THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, A No Spoiler Review of the Amazon Prime TV Series
I recently finished viewing all 4 seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and loved it. Also…I know I’m a little late to the game, but it’s hard to keep up, especially if you’re trying to read and watch scifi! There’s a lot of good content out there in the multiverse. I give this story a PG 13 rating, so be warned, parents.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is not a new story, but it was imagined anew by creator Frank Spotnitz for our era. It is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name (which I have not yet read, but will soon because I enjoyed the series so much). Dick’s daughter was involved in the production of the tv version, overseeing her father’s vision.
This story is less science fiction in the traditional sense and more alternative history. Dick wrote THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE after being inspired by the novel Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, whose novel is an alternative history of the US where the Confederate States win the Civil War. In Dick’s novel, the Axis powers win World War II. First, the short review:
5 Reasons I Recommend THE MAN IN HIGH CASTLE
- Superb storytelling…I was surprised at how well the writer(s) kept me engaged, including the pacing over 4 seasons. Bravo!
- Spot-on performances. A brilliant portrayal of John Smith, an American/Nazi leader, by Rufus Sewell. Also, a powerful female hero in Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos)
- A satisfying enough ending (will say no more lest I spoil)
- Pushing characters to their limits and not turning away from human dilemmas like: How far would you go to protect your family? Would you kill a person in cold blood if you know they will be responsible for death and mayhem in the future?
- Finally, if you find history a bore, consider jump-starting your learning via consuming smart fiction, like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. World War II was a fascinating and dark time in world history with reverberations reaching into our current era, more than we might think. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE gives the audience an intimate view into the characters of the day, many of whom are real historical people, but if not real, the fictional characters help the audience understand the zeitgeist of the time.
I appreciated and enjoyed all four seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, but my favorite seasons were 3 and 4. Seasons 3 and 4 put forward the more complex moral and philosophical questions around Nazism, occupation and the kind of determination that it takes to defeat evil. I still appreciated season 1 and 2. The moral framework was being laid, the true heroes were being defined, but by season 3, defeating evil in our midst becomes the clear goal. It will require dedication, resilience and the broader community…something I feel to be true throughout history. Unlikely allies come together to defeat evil.
In that sense, I found the series remarkably relevant. Dick is playing with alternative histories in this story and Spotnitz (credit for the screenplay/creator goes alone to Frank Spotnitz on the show’s Wikipedia page) was able to put forward a world that in many respects, felt as real as the news I see on my screen on any given day. Before Covid19 and George Floyd protests…in this series (in the book, I assume as well) memorials, monuments and statues are blown up, taken down, destroyed. That was interesting for me to ponder.
In THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, those taking down the monuments are Nazis, determined to wipe out American history and recreate their own version of history that will be imposed on Americans. One character spells out the reason, “Once we wipe out their narrative, it will help them accept our narrative, the Nazi narrative.” The Nazis empower the young people in the US to riot and do violence to any who try to protect the monuments.
I would hesitate to make a moral statement about those who have defaced monuments in our cities in these last months, but I did find it fascinating to see this portrayal, non political, I assume because the screenplay was written long before our recent protests. How would those scenes be written today? I wonder…
To counter that narrative that “good ‘ol America just needs to be reclaimed”, the Black Communist Rebellion becomes an important power in the final season. Those characters are drawn in a way that is multi-faceted and dignifying. The series touches on Civil Rights era injustices while highlighting the Nazi take on black skin, which is horrifying and includes the sterilization of young black women. The audience sees the “graded” evil of racism.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not justify white supremacy. It tries, I think, to highlight its evil and does not let white America off the hook. Like I said…this is a complex narrative and, to give Dick credit, it was written in the early 1960s.
In the series, the Axis powers have split the US into three zones. The Japanese rule that which is West of Rockies. The East is ruled by the Nazis and in an attempt to keep these powers from eating each other, the middle of the US is neutral. Juliana Crain is a San Francisco native, so plenty of Northern California sites on screen, including the supremely gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
I was gratified to get a view into the Japanese Imperial rulership over the Western US in a way that capitalized on few or no stereotypes. One sees and feels the brutal nature of the Japanese occupiers, but also the complex politics between Japan and Germany (both superpowers in this universe) and the grace and gentleness of some aspects of Japanese culture. There are Japanese who brutally murder and there are Japanese who feel deep compassion to the point of aiding the rebellion. That is a helpful juxtaposition and I believe a true one when it comes to human dynamics during a time of war. Building an empire leads to big messes and horrible violence. It also drives human beings to act with sacrifice and heroism. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not shy away from the complexities of warfare and empire building and for that reason, it deepened my understanding of a complex historical time.
Grit, hope, despair and horrible evil are all captured in this story, but what emerges most prominently in narrative are deep truths about what is right, just and good. This story is one for our time. I encourage you to start watching today.
DARK/WEB, Chapter 8 A Final Review with a Few Minor Spoilers
My 8th post on this particular Amazon Prime series. I reviewed chapter by chapter (episodes are called chapters). For a review of the pilot, click Chapter 1.
Today I viewed the finale.
Question that arose…Will DARK/WEB will have a second season? Will there be enough interest? I have no way of knowing. What I can say is this…
There is a kind of resolution that takes place in this final chapter.
- Molly is found
- The mystery of what she was up to and why she was drawing her friends toward her hiding place is solved
- There are a couple of big reveals…one of which doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it should
- A perhaps too tidy wrap-up
- More horror story tropes…like a corpse, a cabin in the woods, a stormy night without power
The ending to this series felt overly ambitious and contrived…a lot of explaining right at the end to tie up all of the loose ends. Sometimes the characters acted in a way that didn’t make sense to me, didn’t see human, but served the overall plot. I always get frustrated when this is the case. There is a campy nature to the series, maybe this is part of the fun…perhaps another horror trope? However, it also takes itself VERY seriously at times, so I was trying to take it seriously too and sometimes the camp did not match the tone of true evil that was being portrayed.
However, I will give the series lots of chops for these elements:
- An ambitious vision in its attempt to unveil evil in our society
- A diverse cast of characters, (diverse in ethnicity and sexual orientation)
- A female POC director. I loved the direction overall…I wasn’t wild about the all the writing, but hey…I am a writer and am always more picky about the writing than the directing.
Overall, I recommend DARK/WEB if you have the stomach to watch horror/scifi.
DARK/WEB, Chapter 7 Minor Spoilers
7th and Penultimate Chapter. My 7th review in 7 days.
This review will contain spoilers for earlier episodes and minor spoilers for this episode (episodes are called Chapters), so be warned. Go back to menu or click PILOT if you want to read an introduction to the series.
I’ll say a little about the structure of the series at this point.
- Short stories, written by Molly are clues that will help her friends find her. All of the stories are dramatized on screen. This image, for example, is from one of the Molly’s stories called Viral. Nearly every chapter features one of Molly’s stories. About 15 minutes of screentime in Chapter 7 puts the audience in the world of Viral.
- All of Molly’s stories are dark, some are pure horror and very gruesome. I almost stopped watching this series after Chapter 2 because of it. Kim Rider, who has read all or most of Molly’s stories as they were online dating, says that Molly uses stories to work out the darkness in her own life.
- There are a variety of interesting filming techniques in DARK/WEB. I’ll highlight one. Notice the image posted above with words across the character’s face. These are words of a screenplay being typed by this particular film student, as she sits at her computer. She is the main character in Viral. This view through the computer into the scene has been used throughout the series and gives that creepy feeling that someone is watching from inside or beyond our screens. The audience sees what is taking place, but the characters don’t and we don’t know who is watching…that is unnerving and puts the audience on edge, exactly what the story creators want.
- Viral is a story about cyberbullying. The audience understands that unfortunately, cyberbullying takes place in real life. This story may be fictional, but it hits close enough to home to bring about reflections of human cruelty and evil, evil that exists in seemingly normal, everyday people. Looking at cyberbullying headon is horrific and not everyone’s cup of tea. As I indicated above, I almost stopped watching after chapter 2. Viral was also hard to watch.
The story creators of DARK/WEB have given their series this title for a reason. It is documented that the secret and more anonymous world of the dark web exists and exhibits the worst side of humanity. If you are squeamish or needing something more uplifting as entertainment, please be warned. We all know that there are many good people in our world (and that even the “evil” people have potential for redemption…at least I believe that) and most of us hope that the good will ultimately triumph over evil by the tale’s end. We will see…
DARK/WEB Chapter 6, No Spoiler Review
6th post in 6 days…
Major backstory episode for the larger story arc, which I appreciated. It was the right time to give the audience more reveals. This review will have spoilers of the previous Chapters. For an introduction to the series and no spoilers, click the Pilot.
Pictured is Zach Sullivan before he has his mental break. In chapter 4, he is visited by Ethan in the mental hospital, so the audience meets him well after this scene with Molly. One suspects something bad went down at the job because in the hospital, he freaks out when a phone is brought near him. He and Molly were colleagues at Citadel, the computer/systems security company. Somehow, all roads are leading to Citadel…or are they?
Molly and Zach rely on one another for help with coding (actually…Molly may be the smarter of the two, though Zach has been at the company longer). As they lunch together at work, Zach and another coder tell Molly about Citadel’s secret project called MIHR. Zach is applying for a new job in the company and is hoping he will make the MIHR team.
Zach does get promoted and he does write code related to MIHR. He also stops having friendly lunches with Molly and appears exhausted and unkempt. Eventually, when Zach needs her help in solving another coding issue, she and we encounter MIHR.
This chapter is not gruesome and gives the audience a chance to know Molly better, the character at the center of the mystery.
DARK/WEB, Chapter 5 A No Spoiler Review
EAT. PREY. LOVE.
New interesting character introduced in this episode. Her name is Kim Rider, she is an online friend/love interest of Molly Solis’. (This involves the 8 chapter story arc, not the individual stories).
My review is the 5th in 5 days, well, almost…I took Sunday off. If you have not read my introduction to this series, I highly recommend you read my first posts, all four, but especially read the 1st one. Click Pilot.
Rider is helpful in explaining the overall arc of the series. She is connected with Molly Solis, emotionally/relationally and also happens to be fluent in computer hacking and understands a little more of what Molly was dealing with right before she disappeared. Rider becomes a teaching character, someone who can explain a couple of mysteries and ask better questions. She’s also lovely, black and British.
The story that Molly’s group of friends encounter is itself another gruesome tale. You can judge by the title which is the first line of this post.
Now that Kim and Molly’s high school friends, Ethan, Sam and James are together on the scene of Molly’s home in Texas, there is finally a concerted effort to figure out how Molly is in trouble. Sometimes this setup feels a little cheesy and contrived, but there are a few real and funny moments.
Also, I need to note:
This episode includes gore and even though it isn’t super explicit, the suggestion is true horror.
DARK/WEB No Spoiler Review of Chapter 4
8 posts of 8 episodes in 8 days.
DARK/WEB is an Amazon Prime series. Here is my overview of the pilot. To read, click Chapter 1.
I have watched half way through DARK/WEB. Chapter 4 furthers the overall narrative arc. Zach Sullivan is visited by Molly Solis’ friends. They also go to visit her house in TX. She had been living there until she disappeared.
This chapter also adds another hint, another one of Molly’s stories sent to her friends. The story is more mysterious, mystical and spiritual, involving an illegal, dark/web for profit organ transplant operation.
I won’t say too much about this chapter to avoid spoilers. It’s not nearly as disturbing as Chapter 2, but my sense is the creators of this series are wanting the audience to ponder what evil exists on the dark web…the actual dark web.
I confess…as much as I resist watching this series, I know that many aspects of it are true and because of that, the overall narrative is disturbing to me.
Hat tip to Roxy Shih, a female Asian American director who is brilliantly putting this important story before our eyes. This visual of the man sitting in the warehouse with the light coming through the high windows is particularly gorgeous. Notice the crucifixes in the shadows. Excellent symbolism.
DARK/WEB A No Spoiler Review of Chapter 3
My favorite episode so far. This is the 3rd post of 8 in 8 days.
The beginning sequence of this chapter is outstanding, will terrify you, make you nervous and curious and might even make you laugh.
The larger arc is filled out in this episode, with another friend of Molly Solis being added to the mix. To read my previous reviews, click The Pilot
James Woodsley, this friend of Molly’s lives in Madison, WI (my current hometown…so shoutout to my people). James is also sent a short story by Molly. This is viewed in the first moments of the episode.
I can’t say too much more because it will spoil the surprise, but I do want to comment of 4 aspects of DARK/WEB I am appreciating so far:
- Outstanding casting. Multi-ethnic. No stereotypes. I noticed this particularly in the pilot…how various characters were cast to upset stereotypes.
- DARK/WEB is a HORROR/SCI-FI series, so be warned. Like the film Alien follows the haunted house script a uses many of its tropes (down to the solo female facing the monster in the end), this series too uses horror tropes. It is both futuristic and horrific. These episodes have caused me moments of terror and disturbed my sleep. Not everyone likes this…so this is a warning. From lonely dark streets where the character walks and keeps looking behind his or her back, to darkness, to phones that never quite connect with 911, it’s all there in DARK/WEB. I will reiterate, Chapter 2 was especially horrific.
- Roxy Shih, a woman and person of color is doing a brilliant job in the directing, nominated for an Emmy (see below). I’m appreciating her deft touch and so far the writing is very tight. I remind you, these episodes are short…at least they are by film and tv standards, so the creators are accomplishing a lot when they make the audience laugh, cringe and freak out, all in the same 1/2 hour. That doesn’t happen accidentally.
Lastly, here are the Emmy’s DARK/WEB has been nominated for this year:
- Outstanding Digital Drama Series
- Michael Nardelli, Tim Nardelli, Mario Miscione, Allison Vanore
- Outstanding Directing Team for a Digital Drama Series:
- Mario Miscione, Michael Nardelli, Roxy Shih
- Outstanding Main Title and Graphic Design for a Live-Action Program
- Justin Martinez, Tim Nardelli, Mario Miscione, Michael Nardelli
- Outstanding Light Direction for a Drama or Digital Drama Series
- Vasiliki Constantinou, Lars Lindstrom
- Outstanding Music Direction and Composition for a Drama or Digital Drama Series
- Jonathan Hartman
- Outstanding Guest Performer in a Digital Drama Series
- Rene Heger
- Outstanding Guest Performer in a Digital Drama Series
- Graham Sibley
DARK/WEB No Spoiler Review of Chapter 2
Today marks the 2nd of 8 days in a row of posts. For your orientation, read yesterday’s post which introduced Dark/Web, the 8 chapter (episodic) series on Amazon Prime, to read now click Pilot.
Today’s chapter implied a gruesome scene, so be warned. Though it wasn’t visual gore, the hint of it might trigger some, especially women who have been victimized by violence.
For others, able and willing to view evil head-on, this review is for you.
Molly Solis is drawing her friends together to solve a mystery around the dark web. She is sending them messages via email. Each message is a story. The viewer has met Molly in the pilot during the first few minutes. She appears on video camera, in trouble, though not helpless. The audience does not know much more than that, though they see her capitulate to some kind of authority, despite her protest.
In the first chapter, Ethan, a reporter and old highschool friend of Molly’s reads a story emailed to him by her. The action on screen quickly cuts to the “episode”, which shows the story as it unfolds. The first story is about a ride-sharing app gone haywire.
This second story is called Hacked and comes to Sam, who happens to have dated Ethan recently, though they are currently broken up. Sam is another highschool friend of Molly’s.
This story is about Misty, a young woman working at a burger joint. She is the drive through operations person. When a famous music star drives through to buy burgers, flirts with her, allows her to take a selfie with him and posts this on a platform called Flash, our heroine becomes instantly famous. Her social media account explodes with likes and loves and comments. In this fictional world, not too unlike ours, Flash determines whether you are a worthwhile human. When your ranking goes up, as it does for Misty out of this incident, that makes makes her popular by society’s standards. Following this happy event, Misty’s phone is hacked and a reckoning ensues. Bad actors zero in on her to take advantage of her popularity.
DARK/WEB, Amazon Prime Series. A Review of the Pilot
In the next eight days, I will watch one episode per day (episodes are called chapters in this series and there are 8 total). I will review each one briefly.
Today I watched the first chapter. This story had a few layers. I read a little about the series on IMDb and Wikipedia to orient myself….here’s the IMDb link if you want to do that too.
Is this really Amazon Prime’s answer to Netflix’s The Black Mirror? Some say this is the model for DARK/WEB, but there is an overall story arc that connects all of the chapters, so not exactly like The Black Mirror. I’ll know more in a few days and can report then.
This series is one season only. As of now, there is no indication that a season 2 will be made.
Written by Mario Miscione, Boman Modine and Michael Nardelli, the story begins with a mysterious set of images and screens where a young woman is obviously being harassed via the internet to do something (we don’t know what) she does not want to do. It then cuts to the apartment of a recently laid off reporter by the name of Ethan Neary. He is obviously in a bad spot, sleeping on his sofa, drinking too much, his apartment a mess. He has missed a number of calls from a high school friend (Sam Daniels) who has been trying to contact him. Sam is anxious about repeated emails that have been sent to her from another old high school friend, Molly Solis. Ethan has received messages as well. Is this really Molly? They are both worried about computer viruses, therefore reticent to open the file, but Ethan decides to open the attachment, which reveals a short story that he ends up reading aloud over the phone to Sam…the read aloud cuts to new action, but with different characters.
At this point, the story being read becomes what the audience sees on the screen.
Chapter 1 of DARK/WEB is about a rideshare driver who experiences a glitch in the app supposed to help him perform his job. Now, instead of simply giving him directions, it talks to him about who all the people are he is driving. He’s driving late at night to make ends meet for his young family and it turns out many of the people he is driving are awful folks. The rideshare app knows details about their evil and begins directing him to do certain things to stop these people from exerting their power in ways that will hurt others. You can imagine where this might go.
Three things I like about this chapter:
- Quick set-up that indicates a mystery
- Amazingly fast empathy for the main character (the rideshare driver)
- Tension around the craziness he is exposing himself to while driving…so much so…I needed to pause the recording for bit and think whether or not I wanted to see what I imagined to be a gory or troubling end.
I won’t give anything away, but the viewer does become invested in the driver’s wellbeing and that is an indication of good character writing. It happens fast that the viewer is rooting for him. Chapter 1 was worth the 27 minutes. I recommend if you like tension and dystopian/cyberpunk/mystery.
When Science Fiction Brings History Alive
I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.
Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:
- Superman Smashes the Klan
- The Man in the High Castle
- An Excess Male
History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).
In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.
In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.
Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan
History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.
This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.
History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.
In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.
Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.
History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.
Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.
History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.
KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred