History lessons: ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is a slow yet gripping thriller

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

In 2017, “The Man in the High Castle” — a Philip K. Dick novel about an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II — should not feel as fresh as it does. Yet here we are. The alt-right has made white supremacy great again. Anti-immigrant anxieties have boiled over into open harassment. President-elect Donald Trump’s post-factual propaganda manipulates the media to distort reality as he bullies his opponents, blames foreigners for our country’s problems and promises that he alone can fix it. Obviously, our current situation is not identical to past events, but there are some troubling echoes.

The TV adaptation of “TMITHC” premiered on Amazon Prime Video in 2015 — in retrospect, a simpler time. The first season was an interesting, if not great piece of television. It suffered from slow pacing and uneven character development that made it a chore to get through. These flaws aside, the series provides a fascinating, frightening glimpse of what could have been.

Season two, which premiered last month, continues to struggle with the same pacing and character issues, but benefits from going deeper down the rabbit hole of the show’s core mystery: the existence of films, which depict various alternate realities where the Allies won the war or a nuclear attack wipes out much of the U.S. The curator of these films is the Man in the High Castle (played by a fierce Stephen Root), who attempts to divine knowledge from them to upend Axis rule.

In 1962 America, Tensions between the Nazis and the Japanese have escalated. Their truce has always been an uneasy one, and it seems a faction of Nazi conspirators have been making moves behind the Führer’s back in order to provoke a war with the weaker Japan.

Once again, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) finds herself in the eye of the storm as the resistance, the Japanese and the Nazis clamor to get to her first. From the start, Juliana has been a complicated and vexing agent. Her ability to see the good in people despite their allegiances makes her a liability and brands her as a traitor to all sides. Davalos channels a quiet ferocity as Juliana. She may be a reluctant solider, but when it’s time to act, she never hesitates to do the right thing.

After watching a film in which San Francisco is destroyed by a Nazi nuclear attack, Juliana defects to Nazi-controlled New York to prevent war. She manages to ingratiate herself with Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) and his family as she gathers intel for the New York arm of the resistance, who, the more we get to know them, the more they seem to be as ruthless as their oppressors.

Meanwhile, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) finds himself in Berlin, where he meets his estranged father, who turns out to be an extremely powerful member of the Reich. Joe remains conflicted by Nazism. His mission in San Francisco has left him rattled and uncertain. Should he embrace his heritage and attempt to reshape the Reich from within, or should he return to America where he can lead a quiet, honest life away from it all?

It doesn’t really matter. Joe’s story is boring. His romantic connection to Juliana has been forced from the start. While I realize the show is trying to give us a perspective on the Nazi side via Joe, he’s just so uninteresting that I can’t seem to get invested in his story.

Speaking of dull secondary stories, we get more of Frank (Rupert Evans) and Ed’s (DJ Qualls) misadventures back in San Francisco. Believing Juliana to be a traitor and having nothing left to lose, Frank goes all-in with the resistance, taking Ed along for the ride. As a character, Frank has always been unremarkable and kind of a jerk. Not much has changed here. The bigger problem is that between Frank, Ed and their snooty antique dealer friend, this is the weakest storyline in both substance and performance. In every scene, I found myself not giving a damn what happened to any of them.

Indeed, the more interesting stories this season are with the enemy. Where season one presented a black and white dichotomy of good guys and bad guys, season two muddies the waters. We have begun to see glimmers of humanity among the Japanese and the Nazi characters. Here, the series explores how living within a authoritative state forces good people to do terrible things, either out of passive acquiescence or basic survival.

SS officer Smith grapples with the reality of the Reich’s brutal health-care system when his son is diagnosed with an incurable congenital disease. Euthanizing unhealthy people is easy until it’s someone close to you. His ultimate decision to hide the diagnosis places his entire family at great risk, even as he ascends the ranks of the Reich by season’s end. The resolution to this story provides one of the show’s stronger moments, as it illustrates how unwavering belief in the state can compel people’s behavior.

On the other side of the country, Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) faces a crisis of conscience. Long a dutiful officer, he worries that hardliners in both Tokyo and Berlin will push the world into another war, which will likely destroy North America. He willfully obfuscates evidence of a German assassination attempt and backchannels with Smith in order to prevent this from happening.

Most sympathetic, however, is Trade Minister Tagomi’s (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) story. A curious mind and a gentle soul with an interest in banned books and mystical practices, Tagomi’s journey leads him to believe a better future is possible. In doing so, he mirrors Juliana in his compassion for all people and willingness to risk it all to save a life. Tagawa is one of the show’s best actors, and brings both calm and righteousness to every scene.

Tagomi also introduces the show’s more fantastical element of alternate realties. Through Tagomi we start to realize that this universe might be one of many that exist. So far, the show has been judicious in how it reveals these realities, giving us glimpses without giving it all away. It remains unclear how this development will impact the overarching story, though there are definite shades of later seasons of “Lost” throughout this season — both Juliana and Tagomi call to mind that show’s character Desmond Hume, a constant presence in all realities who could effect change.

While “TMITHC” is certainly tighter and better plotted than “Lost,” at least that show could surprise and shock you and make you want to come back every week, even when it was a total mess. “TMITHC,” on the other hand, moves at a snail’s pace as it works to get as many seasons as possible out of the source material. It also means you see the surprises coming a mile away. For example, I’ve been waiting for the big reveal in the closing moments of the season finale since the middle of season one.

Still, “The Man in the High Castle” isn’t all bad. The core concept is a fun thought experiment, even if the execution is mostly meh. If season three picks up the pace and explores the existence of alternate realities in more detail, the show might escape its own gravity and become one of TV’s great genre shows.

CHECK IT OUT

“The Man in the High Castle” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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