“The Man in the High Castle” is a “what if” story. What if the Allied forces lost World War II and the Germans and the Japanese carved up the globe into two empires — governed by a tenuous non-aggression pact between the Axis powers. What if the former United States was now the divided into the Japanese Pacific States and the Greater Nazi Reich — separated by a neutral zone in the former Rocky Mountain states? What would the world be like almost 15 years after the end of war? For most of the globe, that question is unanswered, but for North America, Berlin and Tokyo, that question frames the popular TV series — now in its second season on Amazon.
TV series based on novels can become trapped into plodding storylines. Depending who the screenwriter is (and what liberties they can take with the source material), a series can take certain elements from a novel and adapt them to the screen that can work better for the medium — but it also runs the risk of pissing off purists who lament the loss of being “true to the book.” Or, in an effort to be true to the book, the TV series (or movie) can lose that certain something that propels a storyline forward in an engaging way. “The Leftovers” on HBO had that problem in the first season. Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay for “The Great Gatsby” also suffered from too much literalism, as did the first season of “The Man in the High Castle.”
Season two of the series, however, is mostly liberated from the novel — and that’s a good thing. Now the writers are free to take the story in directions not imagined by Philip K. Dick’s 1963 book. The alternate timelines still form a central part of the narrative, but they are more fleshed out in the second season. Picking up where we left off — with the Japanese Trade Minister Tagomi stunned by his ability to travel to an alternate timeline where the U.S. and the Allied forces won the war. But the alternative timeline isn’t confined to Tagomi. The film “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” depicting the Allied forces winning the war that drove the action in the first season, is augmented by the fact that there are many more films showing different timelines that are not always pleasant. It’s only when protagonist Juliana Crain finally meets Hawthorne Abendsen (aka the man in the high castle) does she realize how intricate and vast these timelines are. Abendsen has a farmhouse full of films that he has viewed and memorized, and his knowledge is helping a resistance movement that Juliana is somewhat part of.
The series is very good at showing how people ruled by oppressive regimes cope with their oppressors. Some just keep their heads down and accept their fate, others embrace the new order and find ways to rise within its power structure, while others resist and find ways to disrupt and ultimately destroy that which is keeping them enslaved. Juliana represents all three of these coping mechanisms. Throughout the series we see her go from docile acceptance, to social climber (in the Greater Nazi Reich), to an uncertain resistance fighter — who questions the tactics of those fighting for their freedom. Standing on polar opposites are Juliana’s boyfriend, Frank Frink, who becomes a passionate resistance fighter, and John Smith, who went from U.S. soldier to rise in the Nazi regime as Obergruppenführer in North America. Within this battle for freedom over oppression, is the enigmatic Joe Blake — whose own biography and motivations shift throughout the series. Another is Nobusuke Tagomi, the Japanese Trade Minister, who becomes one of the more complex characters in the series. His ability to travel between realities gives him a broader perspective about historical outcomes while also arming him with knowledge that could help him stave off nuclear war.
I won’t give away much of the plot of the second season, but I will note that while a critic at Vox thinks “The Man in the High Castle” is the worst show on TV, I think it’s one of the better ones this year. The reason is simple: episode after episode delivered solid and compelling storytelling. All the elements that go into at production of this scale worked very well. The acting was very strong by both the leads and the secondary roles, the major and minor narrative arcs were compelling and kept the viewer’s attention, the production design was well thought out, the cinematography was excellent, and the direction given to the actors kept them from devolving into one-dimensional characters. For those who like the “what if” scenarios in science fiction, you’ll find “The Man in the High Castle” very satisfying. There’s very little ambiguity (unlike the novel), and it seems now that the writers are not tied to the plot of the book, they will most likely build on the momentum of good storytelling in season two to make season three even more captivating.