That isn’t to say, however, that The Man in the High Castle has always managed to live up to its potential. Reviewing the second season, my colleague Todd VanDerWerff called it “the worst TV show of 2016,” citing the season’s lack of a showrunner and its veering into more caricaturist territory as crippling developments.
The new third season has acquired a captain at the helm — Eric Overmyer, whose prior work includes The Wire, Treme, and Bosch — and it’s better off for it. That said, it’s treading inherently uneven ground thanks to the foundation laid in season two’s foray into overt science-fiction adventure territory.
The season one finale, in which Japanese Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) traveled into a world in which the outcome of WWII was more similar to our own, felt like a game-changer — one on which the second season failed to deliver, making traveling through dimensions more of an “oh, look, isn’t this cool” gimmick rather than using it to support the first season’s more difficult ideas about our roles in society.
Season three goes some way toward course-correcting, but there’s too much of it to be done within the space of a single season — and The Man in the High Castle still carries a not-insignificant amount of dead weight.
The Man in the High Castle undermines itself by trying to do too much
The Man in the High Castle’s large cast is a necessity born of the expansive story it’s trying to tell, but committing to being an ensemble piece is a gamble the show is losing. Not every character is crucial enough to support the amount of time spent with them, and some of the characters reinforce a black-and-white, good/bad binary that works against the more complex points the series is trying to make.
Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), for instance, is supposed to be the crux of the series, as the man in the high castle himself (Stephen Root, a great actor wasted in a McGuffin of a role) has named her as crucial in the collection of the newsreel-style films that tell of alternate universes and are at the heart of the series’ resistance movement. But in the shadow of her grand mission, her character has become so impersonal — a figurehead rather than a living, breathing character — that it’s hard to care what happens to her.
It gets worse as she’s shuttled through love interests (a problem that, frankly, the entire season has, as if Amazon were trying to compete with HBO to get literal skin in the game), with her past living under Japanese occupation almost utterly erased for the sake of getting her elsewhere in the story. One almost wishes that more central duties had been passed to her erstwhile boyfriend, Frank (Rupert Evans), who, as the series has progressed, has struggled with embracing his Jewish heritage.
It’s telling of the series’ strengths that the grander storyline Juliana is involved with is less interesting than the minutiae of the lives of the people around her. One of the reasons I’ve always had a soft spot for The Man in the High Castle is its take on what would have happened had the U.S. been under not just German occupation, but Japanese occupation as well. That thread — which incorporates American history of internment camps, as well as issues of racism, fetishization, and commodification of a foreign culture — is seldom seen in any form in any other media, and it’s rarely acknowledged just how distinctly American and European culture shaped Asian culture, particularly in the post-war period. An inversion of that history, in which Americans practice aikido or grow fluent in Japanese social customs in order to get by, is fascinating to watch the show parse.
However, that element of Juliana’s history seems to have been largely forgotten, and the series is depriving itself — and its viewers — of a fascinating, personal element that would add some much-needed dimensionality to the character and her story.
There’s some further exploration of these ideas as the third season introduces a half-Japanese character employed by the Kempeitai, as his character speaks accented Japanese and has to remind himself of etiquette. But it’s a thread that’s abandoned so quickly it mostly just serves to shed light on just how thinly the show is spread.
The series is finding its feet again, but still hasn’t mastered the balance between its grand ideas and its individual characters
Rufus Sewell, playing American Nazi officer John Smith, remains perhaps the best part of the show, not least because the universe-melding affects him personally.
In the last season, he went to extraordinary lengths to save his son from the fate that awaited anyone with a congenital disease in the Reich, only to be foiled when his son, striving to follow in his father’s footsteps, turned himself in to be killed. As the third season opens, his son has been branded a Nazi hero for his actions, and the way it eats away at him (in a way reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s descent into madness in The Conversation) and affects his family is the most compelling part of the season.
Granted, Smith also gets a look at the films that power the series’ main story engine, but his individual storyline isn’t utterly dependent on the existence of alternate realities, and he fares the best as a result.
Though it may seem contradictory, the more personal nature of his segments makes the broader points they reinforce more striking. The season premiere features a ceremony in his son’s memory during which schoolchildren spontaneously stand to salute the boy’s portrait, and it’s chilling to watch a moment that, despite taking place in a fictional alternate universe, suddenly doesn’t seem so very far from our reality.
The third season makes further efforts at relevance, working in new storylines about homosexuality under Nazi reign, but as with the universe-jumping the series now relies on, such efforts don’t really work when they’re not grounded in something more personal and character-based. It’s a little ironic given the new season’s focus on the production of propaganda and resistance through art; there’s a balance that must be struck between communicating larger ideas and making a personal connection. The Man in the High Castle just hasn’t found it yet.
The Man in the High Castle is streaming now on Amazon Prime.