Spoilers ahead for Man In The High Castle seasons one and two.
The Man in the High Castle seemed like the perfect TV show for dark times. For anyone worried that the next four years will herald a crackdown on civil liberties or the empowerment of groups who believe only certain lives have value, Amazon’s alternate-history drama gave us a group of people trying to survive a world that seemed truly hopeless. But now that The Man in the High Castle has returned for a second season, it’s turned into a different kind of show — and a much less interesting one.
The Man in the High Castle was created by Frank Spotnitz as an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1963 novel of the same name. In the series, half of America was annexed by a victorious Nazi Germany after World War II, and the West Coast became a colony of Imperial Japan, laying the groundwork for an alternate Cold War. Any protest is brutally suppressed, and an ineffectual resistance barely clings to life. The only hope comes from a series of mysterious newsreels that seem to show a different reality. Both Adolf Hitler and a mysterious figure known as the Man in the High Castle are eagerly collecting those films.
The first season explored this world by giving flawed people in bad systems impossible choices between political ideals, loved ones, and basic ethics. John Smith (Rufus Sewell) was an American Nazi officer tasked with killing his own son to comply with eugenics laws. Takeshi Kido (Joel de la Fuente) was a police inspector covering up a crime meant to bait Japan into war. Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) was a Jewish machinist who wanted revenge against the Japanese for killing his family, but his plans backfired terribly. The finale put viewers in the position of rooting for a plot to assassinate Hitler, even as they knew his death would probably lead to a devastating power struggle. Every seemingly good decision, including the implied option of resetting history through the films, could break something irreparably.
Spotnitz departed midway through the second season, but the remaining executive producers supposedly carried on storylines that he created, and there’s no clear creative break marking his departure. Season two picks up directly after the conclusion, initially focusing on the storylines of characters Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) and Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos). Joe and Juliana’s growing relationship was the glue that held much of season one together: the former is a Nazi spy whose real allegiance was frequently in question, and the latter a woman who reluctantly joined the resistance after her half-sister Trudy died transporting a newsreel.
Joe turns out to be a loyal Nazi after all, but he’s ready to leave the party until his high-ranking absentee father suddenly appears to pull him back in. Juliana, who helped Joe escape the resistance, finally meets the Man in the High Castle (Stephen Root), and ends up on a mission to find an unknown man who appears in the films. (In the season’s second big paternity surprise, the man is quickly revealed as Trudy’s secret father.)
Joe and Juliana are effectively The Man in the High Castle’s protagonists, and the ones with the most dramatic narrative shifts. But they’re also some of its most aimless characters, too indecisive and inscrutable to feel truly motivated by anything. As The New Inquiry editor Aaron Bady noted on Twitter, the show has always seemed more fascinated by its bureaucrats than its rebels. More generally, though, it’s just better at depicting people operating under constraints. Dick’s book, and much of the show’s first season, depicted a totalitarian system that felt unassailable and omnipresent — the only way to break it would be to destroy absolutely everything in the process, whether by force or by rewriting reality. If someone manages to slip their political shackles, there’s nowhere meaningful to go.
Unfortunately, slipping shackles is what the entirety of season two is about. With Hitler’s health worsening, the resistance steps up its efforts to destabilize the Nazi and Japanese regimes. Mild-mannered nice guy Frank, who couldn’t bring himself to shoot a man in season one, joins the rebels in increasingly bloody and anarchic missions. And kindly trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) explores the reality-swapping abilities he discovered late last season, finding a world much like ours, where his family is still alive. None of these are bad plot decisions, but they take us into territory that Dick’s book never explored, and the writers don’t seem to know what to do with them. Characters are placed in binds, only to be offered easy outs — not in twists that create new conflict, just in sudden resets that tend to involve killing tertiary characters.
The first season’s rebels were almost useless, but at least useless in a compelling way, preoccupied with the dubious power of political narrative. Now that there’s a new handful of members with an eye for guerrilla warfare, the second season’s version is simply out to destroy. The tapes appear either unimportant or purely strategic, which arguably makes more sense, but removes the last vestiges of idealism from a group whose ideals were always vague in the first place. Again, this isn’t an invalid decision. But where we’re constantly shown the familial relationships and noble motivations behind Nazi and Japanese officials, all we see of the resistance is its ugliness: its members’ willingness to betray sources, kill innocents, and invite retaliation upon ordinary citizens.
The Man in the High Castle complicates things even further by drawing equivalences between its alternate-reality despots and real Kennedy-era America, which Tagomi finds in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His subplot ultimately leads to a clever cross-reality plot twist that plays a pivotal role in the final episode, but first, it spends a lot of time spinning its wheels. The show becomes strangely focused on nuclear weapons as the ultimate evil, ignoring the mass Nazi ethnic cleansing and political repression the first season hinted at. It’s not just that characters have normalized these atrocities, which is an important theme of the show. It’s that at times, the writers seems to forget they exist.
From a certain philosophical standpoint, maybe it doesn’t matter whether an empire that starts a nuclear holocaust is good or bad, because everyone ends up dead either way. But The Man in the High Castle barely addresses the retort that until that point, its world is stuck in a permanent, ongoing non-nuclear holocaust. The idea that “the bomb” inherently dwarfs every other form of destruction is dated in a way that Dick’s book wasn’t even in the 1960s — and a way that doesn’t make sense in the series’ horrific reality.
The Man in the High Castle’s first season had plenty of problems in its own right, but it left me with questions I wanted answered. Season two has its own high points, particularly its subplot with John Smith’s son, a true Nazi believer who is slowly becoming aware of his “defective” condition. And the cast, particularly Sewell, gives consistently solid performances. But this is a show based on world-building, and the less invested characters are in its society, the less interested we are in watching what they do. The Man in the High Castle’s fascist societies come closer to mutual destruction than ever in season two, but they feel paradoxically less threatening — and ultimately, far less real.