THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE: SEASON 2
PLOT In the defeated USA of 1962, erstwhile resistance operative Juliana Crain (Davalos) endeavours to discover the truth behind the mysterious underground film reels that somehow show it wasn’t the Nazis and Japanese who were victorious in War World War II.
WHILE HBO’S BIG, shiny, humourless new headliner Westworld has hogged all the Twitter acclaim and pop theorising, Amazon’s flagship sci-fi show has quietly been getting on with its dystopian business with great assurance. Faithful to the framework of Philip K. Dick’s classic — far closer, in fact, than Blade Runner or Total Recall ever kept to their texts — ex-x-files alumnus Frank Spotnitz has fashioned a second binge-friendly series of many guises: sci-fi period piece (this is a nuclear-powered 1962), political drama (as Hitler ails, it’s Game Of Thrones with SS factions), espionage thriller (confronting the psychology of an American defeat) and mysto-historical timewarp (think Lost where the entire USA is crackers).
What Spotnitz may not have foreseen — although there’s no ruling out Dick’s paranoid presentiment in such matters — is how chillingly relevant this vision of a fascist America was going to become. Let’s call it their Trump card.
To recap: according to Dick’s alt-history — neatly paraphrased over the opening credits using sinister Dad’s Army arrows and a death’s angel cover of Edelweiss from The Sound Of Music — the Axis Of Evil was triumphant in World War II. With Washington flattened by an A-bomb, the Nazis now occupy the USA from New York to the prairies, while the Japanese have annexed the West Coast. Across the Rockies lies the Neutral Zone as a buffer between the imperialist conquerors. The fragile peace between the former allies is beginning to crack. The deviousness of Dick’s story is that he wasn’t reconfiguring World War II inasmuch as recasting the Cold War. As Season 1 closed, the Japanese had come into possession of the secrets behind the German’s ‘Heisenberg Device’.
Without leaning too heavily on CG swastikas draped over the New York skyline, Season 1 was a triumph of concrete world-building. A Nazicompliant Middle America proved chillingly easy to imagine, with apple-pie Americans happily swapping “Sieg heils” from their doorsteps. Season 2, luxuriating in an increased budget, expands its
global reach to rebuild Berlin according to the thrusting, cod-roman Disneyland of Albert Speer’s architectural blueprints and throws in some supersonic Nazi jet liners and monorails, but sensibly sticks to the claustrophobic, film noir interiors and intense back-alley shoot-outs. The action is bracing rather than epic.
The compelling spin of Dickian strangeness was Season 1’s discovery of a series of film reels, which once threaded into a projector (a repeated nostalgic motif ) revealed history as it ought to have been with the Allies victorious. Now, as new reels come to light, so do appalling visions of a future wracked by nuclear devastation. Is this expertly faked propaganda or a true glimpse into other realities?
The new series begins with moody heroine Juliana (a mostly dull Alexa Davalos) gaining an audience with the titular wizard responsible for curating these substitute timelines. In a delightful, hyperbolic Yoda routine, Stephen Root channels Dick’s own paranoiac ramblings, ranting in dizzying circles while he reveals a warehouse full of film canisters, each its own possible past or future. The high castle he claims to have in mind is just that — the mind.
As the show progresses, one of the challenges confronting Spotniz’s credible re-orchestration of history is also making satisfying sense of Dick’s trippy, alt-consciousness concepts. History, he warns, can be endlessly rewired; which, when you think about it, is exactly what Dick and Spotnitz are doing.
For now, the show is better grittier. And in the aftermath of Heydrich’s (Ray Proscia) foiled attempt to usurp the Führer that climaxed Season 1, the central love triangle of Juliana, her conscience-crippled boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), and potential flame and morally awakened (or still fooling) Nazi swine Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) variously fail and succeed to evade the clutches of the Kempeitai secret police or jackbooted SS.
While this yo-yoing of capture and escape remains thrilling, you have to trust that Spotnitz has an end in sight. As with Game Of Thrones, it is the villains who are most likely to provide the compelling through-lines. One of the most powerful ironies is how slyly the show elicits our sympathy for the devils. Especially a standout Rufus Sewell as the wonderfully named
Obergruppenführer John Smith, the scowling Nazi puppet-master gradually being humanised by sad revelations of his own. More audaciously still, the show wonders if we can feel sorry for a frail, Parkinson’s-shot Hitler (Wolf Muser) obsessively binging on the mysterious alt-movies in the loneliness of his mountaintop retreat — another man in a high castle. Maybe he’s got Amazon Prime.
VERDICT This powerfully envisioned adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative timeline strides boldly if cheerlessly onwards, with special mention for Rufus Sewell as television’s most absorbing Nazi bastard.
left: Dodgy dealing between store owner Robert (Brennan Brown) and counterfeit antique producer Frank (Rupert Evans); Ruthless Nazi guard dog John Smith (Rufus Sewell); Alexa Davalos as resistance operative Juliana.