By Quentin Basnaw
I never thought I’d be cheering a Nazi on! Ok, that sentence needs immediate context (without spoilers) for The Man in the High Castle. If you haven’t read my previous review on this interesting Amazon Prime show, let’s catch up. The Man in the High Castle is an online TV series based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name. It takes place in a world where the Axis Powers won World War 2. The Greater Nazi Reich controls most of the world, and a majority of was used to be the United States. The Japanese Empire controls the majority of Asian, Pacific, and Western United States territories. Where are Benito and Italy? Who knows; again, the show seems to forget they were in World War 2. In this bleak world ruled by ruthless men and machinations not too dissimilar from our world, we follow multiple characters and how their lives impact this world.
The characters mentioned are numerous. We have Juliana Crain, Frank Frink, Joe Blake, John Smith, Mr. Tagomi, and Inspector Kido. These are all our main players, and new to the show is the eponymous Man in the High Castle himself, portrayed by Steven Root (Office Space). These characters are, respectively, a rebellious woman seeking answers, a rebellious man trying to change the world, a Nazi doubting his convictions, an American Nazi trying to balance his secrets and duty to the Nazis, a Japanese man discovering that not all is as it seems, and another Japanese man who is trying to prevent war with brutal efficiency. There’s a lot going on, and if you missed the first season, this is not the place to start this show.
The show picks up immediately after the first season left off. Now, for those who remember, I… enjoyed the first season, while finding it to have a few hurdles. As a matter of fact, the show was acting like an Olympic runner trying to inconspicuously put one leg over the hurdle at a time, but of course, people saw the problem this image presents. I’m glad – and surprised – to say the second season proudly leaps every hurdle that is put in its way, but doesn’t necessarily land on both feet.
What do these analogies mean? First off, the second season either has a bigger budget or more invested and talented people working for it. The show looks GORGEOUS, in the sense that the world is clearly defined and shown. Nazi symbols cover most everything: street corners, buildings, back packs, jewelry, and American Flags. The backgrounds look incredible for an online show – with beautiful yet horrifying Nazi architecture glistening in the background, monolithic and all encompassing. The closest comparison I have for you is the large amphitheater-like areas in The Hunger Games films. This season’s backgrounds blow those big budget Hollywood special effects right out of the water. They’re that impressive.
Another great distinction this season has going for it: better character development. I once said the main leads in this show could be replaced by house plants and it wouldn’t make a difference. In this season, I take that back. For some reason, we’re given much better character arcs for both Juliana and Joe. I finally felt some kind of emotion when they did things in the story. Of course, the well-rounded characters from the first season do spectacularly well in this one. These characters are the villains, and the personal problems they encounter while the Nazi Reich and the Japanese Empire are gearing up for war help propel the story. I don’t know if I feel bad for the villains per se, but I do feel bad for the innocents they come across and “deal” with during their personal drama.
This show presents itself as alternate history, and it indeed is. However, the show presents not just this reality, but others, in the forms of news reel tapes where the Allied Powers won the war. Characters privy to this information go on journeys that seem parallel in nature, parallel to many things happening in our own world. In this sense, the overall themes of the show are meaningful now, whereas before the show was entertaining but not gripping. By the last four episodes of this season, I was enthralled. I was rooting for a Nazi to complete a task! To prevent a genocide of all things. This show dialed the amp up from a healthy 7 to a 10.
To me, what this show encapsulates is why history is one of if not the most important subject. Even in a timeline where the Nazi’s are nigh invincible isn’t enough for some. Some men want more and more and they’ll do whatever they can to achieve this “more.” The way the show drives the idea home is chilling. In an effort not to spoil it, I’ll say there are shades of gray happening – yes, even from within the heartless Nazi regime. Is everyone a gray character? No, but this season definitely shows that conflicts throughout history, alternate or otherwise, are definitely something that will be with us for eternity, even if the world is united under one banner.
Check out The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime. Season 1 is all set up, leading to a second season that is a gratifying payoff after episode 3. It’s a payoff I hope everyone can see.