Having watched all of The Man in the High Castle I can review the remainder. One thing Amazon’s most successful original series does very well is keep the audience guessing as to what the characters true intentions are and whether there is really something more at stake. At the end there are still major questions about seemingly central parts of the program, such as the importance of the enigmatic newsreels, something which was a little frustrating at first. However there will be another series so this stalling in plot can just about be forgiven, for now. Warning: There are spoilers ahead.
Episode 3 continues the story of Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and Joe (Luke Kleintank) in Canon city whilst Juliana’s partner/husband Frank (Rupert Evans) remains in Japanese controlled San Francisco. This episode introduces a new character, the creepy and sinister ‘Marshall’, played by Burn Gorman in a typical role. He is a bounty hunter who has come to seek out resistance members and kill them. His short-lived two episode appearance is a shame, but really he serves no other purpose than to chase the protagonists around and alert them to a greater Nazi danger. In many ways it is better he is out of the way when there are more three-dimensional villains present.
These episodes are fairly slow burners but end on cliff-hangers that very much entice you into carrying on. The assassination of the Japanese emperor becomes a major turning point in the San Francisco story as Frank becomes clumsily involved. As Juliana returns to San Francisco in episode 5, parting ways with Joe, we follow their attempts to assimilate back into society. This also means we get a greater glimpse into life in Nazi controlled New York in episode 6 when Joe is invited to dinner at Nazi, John Smith’s house; a meeting full of subliminal tension.
Joe’s uneasy allegiance to both his secret employer, Smith, and the increasingly tender relationship between him and Juliana is at first engaging. However, as Joe’s feelings remain indecisive up until the final moments of the series (and even then it isn’t totally clear) it becomes a little tedious. His character, like the other protagonists unfortunately, is overshadowed by the far superior villains, Smith (the strongest performance, by Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente).
In many ways the reason for this lies in the problem of allegiance. Both of these villains have a strong unwavering allegiance to a particular cause and although both of these are traditionally evil they make for far more appealing characters than those who are not only not sure where they stand but are also generally self-serving. It makes for uneasy feelings in the viewer when you realise you are almost cheering on ‘Team Hitler’ as Smith thwarts the assassination of the aging Fuhrer himself. Likewise there is a sense of relief when the previously venomous Kido is relieved of his duty to commit suicide, even though this means that the likable Ed must take the fall for Frank’s mishaps.
It is testament to the excellent writing that we are made to feel sympathetic for these characters. Smith is in-fact a loving father and husband; Kido has an unwavering and honourable allegiance to his cause and ultimately is willing to die in order to prevent a war that the Japanese cannot win. Equally the two resistance members that the characters come to know are incredibly dislikeable. Their miserable, harsh, no comprising attitude is irritating and the cause of much distress for the three principle protagonists. So what is it Frank Spotnitz is trying to do? Whilst it is partly down to the stronger performances coming from the villains, it’s possible that this all reflects the reality bending nature of the whole program and links in with the big question surrounding it of ‘What is actually real?’.
There are a number of moments and arcs of genuine poignancy throughout the series which help to stop it becoming a grind of a spy thriller. Frank weeping at a secret memorial for his dead sister with a Jewish man and his family living in hiding is beautifully shot. It captures on the one hand the emotional release of a damaged man and also the spiritual quiet amidst the storm of this dangerous world. Likewise Juliana eventually comes across the open grave of her sister killed by the authorities. It is an uncompromising and brutal image. This comes about due to the warm relationship between Juliana and trade minister Tagomi, who she is working for, a sweet man in an unfortunate position. I also liked the scene where Smith learns that his son has a life altering disability and sets about keeping this a secret. The gravity of this fact dawns on Smith as he in a way gets a taste of his own medicine. You almost think he will question his own beliefs and this becomes another side to this complex character.
It can be unclear where things are going at times however there is enough tension and surprises to be entertained. The last three episodes particularly maintain a much faster pace and the strange twisting of sympathy’s for the characters is compelling. It is unsurprising The Man in the High Castle has done so well, as it has a unique subject matter which is intriguing for all viewers. There is still much to learn and I will certainly be returning for season two.
Words by Tim Goodfellow