Amazon’s original series Man in the High Castle returns for season two today, and the series—about an alternate 1960s where the Nazis and Japanese jointly conquered the United States during World War II—is as gorgeously realized, smartly expanded, and thoughtfully created as ever.
At the end of season one, regular factory worker Ed (DJ Qualls) had been accused of attempting to kill Japan’s Crown Prince, high-ranking American Nazi official Smith (Rufus Sewell) had proved his loyalty to Hitler, woman-on-the-run Juliana (Alexa Davalos) was on her way to meet the titular Man in the High Castle, secret Nazi spy Joe (Luke Kleintank) had the film of a possible future in his hands, and Japanese Minister of Trade Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) had made what seemed like a trip to an alternate universe with a much more familiar United States.
Every thread is picked up and continued in ways much more interesting than you could possibly have hoped. If there is a theme to season two of this show, it’s loyalty—where it comes from, what causes it, how it affects the future. None of the main cast’s motivations in this show are simple, no one has complete allegiance to the “side” they’re supposedly on.
This is particularly strong in Joe and Tagomi’s arcs. Joe’s completed the mission he was sent on, which should cement his place in the Reich, but what he’s seen has made him desperate to just live a normal life. And then he’s summoned by the father he never saw growing up, a father who is a very powerful member of the Reich in Berlin. Joe’s loyalty is all tangled up in everything but ideology—family obligation, need to prove himself, a need to be his own man, everything. It’s a great exploration of how you can commit to something even if you don’t wholly believe in it.
Tagomi’s arc is tied up in the arrival of a general who is determined to get Japan’s nuclear arsenal up and running, at the expense of civilian, but non-Japanese, lives. Tagomi’s ethics, always very strong, run headlong into him glimpsing a “better” world, and shake his loyalty to the core.
We’ve also got Ed, who was always very devoted to his secretly Jewish factory co-worker Frank, experiencing hell for being caught with Frank’s gun; Frank (Rupert Evans) himself getting seduced by the resistance; and Smith’s devotion to his son, who is ill and should, under the Reich’s laws about the infirm, be eliminated, finally coming into direct conflict with his position as an officer.
It would be so easy for this show to just put the resistance on one side and the Japanese and the Germans on another, but every character’s so fully fleshed out, so complicated in their motives, that it becomes way more than a simple morality tale. And way more than the conceit of the films from other universes and possible futures, although new cast member Stephen Root gives an excellent performance as the titular Man in the High Castle, zeroing in on what seeing what all those things could do to a person’s psyche.
Season two also expands the world of the show beyond the borders of the former United States. Joe’s in Berlin, experiencing the high life of the people who won the war. Tagomi’s arc involves Japan and Germany’s nuclear cold war, which takes place on a global scale. Everything about season two of Man in the High Castle is bigger and more interesting than before.
The show has so much going on that I don’t recommend binge-watching it as much as I do savoring each episode. It’s worth your time to think about each episode after watching it, not rocketing through.