Not much time has passed in the world of The Man In The High Castle between seasons one and two, but in our world, it’s a whole different story. Last fall, Donald Trump was anything but sure bet to secure the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. Now many of us feel like we’ve woken up in an alternate universe dystopia, where white nationalism is on the rise and democracy itself is in peril. As an organic piece of viral marketing for a series about an America under the thumb of the Axis powers, it’s a bit too on-the-nose. The actual marketing campaign for High Castle’s second season was no doubt in the works before the election results were known, but that doesn’t make it any more comforting to see Manhattan draped in banners bearing the image of the Statue of Liberty giving the Nazi salute.
Big changes have taken place behind the scenes as well. Series creator Frank Spotnitz abruptly departed the show over those fabled creative differences midway through production on the second season. He was replaced by no one, as the remaining producers soldiered on to complete the season without naming a new showrunner. (One will presumably be brought in if the show continues beyond this year.) Whatever creative changes this shake-up may bring about, they aren’t immediately apparent, as Spotnitz wrote the script for the season premiere, “The Tiger’s Cage.”
For now, at least, that means The Man In The High Castle retains all the attributes and flaws of its first season. In the aftermath of “A Way Out,” there is distance between the characters, both geographically and emotionally. Joe is on a fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean, still in possession of the film can containing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Having spared Joe’s life, Juliana is hot water with Resistance colleagues Lem and Karen, as well as a menacing new character named Gary Connell (Callum Keith Rennie). Frank is back in San Francisco, wracked with guilt over Ed’s arrest for the assassination of the crown prince. John Smith arrives home in New York safely after dealing with the Heydrich betrayal on his hunting trip. Trade Minister Tagomi, still shaken by his visit to the alternate universe, confides only in his trusted assistant Kotomichi.
After this round of catch-up, season two kicks into gear with the introduction of the title character. As it turns out, Adolf Hitler is simply a man in a high castle, not the man in the high castle…which isn’t a castle at all, but an airplane hangar. The timing of the revelation is a surprise; the identity of the actor playing the role would have been, had Amazon not announced it several weeks before the season dropped. Stephen Root is Abendson, a twitchy, temperamental, and unkempt conspiracist whose hangar is filled with film cans, all of which contain glimpses of other realities. When Juliana is delivered to him by the Resistance, she learns he already knows much about her life in this world and others. No sooner is season one’s mystery man revealed, however, than a new one is introduced: a man who appears in many of the films, sometimes as a Nazi and sometimes as a partisan. Juliana recognizes him but can’t place him; Abendson reveals that he may be crucial to the fate of their world. In every film in which the Japanese won the war, San Francisco is subsequently destroyed by a nuclear blast, the only exception being one in which the mystery man appears.
Back in San Francisco, Frank embarks on a dodgy scheme to get Ed freed from the Kempeitai. He blackmails the Americana dealer Childan into helping him enlist an influential Japanese citizen into pulling strings on Ed’s behalf. Frank settles on Kasoura, the Yakuza lawyer to whom he and Childan sold a counterfeit Sitting Bull necklace. When Kasoura shows no interest, Frank immediately confesses the forgery, much to Childan’s chagrin. It’s classic Frink: a flailing maneuver that should get him killed immediately but will probably end up working out somehow.
And then there‘s Joe, the hole at the center of the doughnut. When the fishermen on the boat turn against him, he is able to work out a deal for his freedom in exchange for a crate full of money. Alas, there’s a bomb at the bottom of that crate, which detonates shortly after Joe and the film have been delivered back to the Nazis. Back in New York with his mission accomplished, Joe tell Smith he wants to resign. “This isn‘t the man I wanted to be,“ says the man whose motivation remained fluid and self-serving throughout season one. If this year brings some clarity and purpose to the show’s least compelling character, that will be a huge step in the right direction.
Visually, The Man In The High Castle is consistent with last season, all looming grey skies and shadowy earth-toned interiors, often lit with a single harsh source. The occasional piece of striking imagery, such as the view of the gleaming New Reich from Hitler’s headquarters, enlivens the generally gloomy palette. It’s hard to deny that the oppressive mood carries extra weight given the current political climate, an external factor over which the production had absolutely no control. The first season presented a what-if scenario that invited us to ponder whether it could happen here. By an accident of history, the second season forces us to confront far more chilling questions: Is it happening here now? And if so, is there anything we can do about it?
- RIP Karen, the Resistance fighter gunned down during Juliana’s escape. We hardly knew you (and I hardly remembered you before brushing up on season one to write this review).
- Old Hitler has the shakes. He’s paranoid about the existence of the alternate universe films, and orders Smith to track down the Man in the High Castle ASAP.
- The Heisenberg Device is still in play, and General Onada intends to deploy it against the Nazi-occupied States.
- Fritz Julius Kuhn High School is named after the leader of the American Nazi organization the German American Bund, which (it stands to reason) fared better in this timeline than our own.
- As with last season, new episode reviews will appear Mondays and Wednesdays beginning next week.