When I first heard of the new season of the Amazon Prime original series “The Man in the High Castle” that premiered earlier this month, I was somewhat curious. I had watched the first two episodes of the first season last year in November when they were both free. “Maybe the first episode of this season will also be free?” I thought. A joyous surprise came though when I logged onto Amazon to see when the season premier was… and saw that somehow, almost magically, I had acquired Amazon Prime! I asked my dad about this later (we share the same Amazon account), but he said he didn’t recall purchasing Prime. I don’t recall purchasing it either, but regardless, I was ecstatic and binge watched the first season during the wee hours of the weekday morning when I should have been sleeping, studying, or doing homework. After the final credits for the first season finale rolled past, I waited eagerly for season two to arrive.
For those unfamiliar with the series, which I do heartedly recommend, “The Man in the High Castle” is a loose adaptation of the original 1962 novel by late science fiction author Philip K. Dick. The novel imagines life in an alternate reality where the Axis powers won WWII and now rule the world. The United States is divided in half, with the Greater Nazi Reich occupying the East coast and the Japanese empire occupying the West coast. Between the two lies the Neutral Zone (formed by the Rocky Mountains), an area that serves as a buffer zone between the two world powers, as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan are currently engaged in a decades-long Cold War. Unlike the Cold War in our universe, it is a bit one sided, as Nazi Germany has possessed nuclear weapons since at least 1945, while Japan has yet to built their first.
Needless to say, the Amazon series has a rather dark tone; seriously, how can life under global rule by the Axis powers possibly be cheery? However, the premier of season two came at a rather peculiar time, even if the release date was decided upon rather long ago. The recent election of Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States meant that Google and all the entertainment coverage websites were flooded with mentions of how the series is now a little more unnerving in the wake of Trump’s victory. The rotten reviews on Rotten Tomatoes even explicitly called out the bad timing as a major reason for the reviewers’ disappointment in the season.
Of course, this is all very subjective and politically influenced. Half the nation was utterly joyful and filled with hope when Trump claimed victory early last month. That half of the nation, though, is generally not the type to fill the Internet with reviews of the latest movies and TV shows. In a year that already saw the release of a positively reviewed film detailing Barack Obama’s early romance with Michelle (“South Side with You”), it seemed rather odd to me, if not outright partisan and biased, to suddenly let politics influence one’s opinion on a work of fiction. While there was a moment or two while I watched season two where I got a brief chill at the parallels between the series and America in December of 2016, overall the series did little to evoke any sense of political emotion, and I advise everyone to watch it knowing full well that it is an adaptation of a Cold War era novel, filmed months ago, and nothing more. While the supposed rise of white nationalism (or at least its prominence) in this country is a bit unnerving, I remain fairly confident that it will not bloom into more anytime soon. Trump himself merely farmed the white nationalists’ interest for votes and now wants nothing more to do with them. Whether or not they will try to use him as a “useful idiot” remains to be seen however.
Season two encountered some weird quandaries during production: the series showrunner left around halfway through season production / filming, and the series concluded production without ever finding a new replacement. Also, past the first episode, the series effectively covered all the plotlines from the original source material. Everything from that point onwards Amazon had to create for themselves. Unfortunately, this sudden need to craft their own narrative shows pretty well during the second season. The series now was rather struggling (if it wasn’t before) to find what kind of show exactly that it wanted to be and what direction that it wanted to head in. The end result is a bit convoluted and heavy-handed.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead! Skip ahead if you’ve yet to watch “The Man in the High Castle” season finale!
By the end of the season finale, I got the impression that Amazon ultimately decided that this season would merely be a transition season for whatever Amazon has in store for the future. The sudden reappearance of Juliana Crain’s sister Trudy Walker, alive, and Japanese trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi’s strange voyage through our world’s 1962 hints at more universe hopping in the series future. If that is the case, I find this a somewhat worrying change of theme and focus and can only hope that Amazon navigates this transition well.
A major difference between seasons one and two is the amount of interaction between the main characters. While in season one, the show’s protagonists and “antagonists” all shared story threads that ultimately tied together pretty well, season two sees most of its characters all going their separate ways, never physically sharing the same place at the same time, though Tagomi’s encounter with our universe’s Juliana Crain could count as an exception. Joe Blake is in Berlin throughout most of the season, hence the series spawning in two new characters (his dad and Nicole) is flesh out his storyline. Miss Crain spends most of her time in the Greater Nazi Reich with Obergruppenfuehrer John Smith. Frank Frink undergoes a somewhat contrived character metamorphosis as he joins the Resistance in the Pacific States, while also helping out Ed and Childan on the side. Chief Inspector Kido largely is involved with his own work in the Pacific States, and Tagomi is off in another universe entirely!
As with season one, season two again follows characters from both the Axis and (former) Allied powers. This leads to an exorbitant amount of moral ambiguity and grayness. Chief Inspector Kido and Obergruppenfuehrer Smith might very well be considered monsters by some. Indeed, they commit acts that are more typical among movie villains than series “protagonists.” Both men though are merely products of their place in society. They are both fathers and military veterans, and the show points this out poignantly. Would they not be doing their heinous deeds were it not for the job titles that they hold? Perhaps season three will tell. Either way, to feel sympathy for a Nazi and a Kempeitai officer is not to be looked down upon when looking deeper into their lives as mere mortal men. Their ambiguous morality, along with that of the shady American Resistance members, only seeks to highlight that people in real life are rarely one-dimensional. We are all only human and subject to be products of our environment, whatever that shall entail.