The Man in the High Castle EP on 'disturbing' modern-day parallels in season 2
WARNING: The following contains spoilers from season 2 of The Man in the High Castle. Read at your own risk!
The second season of The Man in the High Castle has arrived at a tumultuous time in U.S. politics. Though the complex, confident drama portraying life after the Axis powers won the war has always delved into its characters’ struggle to reconcile with a fascist world since it debuted in 2015, its portraits of normalized Nazism and racism can be extra disturbing after the divisive presidential election in November, as hate crimes rose across the country, some involving swastikas and other Nazi imagery.
Season 2 was already in the can and ready to debut a little over a month after Election Day, but executive producer David Zucker says the writers have been thinking about the parallels between High Castle‘s alternate 1962 and current U.S. politics. “It’s certainly something everyone’s been cognizant of,” he says. “Whenever you’re working on a piece that’s historically set, the first thing aside from trying to invest in the characters themselves is to find the modern-day relevance. In this instance, it took on a more, sort of, disturbing, more literal relationship in some respects.”
Still, that’s a relationship for the writers to explore down the line, in a potential season 3. Crafting season 2 had been tough enough; after all, showrunner Frank Spotnitz exited the series in the middle of production, and the team decided not to name a new showrunner, instead forging ahead with the story as planned.
And what a story. During the second season, new characters entered the picture (including the Man in the High Castle himself); the Resistance carried out a massive hit against the Japanese; the Reich lost its leader; San Francisco was nearly destroyed by an atomic bomb; Tagomi spent considerable time in another reality; and Juliana saw her sister again — alive this time, in the flesh. Yeah, it’s a lot. (You can catch up on recaps here.) Below, Zucker broke down in a wide-ranging interview for EW the biggest twists from this season of The Man in the High Castle, how the writers crafted each character’s story, and what to expect if the show returns for a third season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ve got some burning questions from the final episodes to tackle first. When the Man in the High Castle takes Juliana to meet her sister, that is Trudy, right? She’s not in a dream or seeing a vision of her dead sister?
DAVID ZUCKER: Yes, that is her sister in reality. It is not a dream. But we’ll come to learn in [a potential] season 3 how such a thing came to be. In some ways there’s clues to that in [the story of] Tagomi as well.
Do you mean she’s from another reality, then? Or a different time?
These are some of the questions we’re exploring. [Laughs.] You’re asking the right questions. We’ve only seen Tagomi as the one who’s traveled, and obviously, we’ve also come to understand Kotomichi’s history, but beyond that and the explanations we got from the Man in the High Castle, how and from where Trudy has landed is something we’ll pick up.
Seeing as how the Man in the High Castle knew Juliana would kill George Dixon, how much does he really know from having seen all the films? Does he know everyone’s futures?
That I can’t entirely answer. Beyond what the Man in the High Castle has revealed to Juliana, those are some of the larger questions we’re continuing to explore.
The final scene shows Tagomi being visited by Lem. Does that mean the Man in the High Castle knows what Tagomi can do, because presumably he sent Lem?
Again, a really good question that I’d prefer not to put a specific comment on. But the interesting thing about releasing a series like this at once is, from our side, one cannot anticipate how things will be interpreted. We were surprised last season that so many people thought Hitler was the Man in the High Castle. There was no intention to deceive people, but upon examination, it wasn’t surprising because he’s a recognizable historical figure and we shot scenes where he was literally in a castle. The point is, nobody wants to be coy about these questions. They’re vital to the mythology, so they’re things we want to reveal as it relates to the narrative at the time.
Well, on a more specific note… is Frank dead? We didn’t see a body.
[Laughs.] That is again another good question that will be answered. It’s unknown. I mean, there are a number of characters who were impacted by that explosion, and the fates of all of them except for those you saw in [episode] 10 are uncertain until we get back.
What about John Smith? He’s obviously not dead, but he’s in a new position: He just saved the Reich. Could this mean more power for him down the line? And how does the fact that he failed to save his son, but kept his loyalty to the Reich, affect him?
That question will be a headline one for season 3. The final scenes of episode 10 are really to confront the reality of how drastically the world has changed for him personally and for the world itself. What it portends will obviously be the turn we take into season 3, but that is part of what we will be exploring… What a devastating irony for John and his wife that they’ve almost raised too perfect of a Nazi, that Thomas would not consider the effort that they’re making to save his own life.
Let’s break down these individual stories. Tagomi certainly traveled a long, very different journey in season 2. How do his travels to another reality affect him?
As he literally bears witness to what the world may have looked like in the inverse of Philip Dick’s premise, looking at what America may have been had the Allies proved victorious, I think it instills with him a sense of individual strength and intention to assure that in his world, that does not reach a tragic fate. I think in season 2, he finds his own individual determination to do everything possible to ensure it.
Why does he go back to his world, though, if in this other one, his family is intact?
I think his emotional takeaway from the encounter that he had in the alternate world is that he must do everything possible to [prevent] devastating tragedy, to ensure that if he can play a role in preventing that, he must take it. [He has] a meaningful commitment in the Man in the High Castle world.
When you were working on writing this other 1962, how much did you want to show? Were there ever any plans to have him meet any other characters beyond Juliana, who are alive in both worlds? Any plans to have Tagomi travel beyond that town?
Well, the execution of the story was in service of Tagomi as a character… There wasn’t an interest in exploring that alt world beyond the extent that it related directly to his experience. The biggest conversations were about the shock encounter with Juliana, and then how that resonates with him both in that time and when he returns to his original world. [We kept it] in the family. It’s really about how [being in this alt world] impacts him personally.
Moving on to Juliana, she’s the one who introduces us to the Man in the High Castle. Why was it important to have her instead of anyone else be our way into that story?
If we go back to the pilot itself, this whole experience that she’s undertaken was instigated by witnessing the death of her sister and trying to understand that, which set her on the course to try and find the Man in the High Castle. She confronts the Man in the High Castle with the message her sister tried to give her, and at the same time, she’s trying to determine what her role in the world might be.
There was a lot of discussion in season 1 that we would introduce him at the climax of that season, but then Frank [Spotnitz] came up with the clever, very literal alternative of having Tagomi jump [realities], but we still wanted to have the Man in the High Castle [in season 2] answer some of the questions about his identity and what the films may mean.
How did the casting of Stephen Root come about for that part? Did you have him in mind, and did his portrayal of the character add to the writing of the character?
The exciting thing about undertaking the casting for the Man in the High Castle was that there was no predetermined or specific intention we had with who we wanted to attract for the part. There was discussion about gender, there was discussion about ethnicity, there was discussion about age…
Wait, so the Man in the High Castle could have been a woman? Or someone much younger? Or anyone?
Yes. It was a fascinating debate, to see what the ramifications and what the meaning of that would be, depending on how you might approach the role. Stephen Root is an actor who we have tremendous appreciation for, and part of what’s so exciting about his interpretation of this part is how wildly unpredictable and in some ways enigmatic about what you’d want that role to be… Stephen added so many adjustments and layers to his performance that it gave the writers and directors so much potential to work with. The first episode was written and modified once Stephen came into it, but then as he reappears over the course of the story, the way in which he played the part had a definite effect in how he came to be written.
Meanwhile, Frank’s arc this season was all about how he was ready to die and how he wanted to take risks. Why did it make sense to have him be the character to take this on, and to bring him in with the Resistance?
In season 2, we really tried to examine the efforts being made in connection to the Man in the High Castle himself, which obviously Juliana also gets engaged in full on. The Frank story, I think, is literally and understandably a descent for this character and in some ways showing an American terrorist, but a terrorist who is working against a totalitarian regime. While he is still very much committed to Ed and those few relationships that still have meaning to him, he feels that, having lost as much as he has, this is the best application of his life as it is right now.
Speaking of Ed, was he talking about Juliana in that scene with Childan when they talked about whether they’ve loved anyone before?
Yes. I mean, in that flashback [with Juliana, Ed, and Frank], we do get a sense of the particular affinity he has for her.
Going from there, Ed and Childan had a fun dynamic this season. How did you choose to have these two characters come together?
That was a wonderful discovery. First of all, it was exciting to introduce Brennan [Brown, who played Childan]. We’d been eager to bring Childan into play as much as possible, and Brennan is not only such a wonderful comic actor, but he also brings a vital presence in terms of what he represents as an American living as a decided minority within the Pacific States. When Frank and Childan are brought together out of necessity, I think as the writers started exploring this notion of them living within such confines, there was kind of an unexpected recognition of the fun we could have with those two characters. The story set the table for what was a very fun relationship to explore.
Also fun to explore: John Smith and Kido in their scenes together. Tell me more about writing for the two of them — across this season, how do they affect each other with their differences yet similar goals, to avoid war?
One of the things that was particularly intriguing to play was how they’re not really confrontational, but you even come to realize that they shared a battlefield, when they come together in John Smith’s office. There’s something so powerful and unspoken between the two of them. I mean, John Smith has a story that exists, in some ways, in the darkest and most tragic on a familial level. For Kido, I think we missed the opportunity to play the relationship he and Tagomi had, which is so affecting toward the end of the season. Not only with John Smith, but Kido and Tagomi have a friction between them initially, too.
Kido is a character we’re very much hoping, going forward in season 3, that we can continue to get more under the hood of, in the way that we’ve been able to do with John Smith. I think there is so much to explore with that character. We had such an interesting encounter with him and Gina at the [hostess] bar early on in the season, and you start getting a sense of him being disarmed, of what motivates a character such as this.
The last major character we haven’t talked about yet is Joe, but that’s because he had a very isolated story this season. What were you trying to show through his story?
Well, it was very tough [to have Joe separated], very tough on the actors, because they enjoy playing off one another quite a lot. But I mean, Joe from day one has been on a journey to really determine who he is and as we got into the second season, he’s discovering his origins, his identity, and what role he’s meant to play in this world, not dissimilar to Juliana. And then of all things, to encounter his father and trying to understand the integrity of what he’s been told by him… In some ways, it’s a seduction story for his character, even as it is constantly pulling back the curtain into the power struggle.
So by the end of the season, would you say that Joe had been fully seduced before John Smith returned to Berlin?
With the actions that John has taken, Joe is as unmoored as he was when he started season 2, in many ways. Part of what will be interesting to discover in season 3 is how the power vacuum that now exists in Berlin will [affect the characters] going forward. Obviously, he’s going to have to contend with that.
Speaking more broadly about this season, what were your goals going into season 2 for the story? What themes did you want to hit?
I think in season 1, there was a deliberate attempt to ensure the audience had a chance to acclimate to what this alternative history was. It’s such a fascinating world to explore, given all that’s familiar yet truly altered, so the second season was a chance to find some close relationship and interest in the individual character journeys, to begin to expand that world and intensify the character stories. Season 2 ultimately was seeing how each of our individual players plays a role, often unwittingly, and how the stories follow.
You mentioned that you would have liked to see more of Kido this season. If you do have a season 3, what other storylines would you hope to expand?
That’s a hard question to answer, because we’re [planning on] bringing a new showrunner to the show for season 3. That’s going to give us an opportunity to not only bring in a fresh perspective into the series-building on all that has transpired to date, but I think what we’re trying to do right now is really examine and evaluate what’s worked effectively and what through-lines we feel we can continue to build on. That’s the work that’s going to be done in the next few months.
How did Frank Spotnitz leaving as showrunner affect the writing process for season 2? Did he leave enough of a roadmap that it wasn’t too much of a challenge?
There was some of the roadmap that was put in place, but some of [the season 2 stories] were even seeded in season 1, carried all the way through this season. There were certainly some storylines we decided to adjust or reevaluate, but there was a decision that we all made to not replace Frank midstream. We certainly benefited from a lot of the road that had been laid, but even so, with our head writer and all of the writing team Frank had assembled still in place, we were able to hopefully carry on what was established. Because we were able to take a break midseason and decide if we wanted to reconsider a few of the through-lines that we were currently playing, we had a chance to strengthen them and fortify them.
What are your thoughts on the show’s unnerving parallels with today’s politics? Obviously, the show takes place in 1962, but it touches on themes that people have raised about our world today.
It’s certainly something everyone’s been cognizant of. Whenever you’re working on a piece that’s historically set, the first thing aside from trying to invest in the characters themselves is to find the modern-day relevance. In this instance, it took on a more, sort of, disturbing, more literal relationship in some respects.
So many of these aspects of a fascist regime, of the racism and the oppression and the injustice and even the roture, you see how those things, to some degree, have been normalized in our world, in the way in which John Smith and his family can look very attractive in the life that they’re living. I just think it speaks to how extraordinarily timeless and prescient the novel was, that Philip Dick put these thematic quandaries together in 1962, and we’re still struggling with them today. It all gets down to who we are as individuals and hopefully that’s what the audience is connecting to.
Will the events in our world, our politics, affect the approach to the stories of season 3?
Well, I think it can’t help but affect it. The truth is that we are in some ways being confronted with some very profound questions in terms of, does something like Nazism rise from a particular culture or is it something that’s more endemic to who we are as human beings? What are you willing to abide by in terms of surrendering rights and freedoms for a sense of protection? These are such significant questions, and ones that we’re all confronted with, certainly in terms of reading about what’s happening domestically and internationally. That’s something that lives within us that we can debate as it relates to a show set in 1962, but in our day-to-day lives as well.
The Man in the High Castle is streaming on Amazon.