Season One of The Man In The High Castle was, in a word, frustrating. Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s post-war alt-history classic was a realization of a setting - that of an America carved up by the Axis Powers after defeat in WW2 - that was visually tantalizing. But it’s merits only went skin deep. Its world may have felt genuinely plausible, but its characters were at times anything but. A loosely-flung script and ponderous directing often made its cast looking every bit as lost as viewers were trying to figure out the truth behind the show’s namesake character, and his mysterious, prophetic film reels that had left so many of the show’s major players scrambling to possess them. Its promise still persisted however, and it was definitely worth a second series just to see if it could get all of its faux film-noir ducks in a row and deliver on its abundant promise. By and large, Season Two pleasingly, relievingly does - if only just. It still carries a fair load of expositional naivety and the odd moment when an established character behaves in a head-scratching manner, especially in its early episodes. But a necessary expansion of the cast - and with it, a far deeper focus on the backgrounds of its key characters - has led to this show attaining the two things it needed the most: a sense of momentum, and a sense of purpose.
For complete newbies to the show, we won’t waste too much going into detail here - save for that it’s the 1960s, America lost WW2, both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany control its West and East Coasts respectively, and an anonymous figure known as The Man In The High Castle has been distributing film reels to American resistance groups showing actual, contradictory footage of an American victory in the War. For the rest, you can check out our review of the first season. But show veterans will remember that the first season left us on a knife-edge - fledgling American Resistance operative Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) had made the difficult decision to let her faction flip-flopping co-agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) escape her peers’ clutches, following his exposure as a Nazi spy. With Juliana having to face the wrath of the Resistance’s commanders for her actions, Joe safely escapes from San Francisco on a boat back to Nazi America - and with one of the Man In The High Castle’s prized films in tow. His return to New York is no warm homecoming though - disillusioned by the orders of his commander, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), and conflicted over his feelings for Juliana - whom Smith informs him on arrival, is now dead - Joe is all but ready to retire from the Nazi intelligence service, his job complete at the price of Juliana’s death.
Smith is at least half-right about Juliana’s fate - she is indeed shot by Resistance leader Gary Connell (Callum Keith Rennie). Instead of dying though, she is curiously transported (in one of the season’s many good decisions to speed its plot along) to see The Man In The High Castle himself. Hawthorne Abendsen (Stephen Root) is a man of many secrets - almost as many as the film reels he distributes - but he is at least able to inform Juliana of her purpose in his scheme of things, that the reels are the tellings of all possible realities to come, and that there is a way to avert the happenings of a certain reel that she and Joe saw - detailing the destruction of San Francisco - by ensuring the death of a single, unknown Nazi officer in New York. The details of this mission though are cut short - Juliana is soon back under the hands of the Resistance and, with nowhere else to turn to, considers seeking asylum in the American Reich as the only realistic plan to assure her own survival - even if she first has to escape San Francisco, with both Resistance and the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai, adamant that she doesn’t.
And that’s only the start of it - between Nazi power struggles and both Japanese police and American resistance operatives engaging in cat-and-mouse tactics with one another, this second season has enough interweaving plotlines to carry itself as two or three separate series’ in its own right. But while it can confuse at times thanks to some continued pacing problems, it does succeed tremendously in making its characters far more interesting. The returning cast have resumed their roles with much more confidence than they could muster first season, particularly Alexa Davalos as Juliana and Luke Kleintank as Joe. Both seemed as befuddled about their roles at times as we were, but their own performances here are far more focused than anything thus far.
It helps that their own arcs are tied with some of the stronger characters. Juliana’s eventual escape to New York also earns her the acquaintance of John Smith, who opts to accept her asylum request. Even with the conclusion of this current season, Smith - with Trade Minister Tagomi a close second - is the most engaging character the show has. Sewell’s layered portrayal of him, both as benevolent family patriarch and ruthless Nazi overseer, have made him indispensable to the show’s success. The second season allows us to have a deeper glimpse into his personal life as well, with Juliana befriending both he and the family after the decision to grant her a new life on Nazi soil. Smith may have succeeded in his operation to secure one of The Man In The High Castle’s coveted films through Joe’s efforts, but he now faces an even larger crisis than the internal coup d’etat he survived in the first season. His son, affable school achiever and Hitler Youth member Thomas (Quinn Lord), is gradually beginning to suffer muscular dystrophy. The requirements of the Reich to resolve such a situation, if they were to find out, are straightforward - he must be euthanized for the good of the Aryan race. With only the family physician, Dr. Adler (Kevin McNulty), being knowledgeable of his son’s impending ailments, Smith decides to take action into his own hands - murdering Adler with the very lethal injection given to administer to his son, in order to prevent the news from getting out.
It’s both a fascinating side-plot, but also a very affecting one - with Juliana seeing the Smith family at first hand (and also witnessing one of Thomas’ fits for herself during Dr. Adler’s own funeral), we get to see a human side to John and his wife Helen (Chelah Horsdal), as they come to terms with both their son’s failing health and what it means for their unit as a whole - Adler’s murder notwithstanding. It’s one of the season’s many tangled storylines, but it’s dealt with in a thoroughly effective manner, and comes with a surprising ending that the build-up to the final episodes does well to mask. It’s not all heartfelt drama - after all, Smith still has to deal with the tumultuous power shifts happening in Berlin, not to mention figure out who sent Reinhard Heydrich out to depose him from American command - but it’s a perspective that definitely needed placing on a man who, up until now, has had no trouble enforcing the policies and ethics of Nazi rule.
Meanwhile Joe (whose real name, it turns out, is actually Josef) is summoned to Berlin to reunite with his previously-estranged father, Reichsminister Martin Heusmann (Sebastian Roche). Heusmann, it transpires, is a typically charismatic Nazi statesman - a man who embodies (and espouses) all of the Aryan ideals that the Fatherland hinges itself upon. Heusmann in particular becomes a central figure to the show’s proceedings as the series wears on, as German and Japanese tensions reach a boiling point. But it is his scenes with Joe - particularly with some of the revelations he has about his son’s true origins - that make for a critical catalyst for the latter’s much-needed fleshing out as a character. While Joe does get himself a new love interest in young German film-maker Nicole (Bella Heathcote), it doesn’t feel all that important due to Heathcote’s somewhat bland performance, which is surprising considering her recent good track record (The Neon Demon, etc.). Instead, it is Joe’s developing relationship with his father that makes his own search for identity within the ranks of the Nazi regime interesting. Much like Sewell can offer John Smith a complex moral persona, so too does Roche provide the same for Heusmann, proffering both warm paternal love for his son as well as the kind of social programming mantras that his SS peers would throw salutes at. He makes for both a bewitching and a beguiling figure, a leader and a tyrant, and is a key component for why this series’ closing episodes become so engaging.
Meanwhile, the Japanese arc has it own moments too. Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Togawa) and Kempeitai head Inspector Kido (Joel De La Fuente) remain compelling figures, largely thanks to the continued efforts of Togawa and De La Fuente who keep things on the West Coast of this story as captivating as they were first season. Through continued meditation, Tagomi has finally been able to travel to the realities that Juliana has only seen via film reels. He has seen the Americans win WW2 and has seen a 1960s United States remarkably similar to our own - complete with white-picket neighbourhoods and ‘Ban the Bomb’ protests. Even more perplexingly, he has been able to see in this reality that he has a son, Nori (Eddie Shin), who is married to the Juliana Crane of this world. In among spending time in this ‘other time’ trying to make sense of it all, both he and his peer Kido also have to deal with the arrival of General Onoda (Tzi Ma), one of mainland Japan’s highest ranking military officials, to SF soil. Onoda’s reason for visiting is largely about embiggening Japan’s claim to geo-political dominance of the American continent - especially with Hitler weakening by the day. But he also reveals that Japanese intelligence has gained knowledge on the technology that can put The Third Reich to the sword - a Nazi invention classified as a Heisenberg Device, or in short, an atomic bomb. With Japanese scientists able to construct their own nuclear arsenal from this knowledge, Onoda is convinced that the building of such weapons will bring about Germany’s defeat - a possibility that peace advocate Tagomi, who has seen a non-violent future for America with his own eyes, is appalled to learn about - especially when in the first season, it was he himself who leaked defecting Nazi Rudolph Wegener’s intel of his own nation’s nuclear ambitions to the Japanese ministry in the first place.
Between Onoda’s saber rattling, Tagomi’s reality shifts and Kido seemingly alone in preventing Japan from launching an all-out war, the West Coast segment of this sprawling saga is remarkably quiet, save for Tagomi’s continued discoveries about his own life in 1960s America, and a colossally explosive ending. Instead, it’s up to the trinity of Frank, Ed and Childan to keep things moving along. In a plot shift that oddly undoes one of the first season’s cliffhangers, Ed, previously facing execution due to falsely confessing to the attempted assassination of the Japanese crown prince, finds himself miraculously freed after Frank and Childan team up to persuade the Yakuza to use their leverage to get him out of Kempeitai imprisonment, in return for a cut on their artifact forgery business. Of course, Frank has now landed the three of them in an even bigger hole of the organized crime variety - and there’s still the matter of Resistance business, plus his own mission for vengeance, to worry about too. It’s engaging enough, even if it’s largely thanks to Childan - his one-liners, rampant sychophantry to anyone Japanese and general discomfort he has with his peers landing him in one situation after another - that their own side-plot remains entertaining. You can definitely sense though that the bond between these three becomes increasingly legitimate as the episodes go by. DJ Qualls as Ed is unquestionably the linchpin of their burgeoning camaraderie - he’s just such a likeable underdog that I would genuinely be irritated if he actually was to suffer a fate at the hands of Kempeitai further on in the show. Frank meanwhile, is still Frank - having become so annoyingly single-minded in his quest to avenge just about everybody, this also means that he ends up at loggerheads with just about everybody at one point or another. His sudden and brief fling with fellow Resistance member and new character, Sarah (Cara Mitsuko), is also one of the season’s sillier moments. While Sarah is certainly an engaging addition to the cast given her staunch insistence on identifying as American despite her Japanese heritage (and Mitsuko lending her a steely, no-bullshit sense of resolve), her brief clinch with Frank - one that occurs barely two minutes after they get acquainted with each other - is about as token and ridiculous as it gets. Still, Evans, much like Davalos and Kleintank alongside him, has at least worked out all of his first-season jitters. Whether or not he can be gotten behind as a character though remains to be seen.
In any case the writing has definitely gone up a notch - surprising when you consider just how broad and ambitious its plot has become, and the stuttering start that this franchise has made as a whole. In the first season it felt too often as though Juliana and the rest of her freedom fighter ilk were just bit-part players in a world far bigger than them, while the markedly more interesting ‘bad guys’ drove the plot. Now, thanks to the writers allowing them to mingle with members of the ‘other side’ instead of keeping them separate, it feels like they have a much bigger role to play - and can actually be the protagonists they were supposed to be. But the most important thing now is that everything has a direction - it’s laid down pretty early on that German-Japanese relationships are on the brink of nuclear war (specifically with Hitler’s rapid decline), and with Juliana questing to avert it by finding this unknown Nazi officer (if only to bring about their demise), the show definitely has an end-of-season goal to work towards. Thanks to some stellar work from much of the cast and some shrewd, twist-laden episodes leading up to the climax, it also gets to that goal in more than competent fashion too.
It’s still not all completely perfect - as previously mentioned, Frank and Sarah’s interpersonal relationship feels awkward, but Joe also ends up going on a ludicrous LSD trip to discover his true calling. Juliana too, ends up doing some desperately laughable things to once again avoid Resistance capture as her pursuers infiltrate Reich territory to go after her. There is still a lot of navel-gazing that happens. A few plot points that resolve or unite themselves in confusing fashion. Some shots are sloppily cut, and very silly directing decisions persist (one tense conversation between Juliana and Obergruppenfuhrer Smith frequently cuts to perspectives of Smith from the P.O.V of Julianna’s elbow). But you get the feeling that the shackles are slowly coming off of this series, that cast and crew are learning alike from their mistakes. And that can only bode well for the seasons to come.
Newcomers to the show should still persevere with the first season before viewing this one - it’s still worth watching, and thanks to its increasingly intricate nature, not one of those sagas you can just drop in and out of. But the wheels are seriously starting to move on The Man In The High Castle, and a bigger, more enthralling destination seems to be emerging on the horizon. Mistakes or otherwise, there’s still so much potential and questions to be answered, that it would seem foolish to jump off of it now.