SPOILERS. This is a review of the first five episodes of Man in the High Castle. Enter at your own risk. Here be Nazi, Japanese Imperialists, and Revolutionaries.
I read the book to prepare for season 2. And though the plot of the show has greatly deviated from the original Phillip K Dick novel, it still manages to pull the most fantastical elements together. The alternate universe for Tagomi, the relationship between Juliana and Joe, the partnership of Frank and Childan, it’s all there – but how cohesive it is will have to be seen in the second half of the season. Season 2 picks up right where season 1 lets off.
Right after Juliana has let Joe go free, she’s back with the Resistance, explaining why she messed up the whole plan and let the Nazi go with the film. She’s then taken to see the Man in the High Castle, played delightfully by Stephen Root.
In the book, the Man wrote a book about America winning the war. So I was curious about how they would explain the films. If you’re looking for that answer, prepare to be disappointed. There’s not yet an explanation on how Abendson creates his works. He’s either a prophet or an eccentric old coot. Either way, he needs Juliana to identify one man, a Nazi shot dead in an alley.
I’ve always wondered what made Juliana so special. Alexa Davalo is fine in the role, but as a character Juliana is rather incompetent. She literally ruins everyone’s plans several times in season 1 because of her own arbitrary questionable morals.
Now we finally learn her purpose. Identify this man, this dead Nazi. And she can’t. She had one job and she couldn’t do it. So Abendson turns her back to the Resistance, though he says that she not be killed. Gary, who becomes a major player, thinks otherwise. His attempt to take Juliana’s life becomes a shoot out at a Kempetai Checkpoint.
Juliana manages to escape, but this scene sets the ground work for her story. Juliana is now a fugitive from both the Japanese and the Resistance. After a quick altercation with her mother, wonderfully played by Macall Gordon, Juliana defects to the Reich to find asylum, Joe Blake, and George Dixon.
Dixon, played by Tate Donovan, is a newcomer to the show. He’s Trudy’s father (Trudy is Julianna’s sister, killed in episode 1), a Resistance fighter, and the only possible connection to the Nazi in the alley. Under his guidance Juliana begins to infiltrate the High society of the Reich.
Joe Blake, having escaped the Resistance with the film, “negotiates” his way off the ship, then blows it up. The blood on his hands haunts Joe and takes him right out of the Reich. But John Smith has other plans.
Joe’s estranged father is a Reichminister named Heusmannin Berlin, which we learned in season 1. What we learn in season 2, in Berlin, is that Joe is a Lebensborn. Lebensborn are babies bred specifically for the purity of their race. Joe reels after finding out that his birth was manufactured by the Nazis.
Joe’s love life is also up in the air. His wife kicks him out, and he’s not in New York to see Juliana. Enter Nicole, a pretty Aryan filmmaker, who seems intent on befriending Joe. From the beginning she seems suspicious, but Joe has an affinity for trusting pretty women.
Last we saw Frank, he was about to kill the Crown Prince of Japan. He doesn’t do it, but the Crown Prince is shot nonetheless. Worse than that, his best friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls from The New Guy for all you 30 year old Millennials) gets the blame.
Joe spends the first few episodes of this season trying to free Ed. He goes into cahoots with the white antiques dealer, Childan, and then with the Japanese yakuza. Joe’s deal with the yakuza? He and Childan will counterfeit jewelry and Americana for the yakuza’s profit.
So when Ed gets free and their first payment is due, what does Frank do? Abandons everyone to go play the hero with the Resistance. He meets Sarah, a pretty Japanese-American girl who spent time in the internment camp Manzanar. He dismantled a bomb, shoots some soldiers, and takes part in a Resistance funeral for Karen, who died during Juliana’s escape.
But you know what else he does? Completely ignores the deal that he set up, putting everyone back into danger. The government might have tortured Ed, but the yakuza will just kill all of them. This plot line drove me crazy and made me very uninterested in anything going on with Frank.
Trade Minister Tagomi
Last season, Tagomi traveled to “real life” 1962. Lolita was a movie, there was baseball, and Americans freely walking around. This season, Tagomi spends more and more time in his meditation state, visiting this other reality.
In “real life” 1962, he reads about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No matter which reality he lives in, there will be violence and death. His wife and son are still alive. And he is a grandfather. And the mother of his grandchild is none other than Juliana Crane herself.
Usually when a show presents time traveling or alternate realities, it falls flat. It’s clunky, plotless, and a poorly used device. This presentation was elegant and seamless. While the show yet to reveal how this reality switching will affect his ultimate goal of parity and peace with the Germans, it makes for an interesting characterization of Tagomi as a sympathetic character. But being sympathetic is making him less effective in his reality.
Chief Inspector Kido
As Tagomi loses his grasp on the government, Chief Inspector Kids begins to take more control of his spectrum.
There a newcomer on this season. General Onoda is a strongman military leader bent on bombing the Reich using stolen German technology. Kido begins to curry favor with Onoda, reluctantly attending brothels and drinking the night away.
Kido’s ultimate goal has yet to be discovered. We know he wants to put someone to blame for the attempted assassination of the Crown Prince (he winds up using the deceased Karen as a his scapegoat). And we know he wants to retrieve Juliana Crain.
Chief Inspector Kido comes to see John Smith in a veiled attempt to retrieve Juliana. There’s more to his visit, but we won’t know what that means until later. The doors are closed to the audience, literally, and we’ll have to keep watching to find out if Kido got his wish.
SS Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith
And last, but not least, Reich Leader Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. Last season, we found out John’s son Thomas has some form of muscular dystrophy and is therefore “defective.” By Reich law, Thomas must be put down in order to not become a burden on society.
But instead of doing his civic duty and killing Thomas, John Smith kills Doctor Adler, the only other person who knew. News of Doctor Adler’s death makes its way to his wife, Helen, and of course she figures out what happens. But team Nazi-Smith trudges on with their secrets and lies.
Juliana slowly becomes at part of their lives, at John’s insistence. Helen is wary, which I’m sure will be covered in the latter half of the season. John slowly works his way deeper into the relationships of Joe and Juliana, which will hopefully pay off later on.
Episode Five, Duck and Cover, leaves us with John and Kido’s closed-door conversation. What do they have in store for the latter half of the season? We’ll have to wait and see.
Last season was more focused on world-building. This season is more focused on characters and their plot lines. But by focusing so much on the journeys of this ensemble, Amazon lost the mark on their greatest asset. This show was poised to be the allegory of the decade, with so much correlation between the TV show and the current world climate. Between Voldemort’s election and the fear surrounding it, I thought watching this show would be difficult.
Turns out, The Man has lost its teeth. With so many plots and characters to follow, this show is less about the stoking of revolution against authoritarian regimes, and more about plodding through the lives of these made-up creatures.
We don’t see the oppression, the fear, the reason to fight. We just see the brazen (and sometimes stupid) courage of revolutionaries and the political leanings of, well, the politicians. It’s interesting and a good binge watch.
But we live in a time in history when “alt-right” is just a euphemism for Neo-Nazis. And when something like Netflix’s Black Mirror is more relevant than a show about actual Nazis, then it’s really huge missed opportunity and misstep on Amazon’s part. I hope the second half of this season proves me wrong. Until then, I’ll just start making popcorn.