Cast: Alexa Davalos, Rufus Sewell, Luke Kleintank, Rupert Evans, DJ Qualls, Joel De La Fuente, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
In One Line: A good, but at times disjointed, storyline which holds up mainly because of the strong performances of the cast.
Identity crisis and internal conflict. These are the overwhelming premises on which the second season of Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle. It examines this on various levels- some of which we will go into in this review- and with varying degrees of success
Before we get started, credit must go to Jeanette Olsson and the visual arts team at the show for the title sequence. I would have done this after the first season itself but I started my blog after the second season, so here we are. Titled “Edelweiss” and with the legendary lyrics of the song from Sound of Music, Olsson does an amazing job of bringing the haunting nature of the show to life with her rendition. What makes it even more remarkable is that Edelweiss was used in the movie Sound of Music as a symbol of Captain Von Trapp’s loyalty to an Austria that was being subjugated by Nazi Germany. However, Olsson’s version of the song is astounding in that it manages to retain the aesthetic sense of the song- that of hope- while at the same time projecting a sense of hopelessness. This, of course, is aided by the images of monuments like Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore and The Capitol Building- all somehow familiar but different, that somehow they represent what once was and what will never again be.
The story begins with Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) being confronted by Lem (Rick Worthy) and Karen (Camille Sullivan) for not shooting Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). Joe meanwhile, is in Berlin, handing the film he got from Juliana to Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith- who himself hands it to Adolf Hitler (Wolf Muser). Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) begins his life this year by trying to somehow exonerate Ed (DJ Qualls) and by confronting Arnold (Daniel Roebuck) for spying on his own family. Chief Inspector Kido (Joel De La Fuente) of the Kempeitai is as fierce and ruthless as ever- even going to the extent of killing Frank’s sister and her children. New key additions to the cast include Gary Conell (Callum Keith Rennie), the leader of the West Coast Resistance and Nicole Dormer (Bella Heathcoate), a young, Berlin-born filmmaker who plays an important role in Joe’s life.
Much like the Second World War itself, this story of a dystopian world must be examined on various fronts.
Broadly speaking, with Adolf Hitler’s impending death- which is a question of when and not if- and with last season’s assassination attempt on the Japanese Crown Prince, a sword dangles over the tense relationship between the two superpowers who now control the globe.
Having come in possession of the German plans on how to make a Heisenberg Device (as an A-bomb is called in the series), the Japanese- under General Onoda (Tzi Ma) want to construct a bomb of their own and destroy Germany.
In this season, to put it in short, Juliana Crain defects to the Reich and is graciously (and suspiciously) granted asylum by John Smith under the false name of Julia Mills. She then faces a constant struggle between proving to the Resistance that she is not a Nazi and proving to the Nazis that she is not Resistance. She also faces a struggle on a human level where her wish to be a good person intrudes on her aim to be free again. Joe Blake finds out that his estranged father is none other than Reichsminister Martin Heusmann (Sebastian Roche). He fights every urge to reconcile with the latter but later ends up doing so following a revelation that Joe is a Lebensborn. Of course, it takes some convincing from Nicole to achieve this but nevertheless, that is what happens. John Smith finds himself in many a quandary this season- which is a good thing that I cannot elaborate on for spoiler reasons. But in general, he finds himself trying to balance the act of doing right by the Nazi Reich and doing right by his family and the inevitable conflict of interest between the two. The show also shows him drawing on his human side a lot- whether it is in remembrance of his service with the US Army or when it comes to his son- which is very good to watch.
In the Pacific States, Chief Inspector Kido finds himself with similar problems as Smith on the other coast. Caught between the tight leash of Japanese military hierarchy and the need to protect the Japanese nation, Kido is a man who has an uneasy alliance (which he is only too happy to end when required) with the Yakuza and a shared-ideals-but-different-means kind of relationship with trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Frank Frink goes to all lengths to get his mate Ed out of prison (which is not done without any compromise from Ed’s part to the Kempeitai) and with the help of Robert Childan (Brennan Brown), tries to go by life in the Pacific States. But increasingly, Ed is conflicted by his need to survive against betraying Frank. Frank himself, meanwhile, comes under Connelly and the Resistance’s umbrella and finds himself attracted to their cause.
Through all this, however, Tagomi is in an alternate reality in modern-day America where his son Noriaki Tagomi (Eddie Shin) and his wife, Michiko Tagomi (Yukari Komatsu) are estranged from him. Also of note in this reality is the acquisition of a film that will change the entire course of events in the dystopian counterpart as well as the presence of Juliana Crain as Tagomi’s daughter-in-law.
The story has many facets to it and hence, in my opinion, a ten-episode season does not do justice to the potential that this tale had. The first season of the show was a massive success and while the second season is still very good to watch, it doesn’t hit the dizzying heights of the first. One of the main causes of this decline is that the makers of The Man In The High Castle try to show too much in too little time. Too many of the scenes feel discontinuous and the storyline as a whole feels somewhat disjointed. It’s comparable to when every time you pick up good speed on a highway, you hit a bump in the road. A slower tale would’ve been more in keeping with the general tone of events in the show and would’ve allowed for better storytelling.
However, despite the hiccups in the story, the cast has outdone itself compared to last year. This is especially true of Alexa Davalos, Rufus Sewell, Luke Kleintank, Rupert Evans and Joel De La Fuente. All five of them have brought out their inner struggles to the camera with great effort. They not so much act the character but rather live it. Special mention must be given to Bella Heathcoate, Brennan Brown, Chelah Horsdal and for the latter part of the season, Quinn Lord, all of whom emerge as actors of worth in this year and made their presence on screen count. One actor who does, however, underwhelm a little is Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa. For some unknown reason, I personally felt he never really got himself going this season- especially after his performances last year.
The camerawork is something that is remarkable in the show- mainly because it manages to portray a mental state of the character by using a close-up shot to great effect. Another thing to be commended is the costume and set designing for the characters and the extras which is never easy for a show of this magnitude. While it may not be Game of Thrones, it is still a very good job. The background score, while not extraordinary, still manages to capture the flavour of the scenes.
All in all, The Man In The High Castle is a wonderful show, which, despite coming a little undone in terms of storyline and direction (trying to tell too much in too little time), more than makes up for it with it’s astounding visuals and immaculate acting from the cast.