Amazon’s hit drama The Man in the High Castle finally returns after a nearly two-year hiatus, but the national conversation about the Nazi Party has remained audible while it’s been away in ways the streaming service never could have predicted. How will this sci-fi odyssey play to a world in which men march with Nazi flags in Charlottesville and people like David Duke tweet compliments at the president? And will the writers of this show endeavor to comment on hate and violence in the ’10s with their platform or simply offer a what-if escape from reality? The first episode is so remarkably crowded with plot refreshers and developments that it’s hard to say yet how current The Man in the High Castle will feel. Even at 70 minutes, we’re too busy keeping track of the characters to relate it to the issues of today.
It is somewhat remarkable how much the writers of The Man in the High Castle are willing to divide their show into multiple plot arcs across the country, with three distinct settings and characters who rarely intersect. The first half of this episode jumps between them so much it’s nearly hyperactive, although it slows down nicely in the final 20 minutes. With the divided approach to storytelling, it’s easiest to break out each arc into separate sections instead of a traditional recap. We may not do this every episode, but it certainly feels easiest now.
NEW YORK CITY
The Reich dominates the Big Apple and the East side of the country, and that’s where we find Joe Blake and Obergruppenführer John Smith. Joe has been taken prisoner after the events of the end of last season, and the Reich is basically torturing him. They start by spraying water at him, but it devolves into one of the most truly horrific scenes in the history of the show as Joe is forced to shoot his traitorous father. Will this act turn Joe back to a party loyalist or make him even more defiant? We get a sign of how Joe responded to his treatment in the final scene when he smacks a Nazi in an alley with a shovel before heading off to an assignment in San Francisco. He’s not a loyal Nazi. It would be nice of High Castle to reunite Joe and Juliana in the Resistance after separating them for all of last season.
Meanwhile, Smith is still deep in the trauma caused by his son Thomas turning himself in at the end of the last season. Thomas, who was sick and, therefore, inadequate in the eyes of a party that demands genetic purity, has become a symbol for the Nazis, who plan to use his sacrifice as a political talking point to encourage their people. Thomas Smith was willing to die for his party — what are you willing to do for the Nazis?
As Smith ascends to a greater role in the Nazi Party, the issue of how Thomas’s death is tearing apart his family continues to haunt him. This episode also introduces a couple of players who are clearly trying to undermine Smith, based on real people from American history — George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party and the American Reichsmarshall on the show and J. Edgar Hoover himself. They put on a good face in public, especially at the unveiling of Thomas C. Smith High School, but they’re working behind the scenes to topple Smith. The best visual of the episode comes in this section as a crowd of people, including the Smith children, give the Sieg Heil to a portrait of Thomas, but his grieving parents just clasp hands.
One more NYC thread that seems to be going places: It appears that Nicole Dormer, Bella Heathcote’s character, is going to have an arc this season outside of her relationship with Joe. She’s been tasked with becoming the new Leni Riefenstahl of the party, first meeting with a group of ad men (and who wouldn’t watch a Mad Men riff set in this world?) and later filming the Thomas Smith ceremony.
Kido is on a rampage since the end of last season, killing any Resistance members he finds while also interviewing a replacement for a new second-in-command. This brings him Nakamura, a half-white man whom he tasks with finding a Resistance leader named Hagen in the Neutral Zone. They need him alive to interrogate him. It feels like the Japanese arena of this year’s story is going to be more violent and vicious. While the Reich has full control over New York City, to the point where its leaders are treated like royalty in the streets, the leadership in San Francisco is trying to destroy anything in its way.
Well, with the exception of Tagomi, who remains the voice of calm in the Japanese regime. The trade minister was sent the only remaining films of the Man in the High Castle, all of which feature Juliana Crain, with whom he has a unique connection. Remember, Tagomi is a “traveler,” someone who can move between the alternate realities, including one in which the Japanese and Germans lost World War II, and one in which, as we saw last season, Juliana is his daughter-in-law. Tagomi knows that Juliana is the key to peace.
Speaking of Ms. Crain, she’s still stuck in the Neutral Zone, fighting against the powers that seek to destroy the Resistance. At the beginning of the season, she’s with the Man in the High Castle and his wife, and also accompanied by her dead sister Trudy. It turns out that Trudy is also a “traveler,” a visitor from an alternate reality in which Kido didn’t shoot her, sending Juliana on her quest for truth and justice.
First, Juliana learns that the Man in the High Castle made the first “U.S. Wins the War” newsreel himself from real footage — is this a commentary on the propaganda power of “fake news” — but even in this footage Juliana spots a young version of herself. She’s been in every piece of film that matters and is clearly a major part of every timeline. The Man tells her that Tagomi knows how it ends for her, sending her to find him as he flees with his wife after a failed attack by the Nazis on all of their lives.
Second, after some bonding with Trudy, the sisters go out to a bar where Juliana draws closer to a Resistance member she just met named Wyatt Price. They dance. It’s kind of lame that Juliana needs a new love interest this shortly after the show loses Frank Frink but the show could use some passion. The hectic episode slows down here in this flirtation scene, implying that Wyatt isn’t going anywhere soon as a character (Jason O’Mara’s name in the credits adds fuel to that theory).
Later that night, Trudy has a seizure, and Juliana knows they need to get her back to her reality. They go to Tagomi to find out how to do just that.
Join the Resistance
• There are clearly three new major supporting characters introduced in this season premiere — Wyatt, Edgar, and George. And it’s apparent that Belle Heathcote’s Nicole Dormer is going to play a bigger part as well. Is it all enough to make you forget Frank Frink?
• On that note, if you’re wondering if DJ Qualls’s Ed McCarthy rode a bus out of the show at the end of last season, the fact that his name is still in the credits means probably not.
• There’s a nice shot of the Nazi flag in Times Square as Joe Blake looks out the window. I hope for more creative production design touches like that this season.
• The creepiest version of “Edelweiss” imaginable is back in the opening credits to haunt your dreams. Great.
• The Man in the High Castle suffered a great deal from lack of confidence last season after the departure of showrunner Frank Spotnitz. It’s interesting that they went with kind of a big name for writing credit to start this one, Wesley Strick, the man who penned the remakes of Cape Fear and A Nightmare on Elm Street, along with Arachnophobia, Wolf, and Doom.
• After Spotnitz’s departure, Eric Overmyer was brought in to executive produce this season, and he made it through the whole season (unlike Spotnitz last year). We’ll see how he changes the show over the next nine hours, if at all.