Hi. If you have watched the 10 episodes of The Man in the High Castle Season 2, or if you don’t care what happens in those 10 episodes, then this post is for you. If you have any concerns about spoilers stop looking at this post.
TL;DR below I ramble for a few hundred words but I want to hear your thoughts on the show. So my apologies for the following ramble; more important than you reading any of it is you writing what you thought.
December 16th 2016 would have been Philip K. Dick’s 88th birthday... if he hadn’t died 34 years ago. So to commemorate the occasion Amazon released the second season of their television show sort of based on his 1962 novel.
And I’m going to be nice to the show because they said something nice about the author on his birthday. The second season of this show improves (most) everything that the first season seemed to not entirely get and leaves plenty open to further investigation if the show gets confirmed for a third season.
I’m still not entirely sure where the show wants to go; one of the reasons why the novel works really well is because it’s only 200ish pages long. It takes a very quick dip into a very deep ocean of plot and (if you’re like me at least) you come out of it wanting to know more about how this alternate reality works, how it came to be. The show has more time to tell you all of this but it doesn’t want to tell you how all of its magic works. The second season confirms, strongly, that people are able to move themselves, body and mind/soul/katra/whatever, from our reality into the show’s alternate reality. This might be where the films are coming from but there’s still hints that the films are possibly from other times or other timelines.
The book has a very direct answer for who the Man in the High Castle is and how he made his subversive book happen. The show seems uninterested in answering these questions so far, so if you want that mystery solved you’re going to end up disappointed.
But if you’re looking for Joe, Frank, and Juliana to be given more interesting things to do than what they did in Season 1? You will get that. Whereas the first season eventually brought all three of the Tier 1 main characters to San Francisco, the second season follows directly from the season 1 finale, splitting them apart and putting one of the three main characters in three of the power centers of the new world; San Francisco, New York City, and Berlin. Each of the main characters learns something about themselves and their past.
Well. Kind of. Frank decides to work with the Resistance, along the way he spends the night with a nisei Resistance fighter, then it seems like a scene’s missing wherein he and this woman get into an argument because for some reason he’s then angry at her (or himself for sleeping with a Japanese-American?), and then by the end of the season he figures out that the Resistance lied to him about Juliana betraying him and he blows up the Kempeitai HQ for the Resistance. Oh also he saved his friend. By. Putting him into a life debt with the Yakuza. But then the Yakuza died so Ed is not in a life debt to the Yakuza anymore. In short Frank died doing what he loved: blowing up buildings.
Juliana continues her first season work of “work with the occupiers and tell the Resistance about it” and also apparently “be in love with Joe” although by the end of the season she seems to have at least moved on from that. I liked her arc. I liked it a lot, because she has to deal with overtly-hostile Resistance members (who try to kill her) and the covertly-hostile Nazi members (who might just kill her) and she survives both and she ends up meeting up with her dead-in-that-dimension sister at the end.
While those two are living in occupied America Joe is dropping acid in Berlin with his third love interest (Joe is a love magnet) when he’s not hanging out with his dad who is (... even if only temporarily) the new Führer. And he plays the Joe game of “I don’t want to be a Nazi”
“or maybe I do”
“no wait do I?”
Until John Smith shows up and Joe is arrested because he helped his dad kill Hitler.
Okay fine I lied the show continues to be driven by the Tier 2 main cast: Tagomi, the Smiths, and Kido. Tagomi spends part of the season in our reality living with his not-dead-in-our-reality wife-and-son and daughter-in-law (Juliana!) and grandson. Tagomi continues to be the only lawful good person on the show as he watches the Cuban Missile Crisis be averted by world leaders. He brings film of the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb tests back to his reality so that the coming nuclear war in that reality can be avoided. And his plan works! He helps save tens of millions of people from dying by convincing Nazis that if they nuke the Japanese, the Japanese will nuke them back.
John Smith and Helen Smith are ... they are not lawful good in any sense, they are lawful evil because they are completely and utterly willing to kill for their family and the Reich. But the show invests heavily in letting these two play to their strengths; they are both master manipulators who sublimely use their connections with influential people in order to get the results they want from life. John Smith plays the “oh Juliana is alive” card to play Joe and then plays the “oh and I found a conspiracy” card to play Himmler and he almost wins the day. Uh. Except that his son turns himself in to the Euthanasia Squad. John and Helen raised a son who is obedient enough to let the state kill him of.
KIDO. Kido is allowed to leave San Francisco and talk to his wife in Japan and he’s one of the major players in the Axis conspiracy to prevent the post-Hitler Nazis from nuking the bejeezus out of the planet. And he kills some Yakuza. And he gets a general drunk so he can get him to sign a document.
Somewhere in the development of this season it felt like the show figured out that Takeshi Kido and John Smith are mirror images of one another; they’re the Axis secret police masters of their respective coasts and when they meet they even figure out that they once fought in the Pacific Theatre but on different sides. Of these Tier 2 main characters we still never see Kido interacting with his family (outside of a phone call) but he still seems much improved over his Season 1 storyline.
In general I think the show used its expanded scope to greatly improve itself. Its Tier 1 main cast still suffers from a very serious case of “I am going to do something and then not want to accept the consequences” but not as strongly as in Season 1. And Frank’s dead so the show wrote one of its weakest-defined characters into a hole and then buried the hole.
It’s still not a happy show. I don’t think there’s any way it can be a happy show; there is nothing apparent in this alternate history to undo the great evils that have been done. There is no way to defeat the Reich, and the Resistance is made so morally-murky in this season that I don’t think anyone can believe it’s the better cause.
But it’s never pretended to be a happy show. It’s a show about accepting that there is no perfection to be obtained. That sometimes terrible choices have to be made to prevent disastrous choices from happening. It’s a 20 episode (so far) meditation on how life is already bad so let’s not make it worse. A meditation on how retreat into a better reality is not a valid excuse for avoiding improving the world we truly live in.
It’s about hope. But not the false kind, the one that wants us to pretend that everything is alright and that easy solutions are just a dream away. It’s instead about realistic hope; the hope that if we work hard to prevent bad people from doing stupid short-sighted things that we will give future generations a world worth living on.