THE MAN IN THE HIGH CAS­TLE: SEA­SON 2

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - IAN NATHAN

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.

Clock­wise from

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.

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