Critic's Notebook: 'The Man in the High Castle' Is So Good Now Because It's So Real Now

Even if nothing else were involved in the equation, Amazon's The Man in the High Castle would be an interesting test case for the streaming era. Whipsawed by creator upheaval at the show level and executive upheaval at the network level, could a series find an audience simply by enduring and benefiting from the slow discovery rate of the Peak TV era?

But there's something much more interesting about the show that can't be overlooked now that its third season has dropped: It is by far the best and most consistently ominous drama of the Trump era. With its new run of episodes, the series seems to have leaned into the darkness of the unmistakable parallels between its fictional dystopia and the real world. Unexpectedly, but with massive emotional impact given the recent tragedy of the mass shooting of Jews in Pittsburgh, it has now become even more relevant.

The series, based on Philip K. Dick's alternative history novel of the same name, envisions a world where the United States lost World War II and the country is divided, with Nazi Germany running most of the East Coast and Middle America and, on the other side of a small neutral zone, Japan running the West Coast. There's a small resistance movement that suffers relentless defeats, for the most part, but which maintains its motivation and optimism through an underground film reel showing that the Allies actually won the war. 

Part of the intrigue of the first season, particularly for those who had never read Dick's 1962 Hugo Award-winning novel, was trying to figure out how the newsreel footage could jibe with what was going on in the story. With its rampant images of Nazi propaganda, intimidation and fear on one side of the country and the brutal Rising Sun crackdown on the other, the show cast a chilling spell even in January 2015, when Amazon first made the pilot available. It was unnerving, even then, to consider such an alternative history. That chill was the obvious intention of Dick's book but, until then, it was a story considered unfilmable because of what would have been needed to create the visuals. The advent of CGI and a deep-pocketed streaming service changed that, of course.

A second episode aired Oct. 23, 2015 (Amazon was just figuring out the TV business) and the remaining eight episodes of the first season premiered Nov. 20.

Thirteen more months went by before Amazon Studios released the second season — certainly not a lifetime in the industry, but while Amazon was still finding its way, Peak TV diverted attention to hundreds of other series. The first season was good but didn't set its hook in the public consciousness. The second season, which ramped up the complexities of the story and fleshed out the characters, was compelling but more uneven. It did, however, cement an approach to the complicated storytelling through its "multiverse," a genre device that it uses effectively to explain the differences between the histories seen in proliferating newsreels and the one the characters are living.

At that point, alternative history or not, it was fantasy — a television series that couldn't even be called a diversion from what was building in real life because the shock and enormity of that wasn't yet comprehended. If you freeze The Man in the High Castle at that moment, it was an ambitious and intriguing drama, but not quite a critically successful one. Yet it was also Amazon's most watched original series. It had potential to put things together, but was somehow out of the zeitgeist.

Then came Trump.

Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum — and if you're in the Trump camp, you're not going to like where this is going — the resulting horror show that fractured this country even further was a daily dose of depressing headlines that hasn't abated. The culture war that existed well before Trump's election has never been more divisive. But the series that I once hoped would spring up as logical (and necessary) counterpoints to the onslaught of Trump tweets, stunning revelations of foreign interference in American affairs, possible treasonous acts and the rising tide of nationalism never really materialized. Oh, there were countervailing voices, mostly in late-night comedy, that were having a field day, but as for scripted television, not much was delivered. (Season one of The Handmaid's Tale was often and erroneously seen as a reaction to Trump, but it was created before his election, so it was more a matter of accidental timing — though season two clearly leaned into some of the more totalitarian parallels, along with the main theme of female oppression.) 

Clearly sensing an opportunity, The Man in the High Castle has smartly seized the moment to align itself in a more pronounced way with the fear, despair and, increasingly, the sense that a change to the narrative of horror might actually be on the horizon. It's a creative decision that's so keenly right as to seem like the most obvious thing to do, but it also comes after a period when the creative dynamics of the show were in such peril that it operated without series creator and showrunner Frank Spotnitz, who stepped away during production of season two. A staggering 22-month delay unfolded before the Oct. 5. third-season premiere. In that sense, new showrunner Eric Overmyer (The Wire, Treme, Bosch) is now presiding over a long-delayed bid to expand the reach and influence of a series (whose core audience is large enough that Amazon already has renewed it for a fourth season).

It might be the perfect time for anyone who hasn't seen it to start the catch-up process. There's no denying that the new season is an often painful allegory of our times. The massacre in Pittsburgh came just three weeks after the start of a season that contains a story arc about Jews being hunted down — not just by the Nazis in charge but also by their propaganda-fueled citizen followers. The fourth episode, "Sabra," in which Jewish worshippers practice their faith under the guise of a Catholic church in the neutral zone, and sixth episode "History Ends," which contrasts rising Nazi power with a lovely, delayed bar mitzvah, are particularly provocative and difficult to watch. But this third season, as mentioned, also stirs with more hope than the previous two. 

The 22-month delay between the essentially pre-Trump second season and the mid-Trump world of season three makes for a startling revitalization of the series. I can't think of a previous situation where a TV series reinvented itself so unexpectedly and late in the game. As of this month, the show seems almost revolutionary.

Between Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, explosives mailed to Democrats, immigration fear-mongering, children separated from their parents, ICE abuses, #MeToo disbelievers in the realm of a Supreme Court nomination, attacks on the press, rollbacks on rights and acceptance for transgender people and the LBGTQ community at large, voter suppression — add your empathy-free instance of Trump- and Republican-fueled civil liberty atrocities — and you've got an almost unbelievable set of circumstances ripe for dramatic representation. And yet there's been mostly a vacuum on the small screen when it comes to dramas.

While it fills that breach, High Castle is not a perfect drama by any means. There's a slow boil to the first season that's initially riveting but then lacks drive, until the end. The second season ratchets up the action but struggles to overcome some baked-in issues with characters (I personally struggle with Joe Blake, played by Luke Kleintank, which is unfortunate because he's so central). 

But the more haunting aspects of the show hit home. Though I find it impossible to see any Nazi as sympathetic, Rufus Sewell has never been short of magnetic as American-born Nazi John Smith, former U.S. Army officer and now ruthless Obergruppenfuhrer. His evolving moral crisis — complicated to watch, much less root for — became a necessary driver of the series. Alexa Davalos, as freedom fighter Juliana Crain, has been able to keep things mostly afloat, but a series this big needs a strong and deep cast. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is a godsend as the Japanese trade minister, especially when Joel de la Fuente's Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido is so relentlessly menacing on the Japanese side.

But be warned that what makes the series so relevant also makes it hard to watch. In every frame, it's impossible not to feel the connections to the state of the world (and not just the United States). That's the rub, right? The show is so good now because it's so real now. Watching makes you tense. It makes you angry. It makes you think — if, for some reason, you hadn't before — that this could very easily happen here and now, if it's not happening already. And the series will certainly make you want to vote.

What a strange trip for a TV series. Three weeks ago it was something different, with two solid, if mostly unremarked upon, seasons under its belt. Now it just might be the poster series for the new resistance.