The Man In the High Castle Season 2
Premieres December 16, 2016 on Amazon Video
5 Episodes Watched for Review
In The Sound of Music, Captain Von Trapp calls “Edelweiss” a love song. He sings it to declare his love for and loyalty to his homeland of Austria before fleeing it in defiance of the Nazi occupation and what will essentially be conscription. There’s something pointed, as such, in the use of the song over the opening credits to The Man in the High Castle, a show about an America that lost World War II and was neatly split between Germany and Japan. It’s unfortunately particularly eerie in today’s political climate, as the horror that was hearing characters talk so casually about the Nazi Reich hits closer to home now than it did when the first season aired. Love of country still exists in the world of The Man in the High Castle, but it’s in different timbres.
The Man in the High Castle has always been best when focusing on the inner lives of its characters. It’s a strange thing to say given how grand the scale of the show is — it encompasses the entirety of the U.S. as well as making a foray into Germany in its second season — but it’s less surprising when one considers its structure as an ensemble drama. The show’s greatest strengths are in its production design (consistently thoughtful and historically piquant) and in its individual performances. Looking back on the first season, the most memorable moments aren’t those pertaining to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the reels of film that are purported to show an alternate history (i.e. the one we’re familiar with), but those that lay bare the souls of the characters we’re watching reckon with hateful odds. Think of Frank (Rupert Evans), who has been hiding his Jewish ancestry, breaking into tears as he hears a Hebrew prayer, or of all-American Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell, terrific) discovering that his son has a congenital disease which, despite his political standing, means that he will be killed by the state.
The series is weakest, by contrast, when trying to use grander gestures to illustrate points that are already being carried finely through its smaller storylines. This is especially true of the second season, as the reveal of the “man in the high castle” (Stephen Root, terrific as always but largely wasted, at least in the first five episodes), only serves to make it clearer that the show’s use of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is now more of a MacGuffin than a device that really serves the story. The changes the characters are going through would be occurring even if it didn’t exist; they’re developed enough that they’d be facing a reckoning on their own.
The exception to the rule is Nobusuke Tagomi (the incredible Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), to whom the existence of an alternate history is pivotal. The first season ended with his crossing over into the alternate world by unexplained means, and the second season goes all in on his newfound ability. The results are mixed only insomuch as his storyline feels almost completely disparate, which is a pity, as he is one of the strongest presences in the cast. The same goes for Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), whose storyline finds him in a bit of a mess in Germany and, as such, a satellite in a way that only highlights how unnecessary his segments are. Though the introduction of Sebastian Roche as his father and Bella Heathcote as a possible ally are welcome additions, neither his plot nor his performance are compelling enough to keep him interesting when separated from the rest of the cast.
The first half of the second season is ripe with potential, and given that the first season became clearer and more cohesive as it went on, the show is not yet to be dismissed. All of these characters are tied together by the thinnest threads in a world that’s horrific to contemplate; the season opens in a school, where one of the homework problems is remembering how many slaves the early American presidents owned, not because it’s history not to be repeated, but because it’s an accepted part of the curriculum. Still, the characters persevere, and they fight, building a uniquely human narrative — one about the love borne between friends and family, as well as essential kindness — in a time when that kind of introspection feels especially necessary.