'Man in the High Castle': Inside the Mindblowing Sci-Fi Drama

Amazon's new alternate-history series imagines: What if the Nazis won WWII and occupied the U.S.?

Rufus Sewell in 'The Man in the High Castle.' The 10-episode adaptation of Philip K. Dick's alt-history novel is currenty streaming on Amazon Prime. Credit: Amazon Studios

An old-fashioned newsreel plays in a movie theater, detailing how the good people of the U.S.A. "keep our country strong and safe." Shots of well-stocked grocery stores, soaring eagles and smiling 1960s families circa play across the screen. Then the film cuts to an American flag, unfurling in the breeze — and you notice that, in place of the usual 50 stars, there’s a white swastika against a blue background. "Our greatest days lie ahead," the cheery narrator intones. "Sieg heil!"

Two minutes into Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, and you know you're not in Kansas anymore — not the Kansas we're familiar with, at least. This 10-episode adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1962 cult sci-fi novel imagines an alternate history in which the Nazis win WWII, and the Axis powers occupy the U.S. (The East Coast is now known as the Greater Nazi Reich; the West Coast has been redubbed the Japanese Pacific States.) Underground resistance fighters plot to bring down the regime as the fascist government engages in political power plays, while a contraband film sought by both sides suggest that some mysterious behind-the-scenes character is pulling the strings. Eventually, the notion that reality may be a collective illusion, the home-life of Nazis and a plot to assassinate an elderly Hitler come into play — and then things start to get really weird.

"I'd always assumed that 99% of the time, good triumphs over evil, especially in movies and TV shows," creator Frank Spotnitz says. "And in this world, that doesn’t happen. You're reminded here that history doesn’t always work out the way it should. And Dick's novel continues to be relevant because it's really about so many things: What is reality? What is it to be human? If you live in an inhumane world, how do you hold on to your humanity?"

"It's interesting to see how certain signifiers immediately denote, 'This is eeee-vil,'" notes Rufus Sewell, drawing out the last word in a caricaturish accent, "but when you take certain those things away, it somehow makes truly horrible things seem more palatable." Cast as the show's resident Nazi heavy, the British actor said he was taken in by a scene in the second episode, where his character — an original creation given the purposefully generic name John Smith — sits down for breakfast with his family. "It wasn't just that the scene humanized him. When you take him out of his S.S. officer's uniform, and put him in a green cardigan and slacks there's a momentary sense of Smith of being normal…even a good guy. 

"Then you listen to the things he's saying," he cointues, "and in a way, it makes it even scarier. And that, to me, was what the show is still pertinent. If you give people the opportunity to look away, from what they care not to see, it's horrifying what people can be capable of or can accept if we don’t fucking look out."

A longtime fan of the book and a TV veteran best known for his work on The X-Files, Spotnitz came to the project after the man who'd introduced a generation to Dick's work — Blade Runner director Ridley Scott — had attempted for years to adapt it for the BBC. The writer-producer began to mold the story into a four-hour event series for Syfy; when the network passed, Scott's production company was about to give up the ghost when Spotnitz got a call from Amazon executive Morgan Wandell, "asking me if there was anything script-wise I loved but hadn't been able to get made." The resulting trial-run episode ended up being the single most watched pilot on the streaming channel to date when it debuted last January; the full 10-hour series is now available to binge on at will.

For the showrunner, the hope is that, in expanding on and exploring The Man in the High Castle’s parallel universe, he'll force audiences to question their own values and moral parameters — a sort of what-if parlor game. "When I first saw that American flag with a swastika on it, it pushed a primal button in me. History and national identity are very personal things. To see those symbols defaced is incredibly unsettling."