The Man in the High Castle
The second episode of an Amazon-produced show is a unique thing. Although Fargo, The Leftovers, and other prestige shows tend to get multiple-episode orders from the get-go, Amazon’s “pilot season” green lights a show differently. Each pilot is crafted to hook an audience, but there’s no guarantee of more episodes to come. So, when a show like The Man in the High Castle returns ten months after its first episode, it must accomplish two things: re-hook viewers who saw the pilot nearly a year ago, and confidently define the identity of the series. “Sunrise” pulls The Man in the High Castle toward dark directions, setting the stage for grim stories to come.
After the tragically-named Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) is taken into custody and beaten by Japanese soldiers, the episode heads out to Canon City. Joe (Luke Kleintank) buys a hotel room for Juliana (Alexa Davalos), and we notice an unexplained scar on her back. They drive out of town, then watch the sunrise from a nearby dam. It’s all a bit dreamy. Kleintank and Davalos seem more comfortable here than they did in the pilot, which is a thankful improvement.
Juliana gets a job at the Sunrise Diner, while Joe goes to a bar and discovers that he missed a call from Obergruppenführer Smith (Rufus Sewell). We get a bit more background on this terrifying Nazi: He lives in Long Island, where he runs an characteristically disciplined home. As his son reads a textbook at the breakfast table, Smith gives him a speech about the moral decay that threatens to take over the country. His boy, though, will make the world better. When Joe returns Smith’s call, he reveals that he learned the cargo is a film. Smith isn’t happy: “Satisfy yourself with following orders.”
Back to poor, doomed Frank. After he’s stripped, we get our first notable encounter with Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), the terrifying head of the Kempeitai. Kido asks Frank why he’s not circumcised, then reveals that he knows his grandfather was Jewish. Frank tries to protest, but Kido isn’t interested. (“Jews don’t get to decide if they’re Jews.”) If Frank doesn’t reveal where Juliana went with her sister’s package, Kido will execute his sister and her children for being Jewish.
Meanwhile at the Sunrise Diner, Juliana works while waiting for her contact. A man in the diner (Allan Havey) is reading a Bible. (The character isn’t given a name, so let’s call him Bible Man.) Religious texts like the Bible are forbidden in both Pacific States and the Reich, which is an interesting wrinkle. Why has religious freedom been squashed? Could resistance possibly emerge through organized religion?
Bible Man asks Juliana for his check at precisely 12:05 p.m., the same time that was written on her sister’s note. Is he the contact? He spouts a philosophical speech about self-sacrifice, points Juliana toward a specific verse, and gives her money to buy a Bible. It seems like he’s the contact. How very Maltese Falcon of him.
At the Japanese Authority Building in San Francisco, a meeting with the Nazi Ambassador goes all wrong. The Germans are concerned about the Resistance. They know about Frank’s arrest and also want to capture Juliana; both sides are going to descend on Canon City for her newsreel. Why? And how will it affect German-Japanese relations? Tension is on the rise, and Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is particularly concerned. Nobody was supposed to tell the Germans about Frank. There’s a mole somewhere.
As Smith and a soldier talk about the High Castle films back in New York, they’re suddenly ambushed by the Resistance. An expertly-staged scene of the shootout follows Smith, who gets pinned down under heavy fire. After he runs out of bullets, he grabs the injured soldier’s gun, then shoots a man before an explosion destroys the alley. The ambush was part of multiple, coordinated Resistance attacks. Smith alters his route every day, but the Resistance still knew where to attack him. A mole must be hiding in the Reich, too.
Meanwhile, Frank is still chained up and being tortured by the Kempeitai. He discovers that the prisoner in the cell next door, a man named Randall, is the one who gave the “Grasshopper” newsreel to Juliana’s sister. Whether he likes it or not, Frank is clearly stuck with the Resistance now. He tries to break the chains off the wall; he’s still not ready to accept the role that’s been forced upon him. Frank and Randall argue about the value of the “Grasshopper” reel. What good could it do now? The enemy already dropped napalm on Washington. Later, when Randall is beaten for talking too much, he encourages Frank to keep fighting: “Don’t let ‘em take your soul.”
It turns out, though, that they want much more than his soul. Kido meets with Frank’s sister and her two children, takes a photo of them, and shows that picture to Frank. As Kido tells him about Zyklon D, an “odorless and fast-acting” poison gas, Frank’s sister, niece, and nephew are locked in a room. The most terrifying shots of the episode follow, as Frank’s sister looks up at the ceiling, waiting for gas to fill the room. Before the dreadful execution begins, Frank is lined up in front of a firing squad.
Back in Canon City, Juliana meets with Bible Man again. Afterward, Juliana dodges Joe’s questions about him — he was secretly watching the encounter — which leads him to call Smith. Juliana pays Joe the money she owes him, and asks him to mail a letter back home if she doesn’t return from her meeting with Bible Man. After she leaves, Joe steams open the package and watches the “Grasshopper” reel. (This thing is basically the VHS tape from The Ring. It changes everyone who sees it.) From Smith, he learns that Bible Man is a dangerous undercover agent. He’s not a part of the Resistance or the Reich; he eliminates all subversives. Will Joe blow his cover to save Juliana?
In San Francisco, Kido discovers that Trudy’s satchel held counterfeit newsreels. It’s a dead end. Juliana poses no threat. Frank is saved from the firing squad, but not before Zyklon D kills his sister, niece and nephew in the gas chamber. He may be free to go, but the trauma of such an unimaginable horror has changed Frank. He’ll almost certainly help the Resistance now.
At the same time, Juliana meets Bible Man, who really is an undercover assassin. He awkwardly tries to push her off the dam, Joe rushes in to save the day, and after some really awkward fight choreography, Juliana flips him into the rushing water below the dam. As she and Joe stumble off, Frank’s sketch blows away in the wind.
- Juliana Crain’s initials are JC. Could this develop into a Christ allegory? I doubt it, but it’s worth noting, especially in an episode that quotes Bible verses.
- Joe watches a show in his hotel room called American Reich, which looks and sounds a lot like Dragnet. Yet another example of excellent world building.
- The production value seemed higher this episode than it did in the pilot. Does Amazon increase a show’s budget after they pick it up?
- Great dramas often cast great character actors. Havey, who was excellent on Mad Men, killed this week, as did Rob LaBelle as the bookseller who sells a Bible to Juliana.
- Two great musical choices this week: “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto, when Tagomi’s contact Wegener comes to meet him again; and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which plays while Joe spies on Juliana.