There is no sophomore slump for The Man in the High Castle in season 2; the Emmy-award winning series is stronger than ever, and fans of the first season on Amazon’s streaming service will not be disappointed with the continuing storyline. Although many characters find themselves in completely different situations from where they left off in the finale, all of the changes feel natural and bring a fresh atmosphere to this new set of ten episodes.
But don’t worry, the foundation of the series is still the same, as it must be. The tenuous peace between Germany in the American Reich and Japan in the Pacific States is still barely holding together in this 1960’s alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. The resistance movement is still seeking to collect films for the titular man in the high castle, films which, among other things, show a different version San Francisco destroyed by an A-bomb and several of the main characters gathered up and executed.
A big part of the enjoyment of The Man in the High Castle is the mystery of what the films mean and why everyone wants them. Although the five episodes of season 2 reviewed for this article do not answer that question fully, the importance of the films’ contents is made more clear, especially with the appearance of the man in charge himself, played with mysterious intensity by Stephen Root. Juliana’s brief visit to him both increases her value to her enemies and sets her on her new mission, this time in Nazi-occupied New York, which is completely foreign to her: a nice twist for Alexa Davalos’ character.
Her new mission is based on the smallest of details and puts her in a huge amount of danger, but that’s where this series lives; everyone’s always grasping at straws to survive and find a better life. Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) and his self-sacrificing friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls) claw their way back from the aftermath of the Crown Prince’s assassination to connect with the resistance, for example, but find themselves beholden to the Yakuza as a result: not an easy place to be.
It’s great to see Brennan Brown back as Robert Childan, the antiques dealer specializing in rare Americana. His kowtowing to the Japanese while dealing with Frank’s recklessness provides rare humor in this serious show, and the sarcastic wit is even more pronounced in season 2 now that Ed is along for the ride. Although it’s hard not to feel sorry for Childan, his discomfort is endlessly entertaining as he gets deeper and deeper into the mess that started with him hiring Frank for his art forgery skills.
Another favorite character that hasn’t changed much is Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), whom viewers last saw using meditation to pass between alternate worlds into our own, more familiar history. This mystical ability is beautifully downplayed as a side effect of Tagomi’s spirituality, and his overwhelming sadness and deep sense of conscience among unprincipled colleagues makes him eminently interesting as a character. This season, Tagomi finds new purpose as he continues to visit and explore our version of history, encountering doppelgängers of people he knows from his past.
If only the resistance knew they could get information about the United States that won World War II from Tagomi firsthand instead of relying on films! But besides Abendsen, as the man in the high castle is known, many of the resistance fighters this season are bent on survival and inflicting maximum damage on the enemy, including Callum Keith Rennie’s and Cara Mitsuko’s characters, who bring a more militant sensibility to the underground movement this season, to great effect.
Rufus Sewell is back as Obergruppenführer John Smith, and although he’s still having to protect his family, especially from those who would insist he kill his “defective” son, he thankfully has more crossover with principle characters this season. Juliana’s move to New York brings her directly into his path, and a visit to the Führer himself brings new concerns into the mix. It’s a joy to see Smith manipulate those around him while remaining sympathetic. The discomfort of rooting for a Nazi is one of the great paradoxes of enjoying The Man in the High Castle — somehow it works!
Meanwhile, Joe Blake, who got Juliana into so much trouble by running off to Mexico in her place with the film at the end of last season, is on a completely different quest in season 2. In seeking to become a better person, he tries to settle into his life with Rita in New York only to have his life upended by a surprise invitation — by command really — from his German father whom he’s never met. The discoveries Joe makes about his past in the first five episodes add crucial depth to the show’s post-war history and unfurls a tragic back story for the character.
Even Inspector Kido of the Kempeitai, who narrowly avoided having to commit seppuku in the season 1 finale, gets some added development this season. As he and Tagomi work to contain a ruthless general who has a cavalier attitude towards American lives, Kido’s quest to discover more about the man in the high castle and his films becomes more complex this year, and viewers will find themselves warming up to this character, who was so despised before.
Amazon has managed to take a show that could easily have ended satisfyingly in its first season and been complete, and they’ve made The Man in the High Castle season 2 into a continuing story that not only stays true to the tension and heart-in-your-throat trepidation of season 1; it also builds new stories and vastly changes directions for the principle characters in a way few would have thought possible. Rather than feeling abrupt or tacked on, season 2 flows nicely in unexpected and exciting directions, pulling viewers right back into the story they enjoyed so much last Thanksgiving.