“The Man in the High Castle” is a somber, tense, and sci-fi tinted look at a reality where the Nazis and Japanese Empire won World War II. Loosely based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, “The Man in the High Castle” utilizes exceptional production value, acting, directing, and a tight script to draw viewers in despite some bizarre sci-fi twists. Thankfully, Season 2 mostly rectifies these outlying McGuffins and delivers more of the solid world building and character development that fans of the series have come to expect.
If Season 1 of “The Man in the High Castle” was an introduction to the Nazi- and Japanese-occupied United States, Season 2 is the impetus of the plot. Critical opinion appears to heavily favor Season 1, but I firmly believe that Season 2 is as good or possibly better than the freshman season; rather than relying on its exceptional production value to build horrified awe and intrigue, Season 2 has evolved the plot and characters. For the most part, it easily succeeds while keeping the beautiful architecture and style in the background where it should be.
The Man in the Mirror
One of the major differences between Season 1 and Season 2 is that the titular “Man in the High Castle” is revealed almost immediately in episode one. While it’s interesting to see the man who is leading the rebellion, I’m confident that his reveal was not properly executed.
Hawthorne Abendsen, played by Stephen Root, is the mysterious “Man in the High Castle” yet he brings more questions than answers. Root, who is famous for playing Milton in “Office Space” and voicing Bill Dauterive in “King of the Hill,” is a surprisingly powerful actor despite his famous comedy roles. Shifting between angry and caring, Hawthorne nicely encapsulates the type of anger, brilliance, and empathy that a rebellion leader must require. However, Root’s strong performance does not translate to plot progression; in fact, it is infuriating and puzzling why they revealed the “Man” with seemingly no purpose.
For those not familiar with “The Man in the High Castle,” the rebellion uses films that show our world (the non-Japanese and Nazi occupied variety) as propaganda to bring more sympathizers to their cause. However, these videos are not simply fake—they are seemingly brought from our reality to that of the show. Essentially, there are multiple realities or timelines in “The Man in the High Castle” and certain characters are able to jump between them—bringing these films and, perhaps, other items with them.
Are you still with me? I know, it’s a truly ridiculous sci-fi addition to a show that never needed it; as if Axis powers winning World War II was not enough dramatic power. Despite my grumbling, these films are very important in “The Man in the High Castle” and the Nazis pursue them just as intently as they do the actual “Man” himself. Even Hitler is invested in finding these films and watches them obsessively.
Therefore, I believed that Hawthorne Abendsen’s reveal would quash my worries about these magical, sci-fi films by explaining exactly where they came from, who brought them, and why. Instead, he acts like a child whenever Juliana Crane, the main character played by Alexa Davalos, asks a question, stating, “No, I ask the questions” and even threatening violence. This rhetoric is completely annoying in a show that heavily relies on the films as plot devices. In addition, this scene feels like the creators are waving a carrot in the face of the audience; it is cheap, unnecessary, and ultimately pointless.
Thankfully, Hawthorne’s weak reveal occurs in the first episode and each episode after that is successively better until the, literally, explosive finale.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
At the end of Season 1, Nobusuke Tagomi, the Trade Minister of the Pacific States of America, is transported to a normal, Nazi-less 1960s San Francisco via meditation. This cliffhanger, like the magical films, had me scratching my head. Thankfully, Tagomi’s subplot in Season 2 answers the implications of the films and “reality jumping” through an emotional story about healing a family.
Most importantly, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is exceptional as Trade Minister Tagomi and easily the most-likeable character in the series, if not the best acted. “Reality jumping” through meditation should seem absurd and silly, but powerful acting and reverence for Japanese culture made this sci-fi subplot very moving.
In the Nazi timeline, Tagomi’s wife and son died in the war. However, in the normal timeline (our timeline) they are alive and living in America after the war. Therefore, Tagomi’s jump to the normal timeline allows him to see the family that he so tragically lost. Filmed like an extended dream sequence, this multiple-episode arch has Tagomi trying to rebuild the trust of his family. It is never shown, but Tagomi in the normal timeline is an angry alcoholic and racist towards white people—clearly he is bitter about losing the war. It is even implied that Tagomi disowns his son for marrying a white woman, having a half-white baby with her, and for abandoning his Japanese culture.
Tagomi from the Nazi timeline now inhabits this version of himself and must rectify the situation; he knows that life could be so much worse. If Japan had won the war, he would still lose the most precious thing in his life—his family.
Overall, this subplot was one of my favorite aspects of Season 2; it delivers a powerful resolution, develops Tagomi’s character, and even explains how the films are brought from one reality to another. Whereas Hawthorne Abenden’s reveal gave me no hope for a proper explanation of the ridiculous sci-fi films, Tagomi’s sub-plot deftly ended my concerns with a subtle and moving vignette.
Another great improvement over Season 1 is the undeniable strength of Alexa Davalos’ acting as Juliana Crane. While her performance in Season 1 wasn’t bad, it is common for a main character to simply serve as the eyes and ears of the audience.
Thankfully, Season 2 allows Davalos to show off her exceptional range and acting skill; she is much more emotive without saying anything, thus lending further depth to her character and weight to the scenes at hand. In addition, Juliana Crane’s journey in Season 2 is a huge one; she escapes from the resistance, defects from the Japanese Pacific States to the Greater Nazi Reich, and then spies on one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials. While this major evolution could have seemed rushed, Davalos makes the terror, tension, and occasional relief feel plausible and powerful.
Similar to Juliana’s massive character arch, her boyfriend Frank Frink evolves from a completely helpless victim to violent revolutionary over the course of the season.
An Antique Heist
Initially, Frank played by Rupert Evans, simply wants to get his best friend, Ed McCarthy, out of prison for assassinating Japan’s Crown Prince. Although Ed is innocent, the Japanese kempeitai (think Japanese SS officers) imprison him to ensure the public that the killer is detained.
While this story initially seems unnecessary, it does speak to Frank’s love for his best friend, Ed, and most importantly allows Frank to again team up with Robert Childan, the effeminate, highly educated owner of an antique store. The interactions between Childan and Frank are easily the funniest and lightest moments in a story about death, control, and tragedy. The way that Frank’s increasingly hardened mentality contradicts Childan’s softness is a great source of sarcastic banter and, oddly enough, big laughs. Childan, as played by Brennan Brown, is a truly great character and Brown’s acting is certainly one of the highlights in such a dark, unforgiving story; it makes sense why Childan’s role was increased so drastically from Season 1 to 2.
Ultimately, Frank gets wrapped up in a rebel plot to strike the kempeitai and drags Childan down with him; the only comedic relationship in the series is quickly at risk and this lends an extra element of tension and unease.
Unfortunately, not all of the subplots work as effectively and Joe Blake, despite fine acting by Luke Kleintank, is given short shrift in comparison to Season 1.
Katz In the Cradle
After being central to the plot in Season 1 of “The Man in the High Castle,” Joe Blake is relegated to the sidelines until the very end of the season. Under orders from Obergruppenführer Smith, Joe must travel to Berlin and meet his father who abandoned him as a child. While there are moments of emotion as Joe reignites the relationship with his father, a now high-ranking member of the Reich with daunting goals, the plot meanders for far too long and ends in a predictable fashion. Without divulging specifics, Joe meets a new love interest, Nicole Dörmer, who gives him drugs and his father ends up being yet another stereotypical Nazi.
All in all, this subplot takes way too long to get anywhere and eventually ends on a predictable note. In addition, I have to mention just how awful Bella Heathcote’s German accent is while she portrays Nicole. Some of my family members have German accents and Heathcote’s misguided attempts were distracting at best and grating at worst. While the Australian-born actress is clearly talented, I dreaded having to hear her falsely thick German accent whenever she appeared on screen. Between this minor gripe and the plodding story in Berlin, Joe Blake is severely underused in Season 2.
Thankfully, the most engaging and terrifying Nazi family, the Smiths, are as potent as ever in delivering the type of tension, tenderness, and horror that worked so well in Season 1 of “The Man in the High Castle.”
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Once again, Rufus Sewell as Obergruppenführer John Smith is the most dynamic character in the entire series. While he was ostensibly the villain of Season 1, Obergruppenführer Smith quickly becomes an even more complex figure in Season 2. Believe it or not, there will be moments where you are rooting for a despicable Nazi to protect his family. Most notably, his son’s degenerative disease takes a front seat this season; in the Greater Nazi Reich, genetic diseases are grounds for execution and Smith stops at nothing to save his son while also maintaining his hypocritical SS responsibilities. Based upon the strength of his performance, ability to strike terror with just a look, and newfound fragility, I believe that Sewell is the highlight of the series and will be until the final episode.
In addition, Thomas Smith as played by Quinn Lord, gives a deeper performance as the ailing son of Obergruppenführer Smith. The realization that he has an incurable disease greatly affects Thomas’ outlook and clashes with his steadfast adherence to the laws of the Reich. This dichotomy is fascinating, especially considering that Thomas is less willing to disobey the law than his father is—Thomas is the first generation born in the Greater Nazi Reich and has clearly been inculcated as a cog of the state. This subplot is deep, complex, and rich with hypocrisy, but it is Chelah Horsdal as Helen Smith who drives the emotional nail home.
Helen Smith, the matriarch of the Smith family, clearly runs the family as well as the gossiping social circles that flock around her. Yet again, Horsdal gives a strong, understated performance as the outwardly sweet woman who is pulling the strings. It is her insistence that further pushes John to protect their son and her maternal instinct is a perfect foil for John’s inner turmoil. There are multiple scenes between John and Helen that are absolutely gut wrenching. In particular, the final scene of the season cements Horsdal as one of the most underutilized actors in the series; she is a tremendous mix of outward calm and inner chaos who knows exactly how to deliver a realistic reaction to the horrific world around her.
Higher and Higher
While critical consensus of “The Man in the High Castle” Season 2 is split, I found it to be as powerful or, even, more so than the freshman season. Featuring stronger acting from the core cast, evolving character motivations, and moments of true emotional power, Season 2 of “The Man in the High Castle” solidifies the series as one of the greatest television shows of all time.
Despite some minor gripes, Season 2 of “The Man in the High Castle” continues its tradition of excellence in world building, plot, and odd sci-fi elements. Thankfully, this season rectified many questions surrounding the mysterious films, multiple realities, and sets up the series for an even stronger Season 3, which can’t arrive soon enough.