Jayne Nelson looks back on the show’s second season – and a series not so much filled with “ups and downs” as “downs and downers…”
Just before Christmas The Man In The High Castle returned to Amazon in what was, without a doubt, the least Christmassy Christmas release of the year. And yet it paid off: last week Amazon renewed the show for a third season, clearly pleased with the ratings. The fact that so many people were willing to put aside their tidings of comfort and joy to watch 10 episodes of chilling Nazi mayhem over the Yuletide holiday could be because, as we already noted in our review of the first episode of season two, this is currently such a topical series, one which will no doubt resonate across this year and beyond.
But was this second season actually any good?
Sure, this has always been a high quality series when it comes to production values and design – we’ll never get over these Nazi-version Concordes, for example. Or the giant dome of Berlin’s Nazi HQ, or the little sinister touches in the day-to-day scenes of life in Japanese or Nazi-controlled territories. But with the departure of showrunner Frank Spotnitz – and the admission by the remaining team that they’ve all been mucking in as one in his absence, meaning that there actually was no showrunner in season two – how has this affected the writing?
Well, it hasn’t. That’s because The Man In The High Castle still suffers all the flaws of its first season. While it’s stirred the pot slightly by throwing in an alternate timeline and some intriguing new characters, you can’t deny that this show is often deathly dull.
It’s also relentlessly depressing – not that this is a surprise, of course, given the subject matter – and while it benefits a little from having the odd funny line delivered by characters such as Ed (DJ Qualls, who brings us the season’s best monologue when he hard-sells a pair of cufflinks), the rest of it is such a mush of endless, unending misery that it makes EastEnders look like a jolly Cockernee knees-up.
This is a terrible shame, because The Man In The High Castle is a fine, compelling series. We’re not saying it should be a comedy, but on the flip side, it’s also so one-note that it can be a tough watch. And its biggest fault lies with some horrifically lifeless main characters…
Juliana Crain is the worst of them all. This year she defects to Nazi New York, which you’d think would be fascinating. And indeed it is, at times, as she’s taken under the wing of Obergruppenführer John Smith and finds herself sitting with housewives who talk about the “purity” of their race. But we already spent one season watching Juliana cry at the drop of a hat, and now she continues to do that again… plus she spends episode after episode peering up demurely from under her fringe like Princess Diana, talking in murmurs and averting her eyes coyly from everybody she sees. Juliana’s playing a role, but how anybody falls for it is a mystery for the ages. And it’s not as though she has much personality outside it, either. She’s just… dull. It’s like watching a porcelain doll being moved into different positions by an animator.
Even when poor Alexa Davalos gets something to do by season’s end – shooting her contact, thus bringing to life footage she witnessed in the film – we’re so bored of her by then that it’s hard to give a monkey’s. This is a character who, during one moment of huge dramatic emotion, decides to cut her hair by a whole four inches! Excuse us while we reach for our heart pills, as the shock is too much for our old ticker to handle!
The angsting, brooding Frank Frink is another character it’s hard to care about, although he at least gets to die a noble death when he blows up Japanese HQ in the penultimate episode. Aside from his crippling blandness – a problem he’s struggled with since the show began – he also suffers this season from some truly ridiculous stupidity, such as not realising when he helps to kill a bunch of Japanese soldiers that there will be reprisals in the form of innocent civilians being shot. For Pete’s sake, they were already killing people in reprisal for another act – how did he not figure out that he’d make things worse? And then there’s his plan to infiltrate their HQ, which nearly fails when he’s recognised – didn’t it occur to him (or anybody else, for that matter) that he’s well-known, and sending an anonymous face might have worked better?
Still, he’s gone now, and in his place we have the excellent (and considerably more human) double-act of Frank’s buddy Ed and grumpy antiques dealer Robert. We hope to enjoy their adventures in the cultural wastelands of the Neutral Zone next year… although, knowing this show, they’ll probably be written out for being too fun.
The Japanese characters suffer this season, too. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is still magnetic as the dimension-jumping Tagomi, but he doesn’t really do anything in the USA he visits, if you excuse screwing up his face a lot as he looks at his wife. We spend what seems like a lifetime watching him symbolically gluing a cup together – wow, what incredible drama; almost as gripping as Juliana’s hair incident. And while his arc is emotionally moving (at least the cup enables him to hug his grandson), it lacks a dramatic heft that relates to the show’s larger arc plots. Just what do these parallel worlds mean? If he can’t figure it out by actually visiting them, how are we supposed to know… or care?
More criminally, Inspector Kido hardly gets anything to do! It’s like writing a show that features Boba Fett and leaving him sat behind a desk. What were the writers thinking? He has the potential to be their very best character and he simply sits around and looks a bit worried? We don’t get it.
Still, griping about dull characters aside, we have to admit that The Man In The High Castle does do some things very, very well. Aside from the aforementioned production design (and music, lighting, CGI… the works), every single scene with Obergruppenführer Smith is, pardon the pun, gripping.
Rufus Sewell is in a class of his own in this show: he’s an absolute card-carrying bastard and yet you find yourself wanting him to succeed. You care about his family – Chelah Horsdal shines this year as his wife, Helen – and the storyline about his poorly son is genuinely heart-rending, not least the boy’s final act of selfless sacrifice because he is, after all, a good Nazi. Just horrifying.
We also love how Smith’s past is still largely a mystery; we don’t know the specifics on how he came to transfer from one side of the war to the other and rise so high, so fast. As he’s lauded by vast crowds in Berlin after catching Hitler’s killer, you can see the conflict written all over on his face. Sewell needs an Emmy for this: it takes true skill to turn an evil character into one you can empathise with.
Joe Blake, meanwhile, also becomes more interesting this season as he discovers two things: that he came from a Nazi breeding programme, and that his father might not be the man he thought he was. Sebastian Roché does a magnificent job playing Reichsminister Martin Heusmann – a suave, sophisticated, multi-layered Nazi leader who gets to be the focus of the show’s biggest plot twist.
Seeing a powerful Nazi living his life in Berlin, rather than in occupied North America, is a fascinating insight into a world that could have existed if history had just moved a little bit more to the right in 1945 and beyond. It’s an absolute coup for the show – from Heusmann’s revelations about Joe’s past (and Joe meeting other special children who are enacting the Nazi version of the Swinging ’60s), through to the power-plays the apparently harmless Heusmann goes through to get into power in the wake of Hitler’s passing.
The fresh energy injected into the series by the Reichsminister helps it a lot; he’s the Yin to Smith’s Yang. It’s just a shame he’s taken down in the final episode, as a season with him in power would have been interesting. Although given his penchant for launching bombs, we can see why he was toppled before he could get too carried away. And of course, this moves Smith into a very powerful position, with Himmler himself grateful to him. That bodes well for our Obergruppenführer, eh?
So what next for High Castle? A few things became clear in the show’s second year:
- That many more characters can jump dimensions
- That Smith is on an upward spiral – how far can he go up the chain of command?
- That the only hope for Juliana as a character might be to team her up with her now-returned sister (please God, let her have more personality than Juliana)
- And that there’s a lot more to be uncovered on the show regarding those Nazi breeding schemes, not to mention the purity tests
The series now has a solid new showrunner in Eric Overmyer, who has a sterling background in such shows as Boardwalk Empire, Treme and The Wire. One thing to note, however, is that most of the shows he’s worked on have been Very Serious Dramas, so don’t expect the laughs to increase for season three – but they’re also, almost unanimously, examples of brilliant television. And most of them are known for killing off characters and excellent arc-plotting, so this could bode very well for The Man In The High Castle.
What do we want, however? Well, more Kido would be nice (or perhaps “nasty” would be a more appropriate choice of word, given his job). The series clearly knows where it’s going with Smith, so that’s great. The Crains need to be given some serious oomph. And Joe needs to dig his heels in and decide what the hell he’s doing, because he’s like a leaf in the wind at the moment – give that man a purpose!
But most of all, The Man In The High Castle needs to start letting us know what the hell is going on with these parallel worlds. Will they influence this one? Do they influence us, in the here and now? And just how important is the “Man” himself to this show, given that he’s not the only traveller any more? We’ll find out next Christmas, it would seem. One thing’s for sure: there won’t be any “ho ho ho” involved then, either.
Review by Jayne Nelson