Five episodes were provided ahead of broadcast.
Along with Transparent, The Man In The High Castle is the jewel in the crown of Amazon Studio’s array of original programming. If you’ve somehow come this far without knowing what it’s about, here’s a quick recap: based on a novel by Phillip K. Dick, the show is set in an alternate version of 1960s America which is under Nazi control, after Germany won World War II.
It’s a chilling premise – one that is growing even more so, given some of President-Elect Trump’s policies – that was compellingly explored in the previous season. So well done was this initial run that the idea to sequelize it seemed like a risky move. Thankfully, from what we’ve seen of season 2, The Man in the High Castle has managed to remain at the same level of high quality that we saw during its first outing.
Season 2 follows on from the season 1 finale, with the central cast having gone their separate ways. Juliana is still on the hunt for answers about the strange films which seem to depict worlds entirely different from the one she knows – including one where San Francisco was hit by an A-Bomb. Meanwhile, Frank continues to join with the rebellion while cutting a dangerous deal with the Yakuza and Joe has to face the truth of who he is – the son of a high-ranking Nazi.
One thing you cannot accuse this season of doing is resting on its laurels. These first few episodes shake up the character’s status quos and further the drama in significant ways. In the very first instalment, we at last meet the titular Man in the High Castle (as played by Stephen Root). Naturally, this only leads to more questions rather than answers. Just what are those films exactly? Are they really footage from other timelines? If so, how does Root’s character – known as Abendsen – have them?
In the last season, it could be argued that the characters and their stories played second fiddle to the striking visual storytelling that allowed us to get to know this alternate world (the series did win the Outstanding Cinematography gong at the Emmys, after all). I’m pleased to say there’s definitely an effort to correct this in the sophomore season. After deciding to track down a key figure from the films, Juliana flees to Nazi-controlled New York – which puts her right in the belly of the beast and in the deceptively friendly clutches of Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. Juliana’s motives are kept mostly a secret, which means the audience is one step removed from the character, but the tense situation and Alex Davalos’ growing skills as a leading actress make this a strong central spine to the season.
Rupert Evans and Luke Kleintank also hold up their ends of the show too, and both grow as people – only in separate directions. Frank discovers a thirst for standing up to the “pawns” that control the masses of San Francisco while Joe’s mission of self-discovery leads him a very dark place indeed. The sinister Inspector Kido – played with reptilian menace by Joel de la Fuente – continues his unending quest for Juliana and the films, but also gets an unexpected modicum of humanization along the way. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Tagomi, meanwhile, has perhaps the most intriguing plotline. After finding himself in a new world at the end of last season, he continues to experience our timeline – which leads to a killer cliffhanger at the end of episode five.
However, Rufus Sewell continues to be the show’s star player as John Smith. It isn’t easy to turn a brutal high-ranking Nazi officer into not only an anti-hero but also a fully-rounded human being. Somehow, Sewell manages it, though. As his son Thomas begins to sicken – after Smith found out he had a congenital disorder in season 1 – Smith is ordered to kill the “defective” boy, as per the Nazis’ eugenics policy. Understandably, it’s a move that switches Smith’s primary allegiance switches from the party to his wife and children. Smith might be a nasty, murderous, manipulative piece of work… but he’s also a committed family man too. Sewell’s taciturn, measured performance ensures we both hate and sympathize with him
As Smith’s character demonstrates, it’s in the grey areas that this series really excels. The nature of submission by means of survival was the central theme of season 1 and is further explored here. For instance, Juliana’s family do as they’re told to avoid trouble and, on the other side of things, Smith plays the part of a loyal Nazi for the sake of his family. However, as each and every character furthers their own agendas and goes against the state in some way, the idea of revolution is depicted as a complex notion as well. This is best shown in the attitude of Frank’s rebel allies who rely on fear, chaos and collateral damage to break the Japanese control over San Francisco.
Infamously, showrunner Frank Spotnitz stepped down after the first half of the season and, in a bold move, was not replaced. Instead, the series will be managed by the writers’ room without a guiding hand. Whether this will pay off we can’t say just yet, as the episodes provided for review were all made under Spotnitz’s hand. However, if the various plot threads can be kept from spinning out of control in the season’s second half, The Man in the High Castle is on track to repeat history and deliver another heady, engaging run. Which should make for some welcome alternative Christmas viewing this December.
The second season of Amazon Prime's critically-acclaimed The Man In The High Castle matches the lofty heights of the first run by taking the story into fascinating new avenues and raising even more questions.