knew Wegener was lying about every cover story he came up with about why he was on a so-called business trip, which wasn't totally obvious until he told Joe and asked for his advice. That was of course another clever trick to suss out Joe a little more. Wegener ends up being escorted away by Nazis and at the very end, Joe performs the classic stupidity of sneaking into Smith's office to look at files on Grasshopper, which turn out to be completely blank. That's when Smith turns up, somewhat disappointed in Joe. You'd think all was totally hitting the fan for both Joe and Wegener but the former gets a final chance from Smith to prove himself, by using Juliana to locate the latest film doing the rounds. The subtle way Smith plays Joe's girlfriend and son against him is a typical "bad guy" tactic but it's more than enough to work it's magic as a serious threat.

Quite unexpectedly, during episode 7, Juliana's dad collars her and tells her all about his role at the Japanese HQ, which plays out just as we thought. There's a whole 'what does he know or not' about Trudy (his daughter) and her role in everything, including these films. It's all a little unclear and seeming a tad inconsistent if you ask me. I'm not sure if he's really painting a good impression of himself, or if we're just supposed to believe it. The whole "Is Trudy dead or not?" thing seems to grind on this episode, but looks to have been put to bed when Juliana's new best buddy, the Trade Minister, reveals information he knows, including where Trudy's body is, which is a ditch in some field in the middle of nowhere. Julianna's almost vomits at the sight of the bodies, and even I felt a little uneasy, as she locates Trudy's body. I'm still completely unconvinced though that she is dead despite all this. The lengths they went to in this show to make us wonder if she was dead, and then show us her body ... well, it makes me believe we're being set up to see her again ... in some form ... giving the revelations that follow in later episodes.

Humour isn't totally absent in this programme, and the clear top joker in town is the jewellery shop owner, Robert Childan. He's brilliant in his role, dinning with the high-class japanese couple he wanted to attract to his shop and lapping it up, only to discover they really were just arrogant and obnoxious. Eager for revenge, he has Frank create some fake art for the couple, which just about manages to convince them, thanks to the lady's belief in "Wu"; some mystical energy that she thinks the item contains. This may be due to Frank having made it and later revelations in the show perhaps. However, Childan just steals every scene he's in. Speaking of "Wu", I imagine that's what the Trade Minister sees in the necklace he found a few episodes ago (that Frank dropped) and given how things progress, there clearly is something fundamental to the whole story concerning "Wu".

In Episode 8, Heydrich turns up as a very senior Nazi who, as it turns out, is probably not only against Hitler and Japan, but our Nazi chief, Smith. They share a rather diplomatic "spat" over the final few episodes, which is very much cat and mouse, as to one wants to show their cards. Smith works out what Heydrich is most likely up to, and is made into a much more human character after the VA dinner and the revelation that his son is terminally ill. The way the Nazi doctor suggests Smith humanely kills his own son, to save him embarrassment, is something you would think Smith would just do, as he's a duty man, but even he is putting off such an action, and shows even more genuine love for his son, whom is clueless to what's going on. It's a real show of emotion and adds that other side to Smith that we haven't seen. It also makes you wonder if deep down, he's going to perform a heroic act for the greater good at some point in the show's future.

Back to the stupidity side of things, and all that lies with Juliana, Joe and the Resistance's interactions. It seems that everyone is chopping and changing their minds every 5 minutes between this lot. What is even more baffling is how the resistance would trust her and especially anything Joe says so reasonably easily. The whole Joe factor and resistance is the hardest bit to understand when they were so cloak and dagger for so long, and now so open in believing and following Joe's lead on some matters! This is summed up when in the final episode they actually do some checking and find out that Joe is a Nazi. How stupid are they? Either the two resistance characters aren't really the sort of resistance we'd imagine they are, or they really are simply stupid and as rather hapless as they appear on numerous occasions. The Resistances actions in the second half of the first season are just unbelievably daft after the rather carefully hidden tracks and conversations they perform during the opening episodes. Why are they counting on Joe so much and not using their own resources? Don't get it.

It's not really a surprise then when things go wrong trying to retrieve the latest film from a gang who stole it and want money for it. The Kempeitai turn up, the resistance leg it, and Joe and Julianna are bundled into a car which turns up to belong to the gang leader. Episode 9 then is all about money and exchanges for the film, which seems to go on forever in their quest to be rid of the gang, so it's a bit of a surprise when once again, after Julianna gets her bail paid by the resistance, that Frank is the one who goes in to pay for Joe's release. That looks to be going to plan until Joe goes all gun-ho, stealing a gun and shooting everyone, before taking the film. A dramatic ending to what seemed like a rather drawn out plot segment we all could have done without. The plan to all met up at a local school after all this drama is strange, so much in that they seem to be walking around a school like they own it. No mention of having to break in, and there's obviously zero security around the school. But this is where things really start to ramp up for the finale ...

We've got the Trade Minister regretting all his under dealings to help his countrymen when it now seems to have convinced the recovering Crown Prince to launch an assault against the Nazis. Wegener is being booted and suited by Heydrich to kill Hitler (as they are best pals it seems) in return for ignoring his traitorous deceit. And to really raise tensions, Frank and Juliana view the film in the school and see a scene of Nazis executing people, of which one of the Nazi's is Joe, and Frank is one being shot! Sadly, this penultimate episode cliffhanger goes down like a lead brick with me. I was thoroughly disappointed that the film had anyone we know in it. Even more so that it turns out that Frank and Julianna are so ready to believe anything about what they see. Although they do suggest they don't believe the film, they take it as evidence that Joe is a Nazi and that it's showing events that'll happen one day. Where on earth do they have any evidence that anything in the films is anything remotely true? Seeing themselves in any film would be enough for me to disregard anything the films show, rather than believe them anymore. I suppose these people are so desperate for change, that they'll believe anything, but it's not really conveyed well that what's on the films is really good enough to be believed.

And so to the finale, which for me, was superb on the whole and only let down by the last few minutes and the ongoing stupidity between Juliana and Joe. However, outside of those moments, this was tense, dramatic and beautifully told. The ever helpful Ed gets caught trying to get rid of Frank's gun in a rather classic "Uh Oh" moment, which Frank only finds out about later in the episode, and then is trying to hand himself in. That's not going to work though, as the Japanese Police Chief has just managed to stop war by taking out the actual sniper of the Crown Prince in private and avoiding having to commit official suicide by now having someone to blame the shooting on. Poor Ed.

The show stealing moments though in the finale are all concerning Wegener as he returns home to Berlin and shares some awkward moments with his wife, and affectionate time with his children. The fact that it's all in german with english subtitles really adds to it in a way it just wouldn't feel so real and emotional if in spoken english. His journey to see Hitler is given extended screen time and beautifully shot in amazing picturesque backdrops both outside the high castle (yup, this gives away that part of the story) and inside. As he hears the sound of a film playing whilst approaching Hitler's office, you immediately know that a revelation is coming, and sure enough it turns out that Hitler knows about Wegener's intentions and that he is collecting the films and studying them. They've taught him the power of peace with Japan although we don't find out where they are coming from or how. One might have thought things might have a happy ending for Wegener at this moment, but seems Hitler hasn't suddenly become soft, and instead allows Wegener to commit suicide in return for sparing his family. This storyline directly links into Smith's predicament of being summoned on a animal hunt expedition by Heidrich, who you know has alternate motives. Things progress with the usual cat and mouse chatter before Heidrich shows his cards, taking Smith captive but offering him to join him in his new vision of the world (pending Hitler's death) or dying. The end result is extremely quickly and dramatically turned on it's head when the phone call to Heidrich comes through from Hitler himself. One feels Smith might be in for a promotion.

Whilst those big storylines are being played out, we have the usual Julianna/Joe stuff, where she's supposed to be luring him to his death by the resistance now that they've actually done some homework and know he's a nazi. Up until the final moment, she's all with the plan rather resolutely, but then reveals what's going on to Joe, who gives a little sob story, and the next minute she's sneaked him to safety, much to the dismay of the resistance. For me, this is not very convincing storytelling. Just seem too wishy washy, and leaves me feeling there has to be further revelations about Juliana and Joe to come, as well as something that restores my faith in what is a rather clueless seeming resistance.

The last two minutes see the Trade Minister leaving his desk and heading out with the necklace for some downtime. He believes he's likely to be in all sorts of trouble very soon over his secretive work and for employing Julianna, whom he now knows (although you'd think he already did surely?) that she's the girlfriend of traitor Frank. Of course, that problem goes away, much unknown to him at the time. His moment of meditation and reflection outside with the necklace causes him to have a rather real enveloping vision of the alternative reality of our world, that of the America in the 1960s. It's beautiful to look at from a historical point of view, but for me I did not like this ending. There was too much going on, and too hard to really believe he'd literally walk about in his vision. Something shorter and brief would have worked much better I feel. However, this further adds evidence to the fact that "Wu" means something in this programme, as the necklace, the Trade minister's belief in it, and the link to Frank and Julianna etc is all connected by it.

What I liked

There's no sweeping things under the carpet in this show. Episodes starting immediately where they ended in previous episode, which makes for probably the most dramatic beginnings of episodes since I saw episode one of LOST. Episode 3 began with gunshots from the bounty hunter chasing Julianna, and Episode 5 with the ghastly fallout from the crown prince's shooting. Your attention is wrenched from your eyes, and you're truly immersed in what's happened from the word go.

The costumes, backdrops and CGI is outstanding thus far. The world this show creates is absolutely intoxicatingly intriguing and appealing.

Top marks for a long atmospheric opening credits, even though I've never liked the song.

Mystery is everywhere in this show, not least with trying to work out the society and world these people live in, and exactly what history and motivations any of the characters have. The dynamics and connections between everyone is really compelling.

Some absolutely top quality segments throughout the first season, not least with the interrogation of Frank, the Crown Prince shooting, Julianna's Dam squabble and the nasty bounty hunter pursuit. Factor in the VA Dinner with Smith's clever interrogations, Wegener's emotional family exchange and there's so many top class moments. After that, there's numerous great stuff, and really only sprinklings of predictability, daftness and dullness. On the whole, the show gets it right on multiple occasions.

The bounty hunter is rather full of classic headhunter quirks and character, but there's no doubting he  is kick ass, and is as menacing as they come.

What I Didn't Like

I'm no fan of Edelweiss, and never have been. Even after hearing it numerous times watching this show, it's not growing on me. Not sure it's quite the best tune for the show but it has the right atmosphere and the titles are very decent and welcomed.

Japanese character stories are not the easiest and quickest to identify with and understand. I found them quite dry and uninteresting for first few episodes, although things did rise up a few notches with the Trade Minister's storyline in episode's 4 and 5 that made me actually care and attach to him for once.

Although full of quality, there have been several cheese and "bleh" moments, what with the drugged interrogation by the Nazi's feeling as pointless to sit through as the Nazi Commander felt, and the implicated Nazi Official by the captive carrying little weight as we hardly knew him or the captive. The passing of information to the Science Officer by the Trade Minister's operative also felt a little odd that there was only one opportunity apparently. I know things are tight and tense, but it did seem that the emphasis of why that exchange could only happen that way was not really clear. Lastly, the bounty hunter's "setup" by Joe and Juliana was well planed but far too cheese you'd think to really fool him.

The revelation of what's on the latest tape did not go down very well with me. It's was always going to be hard to convey any sci-fi in what's mostly been a pure fictional drama/thriller up until now. If they'd not had two of the characters shown in the film, it would have worked much better for me, but to see Joe and Frank conveyed in the video as "alternative world versions of themselves" was an overdose of cheese for me, rather than any jaw-dropping revelation.

Quite how Frank and Julianna decided Joe was a Nazi, based solely on a film they watched ... which showed Frank in a situation that clearly wasn't him ... well, I don't know. Just daft really.

The Resistance are really quite rubbish. They seem to have no clue what's going on. Don't really think they can be "pure" hardcore resistance because one moment they just take Joe's word and his cash, and the next they are performing "checks" on everything. Inconsistent stuff by them, between being all cloak/dagger and then just doing pure daft behaviour.

The ending ... didn't like it. Reminded me a little of the ending of BSG (the remake one) and a little of Heroes. If the Trade Minister had merely heard sounds of an alternative world, or caught a very brief look ... that would have worked better for me. But to march about and be immersed in it ... well, it's harder to believe that one could do that, and that others haven't already.


Aside from my disappointment of the content on the latest film, the relationship and interaction between Joe/Juliana is my next greatest annoyance and frustration on this show. It just seems so random and odd at times to be taken seriously.

The season ending scene was at least a minute too long to really capture the emotion and wow factor for me. A brief glimpse and background sounds would have worked much better.

Beautiful scenery and confirmation of who the man in the high castle is, comes in finale.

And Finally

As close to perfection as any show has managed for me in recent times, but sadly let down slightly by an increase in convenient storytelling for Juliana's character, the longer time it's taken to identify with the Japanese characters and the incredulous daftness between Frank/Julianna/Joe/Resistance, especially Frank and Juliana in relation to the revelation of the film's contents. Plus, that ending ...

Nevertheless, there have been many award-winning chunks of amazing drama and tension in this first half of series one. The backdrops and atmosphere of this alternative timeline is absolutely gorgeous and so hard not to enjoy visually. There's real tenderness and emotion of the highest quality with Frank's torture, Wegener's family moments and his subsequent Hitler meeting, plus Smith's VA Family meal with hidden intentions. The mystery and the way plot points are stretched out to raise tensions and drama to their ultimate tether is simply so bountiful in this season and skillfully achieved.

The rather limited number of main characters made things slightly more predictable as time went on, but there were enough surprises and revelations along the way to keep shaking things up, and packing that powerful emotional blow that is used to such awesome effect in this show.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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