TV Review: The Man in the High Castle (Season 2)
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On paper, The Man in The High Castle should be a show that breaks barriers and blows its audiences away. In practice, confusing character development and a reliance on deus ex machina means it misses the mark.
Based on Philip K. Dick's novel of the same name, Amazon Prime's television show explores a 1962 in which the Nazis won the war. They got the Atomic bomb first, floored Washington DC, and split the USA between two spheres of influence - the Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States.
The premise is unusual. There aren't many cultural works that release the Nazis from the historical confines they're typically bound by, so there's something almost voyeuristic about our fascination with the show - this is arguably why it's done so well, and why even after a bizarre and faltering first series, we've come back for more. Despite a flurry of negative reviews, it's been renewed for a third series.
The second series picks up from where the first left off - Juliana Crane has helped Nazi agent Joe Blake escape to Mexico in her place, Tagomi has just discovered that through meditation he can swap to an alternate universe in some sort of meta-physical wrinkle in time and space, Frank Frink thinks Juliana has ran off to be with Joe, and Ed has been arrested for the murder of the Japanese Pacific Prince.
Where the first series used the mysterious reels of film to propel the plot, the second takes a step back. More time is given to explore the general daily life of those living in the Reich and the familial situation of Japanese official Nobusuke Tagomi, who spends increasing amounts of time in meditation and within 1962 of the real world.
There's a definite political edge to this series, as we get a glimpse into the world of the military commanders desperately trying to dispel the war. It's a plot that is possibly too full of side threads- Joe goes to Berlin to meet his father, Hitler finally dies and the Reich is thrown into a leadership vacuum, Frank and Ed join forces with antiques dealer Robert Childan, the resistance get bolder and more dangerous, and we finally meet the titular character.
As the plots run concurrently, it's up to the actors to hold the show together. It's not always a feat they manage. Alexa Davalos's Juliana is often weak and seems to lack a great deal of emotional depth. She's bold in this series and makes some grand gestures, but there's a definite lack of retrospection. It is nice to see her interact with her parents. It's this glimpse into domesticity that saves the series.
Rufus Sewell gives hands down the best performance of the cast, closely followed by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's Tagomi. Both characters are seen coming to grips with their demons. In Sewell and on-screen wife Chelah Horsdal's case, their family tries to deal with their place as leaders in the Nazi Reich and parents to a son with a genetic condition. They give moving and realistic performances of a couple in crisis. Tagawa does well as he attempts to understand this new world he's found himself in, and makes peace with a family that is lost in his reality. It's sweet and heartfelt, and offers the character a chance at redemption.
Although Rupert Evans does a good job at portraying the emotional intensity of Frank, the character's sudden passion for the resistance doesn't quite add up. Evans is let down here by bad writing and development - a flaw that has plagued Luke Kleintank's Joe since the programme began in 2015. It's these characters, so crucial to the crux of the programme, that undo the good work of the series.
The Man in the High Castle is eventually revealed to be a scary eccentric played by Stephen Root, living in a warehouse jam-packed with reels of film. We're not really any closer to realising where they came from and what they mean, but they're used in a pretty spectacular way during this season. It's likely that this is what the next series will focus on - and it should. As the programme has progressed, it has opened up doors to other dimensions and to big questions, but it hasn't quite managed to pull these together and explain them.
Hopefully the third series will iron out the wrinkles in time and space that this series has ripped wide open. We need answers as viewers, and need an idea of how this metaphysical dimension relates to the world at large. War is still on the horizon, but it seems a distant fear for now. There's no real indication of where the next series will go, but the writers will need to explain how one character came back from the dead as another main cast member seems to have fallen into a grave.
The second series of The Man in The High Castle is one that has deceived with its boldness. It's confronted us with a take on a history that we could equally have been living, a scary glimpse into an alternate reality that seems ever closer - Tagomi's transition between our world and the one of the show brings it uncomfortably close to home.
The Man In The High Castle is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
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