In The Man in the High Castle, few characters have a plan: people seek only to survive from day to day. When you surrender yourself for asylum in Nazi-controlled territory, or agree to work for the Yakuza, it’s an act of impulsive desperation rather than careful calculation. It is therefore understandable if the characters lack an overall strategy. However, it is rather more concerning if the script-writers lack one too…
After an explosive opening three episodes, the show’s narrative momentum has disappeared. This might be attributed to the exit of Frank Spotnitz, who co-wrote and produced the show’s first season. A back-stage power struggle with Amazon bosses led to his departure, although he had some creative oversight over – you guessed it – the first three episodes.
“Fear not, screenwriters: we understand that the Resistance is morally dubious.”
Fittingly, the plot which Spotnitz left behind finds the three lead characters being manipulated by shadowy, back-stage forces. In Berlin, Joe is predictably lured into the lifestyle of the Nazi elite. In Japanese-occupied San Francisco, Frank is persuaded to work for the Resistance. Lastly, in Nazified New York, Juliana is coerced into gathering intelligence on John Smith, the most senior Nazi in America. Alas, we knew all of this at the end of episode three. Four hours later, the plot has not significantly advanced.
By removing the agency and motives of the lead characters, the show makes it very difficult to empathise with them. Nobody has a worse part than Frank, who only appears to look angsty, fight with his friends (as if he didn’t have the entire Japanese empire to argue with) and listen to his Resistance colleagues deliver hammy speeches about the ends justifying the means. Fear not, screenwriters: we understand that the Resistance is morally dubious.
It’s not all bad, though. The show is strongest when it descends from grandiose soliloquies to deal with the only idea which transcends politics – family. Much of the show’s emotional heft is generated through the stories, or even glimpses, of ordinary families caught up in a terrifying, twisted world. This gives the supporting cast the opportunity to shine and they seize it.
The stand-out performance comes from Helen Smith, wife of John and mother to Thomas – a sweet-faced teenager whose muscular dystrophy syndrome makes him a candidate for state-sponsored euthanasia. The idea of a mother reporting her child as “genetically defective” and letting the state kill him is horrific. However, the fact that Helen and John are at the apex of Nazi society and deeply morally compromised makes the issue a fascinating emotional experience for the viewer.
The show’s strength in world-building is admirably intact too. Haunting reminders of the all-pervasive nature of totalitarian ideologies appear just frequently enough to remain shocking. My new favourite set is a cavernous neo-Gothic church, whose rose window has been replaced with a stained-glass swastika. To the producers’ credit, they have also considered how Nazi society might have evolved in the 1960s. The result is a bizarre but plausible cross between second generation Nazi youths and 60s hippies; Sieg Heil-ing by day and tripping acid by night. To add to the list of improbable lines from TV reviews: being a hippie Nazi actually looks fun.
Where is it going, though? The final episode offers some clues, as Hitler collapses in Berlin and Frank discovers that the Japanese are building an atomic bomb. If these episodes are a slow-burning fuse to a firework-filled finale, then the conclusion needs to go out with a bang. Perhaps the biggest bang of all? I wish the screenwriters would avoid over-blown drama; there is so much to be explored elsewhere.
The most abiding image of the three episodes is that of Juliana, confronting her parents before fleeing to the Reich. Each character is hiding secrets from the other and all of them know it. There is a brief pause – a Mexican stand-off between the people who once loved each other unconditionally. It is beautifully captured and poses a damning question: how far can a person go to survive, without destroying that which makes life worth living? Now that’s a theme worth exploring
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