The first season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle had great peaks separated by frustrating inconsistencies. It often felt like a show lacking confidence, one afraid to take the risks that elevate the best television programs. However, it ended strongly, with a series of revelations and cliffhangers that hinted at a more ambitious sophomore outing.
So, what does The Man in the High Castle need to do in season two? Now that the show has a mandate from fans — the first season made it Amazon’s most-streamed original series — it has room to take risks and develop its own identity outside of its high concept. The big questions may actually not be plot-related, though. First, will the show’s behind-the-scenes drama be perceptible onscreen? And second, how will a show about Nazi rule in the United States play differently in a world where the president-elect has been compared to Hitler?
The conclusion of last season dictates that our three leads — Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) and Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) — are separated to start this premiere episode, which is itself a bit of a risk in terms of storytelling. I’m happy the writers didn’t see the need to push them back together immediately, allowing them their own arcs to start the season. After a very clever opening scene in which a Norman Rockwell–esque vision of America is warped through a Third Reich filter as kids perform a very different Pledge of Allegiance, we catch up with Joe, escaping San Francisco with the film that became the central focus of the first season. In the finale, Juliana refused to kill him, letting Joe escape with the reel. Of course, that leaves Juliana in some hot water; she’s now basically a prisoner of the Resistance she betrayed.
We’re introduced to our first major new supporting player of the season, an enforcer for the Resistance named Gary, played by the excellent character actor Callum Keith Rennie. Gary and Lem (Rick Worthy) confront Juliana. She watched the illicit film, in which she saw a bombed San Francisco and a Nazi-uniform-wearing Joe shooting Frank in the head, and she could describe it frame by frame to the Man in the High Castle.
Frank is a prisoner as well, but of the Kempeitai. He meets Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), confesses to shooting the Crown Prince, and demands that the Japanese forces let Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls) go. Kido refuses. McCarthy confessed; case closed. Shortly thereafter, our second guest star pops up: General Onada (Tzi Ma) is visiting the Pacific States and demanding details about the investigation from Kido. Kido claims that the film they were pursuing wound up in the hands of the Yakuza.
Meanwhile on the East Coast, Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) arrives home to a very relieved wife. Heydrich will be arrested and tried and hanged. Everything will be fine for their family. But first, Joe has to get the film to Smith. The crew on the ship on which Joe’s escaping threaten to turn him in, but Joe bribes them to the tune of 200,000 yen each. Of course, you should never trust Nazis: After helicoptering in to pick up Joe and drop off the rewards for the men, they blow up the ship. An interesting theme of this season could be the collateral damage of living in wartime, and how making selfish decisions — like taking money to not turn in a Nazi — can lead to tragedy.
Onada wants to meet with Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who was always a pacifist and more meditative and thoughtful than his peers, but is likely to be even more so after his vision of a peaceful, alternative future. Tagomi wants parity and harmony, but Onada has other plans. Although the Japanese have maintained an alliance with the Nazis for years, those days appear to be over. Tagomi closes his eyes and hears sounds of Americana, much like an AM radio signal being tuned in. Will he be able to instantly access a world in which World War II ended differently? Onada claims that they now have the data to build a Heisenberg device that they plan to point at Nazi targets in New York City. Tagomi knows this path can only lead to mutually assured destruction.
While Joe and Smith are fighting over the fact that Joe couldn’t kill Juliana, Arnold (Daniel Roebuck) comes looking for his stepdaughter. He sees that Frank is beaten and shaken. Frank lets him have it. Arnold’s betrayal got his daughter Trudy killed. Arnold warns Frank to forget Ed. Leave it alone, he suggests. This could also be an interesting theme of the season: the ease with which one can choose to survive under tyranny instead of risking death by fighting back. Frank refuses to just survive. Inaction got his sister and her family killed. He’s been formed by that event and he can’t give up. He goes to Childan (Brennan Brown), the antiques dealer from last season, looking for a patsy.
Juliana wakes up in what looks like a mobile home with a mysterious man played by the excellent Stephen Root, and we’ve finally reached the character who gives the show its title. Yes, this is Abendsen Hawthorne, a.k.a. the Man in the High Castle. Collecting films that offer visions of alternate universes and potential futures have driven Abendsen a bit mad, and Root wonderfully captures a character on the edge of that line between genius and insanity. He knows a thing or two about Juliana, too, telling her, “You have an unnatural mind.” Abendsen’s films are warnings about things that could happen here, and reveal potential arcs for people in the real world. There’s only one film in which the Japanese won the war that doesn’t end in nuclear winter on the West Coast — one in which a soldier is found dead in an alley. They need to find that soldier, since it’s the only film that portends a non-nuclear future. The Man in the High Castle is convinced that Juliana knows him and can help.
After a thematically interesting scene in which Tagomi speaks to Wegener’s widow — which essentially asks, at what point is effort meaningless if the world still ends in nuclear fallout? — Frank and Childan go to Kasoura (Louis Ozawa Changchien), the man whom Frank helped swindle last year. Frank admits the forgery as they try to convince Kasoura to help free Ed.
Cut back to Gary, who has to decided kill Juliana. Understandably, Lem and Karen (Camille Sullivan) are upset. Juliana wakes up in the trunk and tries to pry her way out. She gets free and rolls to safety just outside a gas station where some Kempeitai are patrolling. As Gary pulls a gun on a fleeing Juliana, the soldiers pull their weapons on him. The standoff quickly erupts, shots are fired, and Karen ends up dead. As Juliana hides from the firefight, she has a flash of her own past — she knows the man in the film.
- The school at the beginning was named after Fritz Julius Kuhn, a real-life leader of the German-American Bund, a Nazi-supporting group in the United States. In the ‘30s, he led the group that tried to encourage American support of Hitler. (They even held an infamous rally at Madison Square Garden.) The nod to history is a clever choice, given the themes of the show regarding country and loyalty.
- In a meta sense, the Man in the High Castle’s films are stand-ins for the show itself: stories that reveal an alternate reality as a means to highlight human conditions and potential futures in the real one.
- What great supporting additions this year. If you’re wondering where you know Rennie from, he was on Battlestar Galactica, The Killing, Californication, and, recently, Longmire. He also had a good film year in 2016, appearing in Born to Be Blue and Into the Forest. Tzi Ma just appeared in a crucial role in Arrival. And surely, we all know the greatness that is Stephen Root.