Friday, November 20, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Man in the High Castle' - Joe & Juliana Are Sent on Missions That Take Them Across the Country in 'The New World'

Amazon's The Man in the High Castle - Episode 1.01 "The New World"

It's 1962, America has lost WWII; the east is the Greater Nazi Reich and the west, the Japanese Pacific States. Amidst this oppression there is new hope - films that seem to show a different world. When her sister gives her a film and is then murdered, a woman comes to believe the films hold the key to freedom and becomes obsessed with finding their mysterious guardian, the Man in the High Castle.

Based on the alternate history novel by Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle depicts a truly engaging and horrifying world. It's a world that is truly distinct and mesmerizing to watch. This show does world building so well. It accomplishes so much in tone and production design. The direction of this story in this opening episode is incredible. Everything is horrifying but is also being told as a part of life in a post-World War II life where the Germans and Japanese won the war. The United States has fallen under Nazi control - with the Germans controlling the East Coast and the Japanese the West. The mountainous region in between is a neutral zone. This is a story set in 1962 where a new generation of citizens have only known this world. Everyone has been given the time to accept this world as their reality. So that makes it easy for the show to do some really terrifying imagery while making sure the characters aren't as horrified as the audience is. It's truly impressive work by the creative team.

The best shows on Amazon right now present truly unique worlds that can't be depicted anywhere else. Yes, Amazon is still a business that will churn out shows with broad appeal. But The Man in the High Castle is able to do both. This universe is so captivating. It's also based on story that most people in the entertainment industry where sure could never be translated properly to the screen. This show's take on the subject does some very smart things. This opening hour is all about the world building. It establishes what this universe is like without overly explaining things. This isn't an exposition heavy hour of television. The show communicates the specifics of this world through the actions of its characters. The camera work also shows just how much more terrifying these locations can become in a familiar 1960s setting when a few Nazi symbols are thrown up.

"The New World" is a slow build. It almost had to be in order to truly define what this world is and how it defines most of the regular characters. But that pace doesn't keep the show from doing some truly smart and satisfying things. This is the world known to the people of society. They lost the war and now live under constant fear of doing something against the law and being subsequently killed as a result. The hour opens with Joe Blake receiving a location for where he can do a job for the American Resistance. It's an organization that remembers the old world and wants to restore freedom across the land. It's not a large operation. It's only a few people operating out of a car shop. They know how cruel this world is. They've seen it first hand. The leader doesn't want to know why Joe is doing this. He just wants to know if he can tolerant pain. In the end though, it's rather useless. The Nazi police force strikes and kills just as Joe is set off on his mission across the country to deliver a very special package.

On the other side of the country, Juliana Crain has learned how to survive in this world. She's always cautious because her live-in boyfriend, Frank, is of Jewish descent. That could easily get him killed should it ever be discovered by the Japanese officials. But she is still thriving in this world. She has come to accept the culture and has used it to better herself by learning Aikido. It's a world her mother despises because the Japanese killed Juliana's mother. But it's still a world she is living in - for better or worse. Juliana's world only turns upside down because her sister Trudy has found her calling by joining the Resistance. It's a plot Juliana quickly gets pulled into even though she wanted no part of it. Trudy passes a package to her sister before running down the street to her death. It's a brutal sight for Juliana to see. That action is what sets her on the quest for answers.

Juliana and Joe are both carrying similar packages. They've both been given film reels that showcase the Allies actually being victorious in the war. Juliana learns that these treasonous items come from a person referred to as "The Man in the High Castle." No one really knows who he is or if these films are real and signal something much more sinister or are just propaganda to build up false hope. It's enough to set the core narrative of the show in motion. The reveal of what's depicted on the film comes fairly early in the premiere. Just because Juliana knows what is on the reel doesn't mean she understands it. Her sister risked her life just to protect it. It much have some significance. Juliana can't just turn it over to the police. She needs to know just what her sister got involved with - even though that could lead to her death as well. Juliana leaves her happy life behind in the pursuit of answers. That's devastating to Frank - especially once the police show up to question him.

It's a long and arduous journey across the country for both Joe and Juliana. They are always looking over their shoulders making sure that they aren't being followed by the Nazis. Along the way, they meet people who've come to accept this world for all of its harsh realities. Joe needs a spare tire. A local sheriff gives one to him and comments that it's Tuesday - aka the day where the hospital burns the Jews and the sick. Juliana has to protect her belongings. But then, she loses everything to another white female on her bus. All she has left is the film reel. That's her whole mission but it's a devastating loss for her. She can't even pay for a meal once she reaches her destination. Joe has to do that for her. The two were traveling to the same location. They have an intriguing dynamic immediately. And yet, all of that changes with one sinister twist.

Joe is actually a double agent working for the Nazis under Obergruppenf├╝hrer John Smith. That reveal somewhat plays as just a twist to end the premiere on. Joe Blake spends a lot of time talking about his father. That will be significant for the future because Smith mentions him as well. But it's still too early to tell what exactly Joe's motivations are. Why is he doing this? Him searching under the bus for the film has a double meaning after this reveal. He was doing it in order to get his hands on this precious object. He knew the vehicle was transporting something important. This establishes that Joe is going to have so much importance moving forward. He's nice to Juliana. But for all he knows, she is a hardcore member of the Resistance. All of that intrigue is exciting for the future. But it's going to need some serious character development to make it work as effectively as it has the potential to.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The New World" was written by Frank Spotnitz and directed by David Semel.
  • The show does a fantastic job at creating what this world looks like on both a big and small level. Joe and Juliana are on this intimate and personal adventures. Meanwhile, Smith is planning things ahead in regards to his handling of the Resistance. And then, Japanese official Tagomi is figuring out what this world becomes as soon as Hitler dies and is replaced by an even more power hungry individual.
  • Smith beats Joe's original Resistance contact so badly to give off the illusion to the resistance that he didn't give up the information easily. Smith did that to control the situation - even though he already had the information.
  • Frank is also an artist. It's a job he can't pursue because of the oppression. He submits a new design for his boss at the factory that is immediately rejected because the boss believes people only want the old designs.
  • Frank also has a best friend, Ed, who seems friendly but doesn't have a whole lot of importance in this first episode.

As noted from previous series released all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments section, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.