SPOILERS: This is a review of the last five episodes of Man in the High Castle season 2. This castle is filled with secrets, war mongering, and Japanese-Americans.
Before we continue, let me reveal that a major event of the second half of this season is the assassination of Adolf Hitler through poison, and the rise of Joe’s father, Martin Heausmann as the interim Chancellor.
Juliana is, in fact, the lynchpin to everything. She makes friends with the Smiths, she learns Thomas’ secret, and she gains the trust of the socialites of the Reich. When she realizes that Hitler is dead, she uses that trust to gain access to a high ranking American Nazi, Lucy’s husband. In a Resistance formed plan, he announces on TV that the public has been lied to, and that Hitler is in fact dead. For this, he is killed on camera by a Nazi soldier.
Juliana, believing that her duty is done, is desperate to escape the Reich. Juliana can’t seem to make friends anywhere. For a character meant to believe in people, she’s trusts the wrong people again and again. When the Reich Resistance finds out that she’s been keeping Thomas’ illness a secret from them, they attempt to kill her.
Too bad she’s literally an Aikido expert. George Dixon was left off that memo, so he’s shocked when Juliana claims that killing her was part of the plan. His plan includes him dressed a Nazi. Maybe Juliana put two and two together. Or maybe she just wanted to protect an innocent young boy. But she shoots George Dixon in order to get back evidence of Thomas’ disease. Just like the films foretold.
In the end, Juliana makes her way back to the Neutral Zone. Abendson meets her and tells her that he always knew she would be the one to do it. She would be the one to kill George the false Nazi and she would in turn stop a potential nuclear war. As a reward, he leads her to Trudy. Turns out Trudy is alive and well, and has been waiting for Juliana.
Frank, knowing that he will probably die at the hands of a Nazi, thanks to one of the Man’s films, is determined to live out his life resisting as much as possible.
Lucky for him that when Childan and Ed go to make their first trade, the Kempetai step in. Turns out the Yakuza have been selling secrets to the Germans and Chief Inspector Kido calls for their execution. Ed, Frank, and Childan are free. Childan also sees potential in Ed as a salesman. He offers Ed a partnership between the three of them.
But Ed doesn’t even get a chance to discuss it with Frank. Juliana, still convinced of the bombing of San Francisco, convinces Arnold to leave, who in turn convinced Frank. Or at the least, he convinces Frank to evacuate Ed and Childan. The last we see of that duo, they’re heading to the Neutral Zone.
That leaves Frank and the Resistance. The Resistance decides to use a car bomb to blow up the main Japanese headquarters and Frank decides that he will be the martyr. He thinks he’s going to die anyway, so it might as well be here.
Sara goes too, knowing she will die, but knowing she will die for her cause. Together, they manage to infiltrate the building, park the car and make it inside. All is going according to plan until Kido recognizes Frank. Frank shoots Kido, knocking him aside just as the bomb goes off. Kido survives. There’s no image of Frank or Sara, so my assumption is that they are not in fact dead. We’ll have to wait until next season to see.
Tagomi’s alt-reality of 1962 consists of the rise of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the knowledge of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tagomi spent part of last season attempting to avoid nuclear war. He finds in his travels that a bombing was inevitable, but war is avoidable.
He returns to his reality, having made peace with his family. He carries footage of a bomb back with him, and uses it as evidence that Japanese are as formidable as the Germans. Believing that the Japanese have poisoned Hitler, Germany is ready for war. But Tagomi’s footage makes them think otherwise. Or makes them stop long enough for John Smith to arrive on the scene.
As previously written, Kido is found alive after the Resistance bombs his building. Kido has spent most of this season trying to avoid what seems to be an unavoidable war. But right after the bombing, Tagomi gives him the footage of the alt-reality bombing. It is Kido who travels to the Reich States. And it is Kido who convinces John Smith that the Japanese have no interest in a war with Germany. In fact, Kido’s actions are probably what saved the world. But John Smith is the one to take all the glory.
Oh, Joe. Listless, wayward Joe. After reeling from the revelation that he is Lebensborn, he steps out of his father’s realm and into Nicole’s. Together, they party, take LSD, and make love. Through this, Joe is still in love with Juliana, but he still believes she is dead.
Joe, finally ready to make a difference, steps into a Nazi uniform. Shortly after, Hitler dies and his father becomes the most powerful Nazi in the world.
The cult of Hitler is a major part of this show, and Joe’s father makes it clear that the Reich must be able to live on past its founding father. It is Joe’s father who accuses the Japanese of murder and Joe’s father who approves the bombing of major world cities in order to regain control from the Resistance.
Part of what suddenly made the final episodes so relevant to me, is not just the idea of an oncoming nuclear war. It was also the idea of what it is to be an American. Chancellor Heusmann and the other Nazis in Berlin subscribe to the belief that American Nazis are inferior to German Nazis. Therefore they are expendable. Joe and John Smith, in their different ways, must fight for their land and their way of life. In the end, Joe is betrayed by his father.
Everything ends with John Smith. While the first half of this season focuses on John as a father, the second half focuses on him as a bureaucrat. John is at the center of everything.
In the latter half of this season, we find him scheming to kill off his son (having him get “kidnapped” instead of being found out as defective), having him in cahoots with Kido on preventing nuclear war, and having him find out the biggest plot of all.
Thanks to the real-life Nazi Heydritch, who Smith has kept locked up all season, we find out that interim Chancellor Heussman is the mastermind behind the wheels of war. He’s the one who attacked the Crown Prince in Season 1 (a plot point which is largely forgotten about after episode 5). He’s the one who poisoned Hitler. And he’s the one pushing for the war, even after seeing Smith’s “evidence” that the Japanese are ready for war.
In the end, Smith is the hero of the season. He’s the one who saves the world from nuclear holocaust. What that has to do with Juliana killing Dixon in the alley has yet to be seen. And though Smith may succeed in one endeavor, he fails in his other.
By showing himself to be a great and obedient Nazi, he also inspires his son to do the same. Thomas turns himself in as defective, much to the heartbreak of his mother and his father, who worked so hard to protect Thomas from his fate, isn’t even there to say good-bye.
I said in my last review that this show seems to have lost its teeth. The second half of this season doesn’t pick up enough to prove me otherwise. Try as they might, Season 2 is not the gripping thriller Amazon Studios hopes it will be. It’s popcorn TV, something enjoyable if you’re simultaneously making Doctor Who placemats at your mom’s house. (Yep, I did that. Placemats for everyone!)
The one thing that I really appreciated about this season is something most viewers probably didn’t even catch. See, my family is Japanese-American. And anytime I see Asians on TV, I get a little excited. Anytime I see Asians on TV and we’re not ninjas, dragon ladies, or asexual punchlines, I get even more giddy. I have a whole podcast dedicated to Asian American in films. And sure, the Japanese are in charge of the Pacific States. Sure there are several fully realized Japanese male characters.
This show mentioned not only Japanese Internment (a part of history most classrooms barely cover), but also what it means to be Japanese-American. In both the show’s 1962, and Tagomi’s 1962, characters talk about straddling that fine line of what it it to be American and looking like what most perceive to be an immigrant.
I think most American-born people of color can identify with the struggle of being seen as an alien in your own country. When you don’t look stereotypically American (meaning Caucasian to the max), then even when you declare “I was born in this country,” people will still qualify you as an “other.” Your “otherness” is as much a part of your identity as your American heritage.
It’s a topic I rarely see in TV, unless it’s a specifically an immigrant story (see All-American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat.) In MITHC, the idea is subtle. It’s brought up by Sara, a former internee at Manzanar. And by Tagomi’s son, a Nisei or second-generation. My mother is second-generation Japanese-American. My grandfather lived through the war. This is the closest I have ever come to seeing my maternal family being portrayed onscreen. It’s not quite parity, but it’s a damn good start.
Overall, Man in the High Castle was a disappointment. There were too many meandering plot lines. There wasn’t a lot of investment into the actual oppression of the world. And by showing both the oppressed and the oppressor, by trying to live in a moral grey spot, the show doesn’t really give you anyone to root for. Rooting for anti-heroes is nothing new (see: Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad). But since these characters are rather flimsy, rooting for them to do anything is difficult.
Getting a new showrunner for Season 3 will hopefully make a huge difference. Like they say, third times the charm! Here’s to one last shot.