In our reality, Fritz Julius Kuhn died in 1951 in Munich, Germany, “a poor and obscure chemist, unheralded and unsung.” The former leader of an American organization that promoted Nazism within the United States, Kuhn was found guilty in 1939 of embezzling funds to spend on his mistress, and deported to Germany in 1945. But in the reality of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, Kuhn is an American hero. In the first scene of the second season, released in its entirety on Friday, school buses pull into Fritz Julius Kuhn High School, as girls and boys in Nazi sashes pile into classrooms. They pledge allegiance until death to the leader of the Nazi Empire, Adolf Hitler. They raise their right arms in unison and chant, “Sieg heil. Sieg heil. Sieg heil.”
It’s a scene that might have played a little differently a few months ago, before a man who tweeted anti-Semitic imagery was elected to the highest office in the land, or before video revealed a roomful of white supremacists assembled in Washington hailing President Trump with the very same language and salute. Suddenly, The Man in the High Castle has unexpected resonance. Only a few weeks after the election, Amazon was forced to remove promotional material that festooned subway cars with Nazi-American imagery, after Mayor Bill de Blasio described it as “irresponsible and offensive.”
But if the show seems newly painful, it’s also newly relevant. The first season, which debuted in 2015, was based loosely on the 1962 speculative novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, in which the Axis countries won World War II and portioned up America. Nazi Germany controls the East Coast and Japan the Pacific states, with a kind of neutral mountain zone in the middle. In the book, a banned novel featuring an alternate history in which the Allies won the war becomes popular. In the TV show, the subversive novel is reimagined as newsreels depicting strange parallel realities, which the heroes of the show can use to influence the one they live in. But the metaphor is the same: Storytelling can change the world. Whether in print or onscreen, fictional societies are thought experiments that allow us to hold our own up to greater scrutiny—to probe its weaknesses and imagine the worst. In contemporary America, watching this dystopian fantasy of Nazi rule is as often illuminating as it’s uncomfortable.
That The Man in the High Castle is a valuable show doesn’t mean it’s a perfect one, although the second season is stronger than the first, which invested much more heavily in visuals and style than it did in story or characters. In the pilot episode, set in 1961, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a Nazi, infiltrated a resistance movement in New York, escaping from a shootout with a mysterious film reel. Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), a young woman living in Japanese-controlled San Francisco, watched as her sister was shot dead in the street minutes after she gave Juliana a similar reel. Then, Juliana’s boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans) was tortured by the Japanese, and his sister and her children were murdered in retaliation for Juliana’s escape to the free zone.
The rest of the first season had both Juliana and Joe caught between the resistance, the Nazis, and the Japanese Kempeitai, while the Nazi and Japanese governments engaged in covert hostilities prompted by a power struggle in Berlin. But as much as the show focused on its heroes and their journeys, it delved into the motivations of the villains: John Smith (Rufus Sewell), a cruel SS officer; Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Japanese trade minister; and Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido (Joel de la Fuente), the head of the Kempeitai. While Kido’s loyalty to Japan remained steadfast throughout (he was willing to sacrifice his own life to prevent war with Germany), Tagomi’s was more ambiguous, and at the end of the series, while meditating, he appeared to transport himself into a parallel reality where the U.S. had won the war and the Cuban Missile Crisis was ongoing.
The one figure uniting all the characters was the Man in the High Castle, a shadowy figure who was somehow responsible for the fake newsreels in circulation. The first film Juliana watched showed the Allies winning World War II; the second, at the end of the season, showed San Francisco being leveled by an atom bomb and Frank being shot in the head by Joe, wearing a Nazi uniform. The question for the second season, then, is what could such different newsreels mean? How is it possible to see these oppositional versions of reality, and how, if at all, can they be used in the present?
None of these are directly answered, although the surprise of the first episode is that after helping Joe escape the resistance, Juliana is taken to the elusive Man in the High Castle. He’s predictably eccentric, aggressive, and obsessed with having her identify a man in one of his films—whose death seems to be directly connected with American nuclear annihilation. Although each film shows a different world with different versions of the same people—altered by the circumstances they’ve experienced—it’s apparently possible to use certain events in them to effect change in the real world. Although it’s tempting to use the proliferation of fake news as an analogy, The Man in the High Castle seems to be pointing to fiction as a metaphor, implying that speculative works that expand the scope of real-world events can be a warning of their potential consequences.
The world of the show is more vividly drawn than ever, and more stylishly rendered. The noirish feel of the first season translates into Hitchcock-inspired scenes in immaculate 1960s apartments, framed by dramatic light and shadow. The show continues to excel in regard to world-building, filling in its arresting cityscapes and period street scenes with intricate detail. The downside is that the plot is dizzyingly complicated, both on a structural level and a philosophical one. Frank is cast in a ludicrous resistance subplot that feels like unnecessary padding. Joe is sent to Berlin to meet his father, which introduces an entirely new, if intriguing, society into the show. Juliana, with both the Kempeitai and the resistance trying to kill her, seeks asylum with the Nazis, while also chasing down the one man she believes can save San Francisco.
In juggling so many stories at once, the show tends to give them all equal shrift, which means extended, tedious scenes building up conflict, and not enough analysis of how people’s lives are being affected by the various regimes. The most powerful scenes involve Obengruppenführer Smith (Sewell), who discovered in the first season that his teenage son has a degenerative disease, meaning he will immediately be euthanized by the state if they find out. His efforts to protect him, and Sewell’s forceful performance as a brutal man who also loves his family fiercely, make the character easily the most compelling in the show. But they also shed light on the unthinkable cruelty of the authoritarian state, which sometimes gets lost amid the range of characters and threads.
The Man in the High Castle resists the urge to infer that all occupiers are bad and all Americans are faultless. Smith, an American, does diabolical things to resistance members but is humanized by his Norman Rockwell-esque wife and children. Joe, a reluctant Nazi, is a hero. One of the new characters in season two, Gary (Callum Rennie), the leader of the West Coast resistance, is sociopathically violent to enemies and friends alike. The resistance have been forced to become as uncompromising as the forces they oppose, which often puts them at odds with the show’s main characters. Tagomi, the trade minister, seems so disturbed by his current reality that he’s able to physically access an alternative one. It’s a kind of moral complexity that encourages the viewer to think about and analyze the behavior they witness rather than tacitly go along with it.
The show is also fascinating when it considers the power of propaganda, and how fake news has the ability to influence a nation. The Man in the High Castle’s films have become objects of obsession on all sides. Hitler (Wolf Muser) rages over them, refusing to let anybody watch them but himself. For the resistance, they’re messages of hope, but perplexing in their meaning. But there are also odd details: a pro-Nazi police drama called American Reich, a banned-books section that features work by Huxley and Dickens, radio stations that only play squeaky clean pop without “negro influences.” In being this self-aware about the influence of culture, The Man in the High Castle doubles down on its message that stories wield great power.
All this means that it’s frequently an interesting series rather than an absorbing one, and that it encourages a kind of detached contemplation that not many dramas can offer. It also often drags (the 50-minute episodes are notably tighter than the hour-long installments, and it could benefit from still more pruning). But its visuals—sophisticated, meticulously planned, and presumably very expensive—make up for some of the puffiness of the plot, while the thought experiment the show poses bears considerable weight. In its first season, The Man in the High Castle wondered what a Nazi America might look like. In its second, it’s wondering what might be done to stop it.
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