Meet the man himself — and his so-called 'high castle'

By Shirley Li
December 16, 2016 at 04:19 PM EST
Liane Hentscher
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Meet the Man in the High Castle — after you re-meet The Man in the High Castle and all its unnerving, alternate history ideas first. They’re on full display during season 2’s first scene, in which John Smith’s son Thomas arrives at school and recites the world’s twisted “pledge of allegiance” in class after wandering the hall, going about a normal teenage day. It’s a quick way for the show to say, again: This fascist world first imagined by Philip K. Dick is much more similar to ours than we think. The line’s blurrier than it seems.

And that line is something the characters of High Castle struggle to grapple with and continue to toe across the premiere. There’s Joe, who’s on the boat bound for Mexico, surrounded by African-American runaways who smuggle people across the border to make ends meet. Though he’d rather not, he has to lie when the captain learns he’s a Nazi. Joe lies that he’s not a Nazi and bargains for his life by using the film Juliana let him take — you know, they one they’d been carrying all last season — and promising each of the men 200,000 once the Nazis pay him for it. Of course, the Reich doesn’t actually care for its money or for the lives of the African-American workers. So, after Joe makes it to the Nazi sub, the Nazis blow up the smugglers’ ship, leaving Joe wracked with guilt — and looking more naïve than ever.

Juliana isn’t doing well, either: Waking up inside a cell, she tries to defend herself by saying she didn’t want to take Joe’s life. But when a pair of cylons Lem and West Coast Resistance leader Gary walk in, they argue that they needed the film, no matter how righteous Juliana was feeling — and so Gary shoots her, but the shot sounds oddly muffled.

Whatever Gary did, at least he didn’t kill Juliana: She turns out to be integral to the Man in the High Castle’s plans. Before waking up in said “high castle, “she has a series of flashbacks: A young Juliana embraces a soldier (presumably her father), a slightly older Juliana walks next to a coffin at a funeral (also presumably for her father), the same slightly older Juliana spots a soldier walking with her, and a wartime young Juliana holds onto young Trudy. The flashbacks then pivot to what we saw last season: There’s Juliana with Frank, Juliana with Joe, and Juliana thinking she saw Trudy again. The final shot, though, is something we knew happened to Juliana but didn’t see last season: She steps in front of a bus in a yellow dress and the film burns as the bus crashes into her back.

So how does this connect to the Man in the High Castle? Well, first of all, he’s the one who asks the questions here, and, second, his name’s Hawthorne Abinson (I hope I’m getting the spelling right here, but I’m too afraid to ask the man himself, you know?), and, third, his castle is his mind, not the warehouse he’s in filled with film reels acquired by the Resistance. When Juliana wakes up in this physical “castle,” he tells her many confusing things — that she’s a piece of the puzzle, that she has an unnatural mind, and that it’s possible for Fourth of July fireworks to have occurred in 1961 in Phoenix.

Juliana plays along, having seen the reel she brought to him and been disturbed by its events. She recounts what she saw on the film, of the burned shadows in San Francisco, the destruction of the city via mushroom cloud, and Joe murdering her boyfriend Frank. Hawthorne is delighted and decides to show her a different reel, hoping she can recognize the man in it. “Each one of these films shows a reality like our, but not ours,” he explains, sort of. “You learn an awful lot from these films. Some of us are just the same rotten or kind in one reality, or rotten or kind in the next, but most people are different.” To put it as simply as possible, he explains that he wants Juliana to identify the man because the only reel in which San Francisco isn’t destroyed is the one in which this mystery man — yup, a new mystery man! — is dressed as a Nazi and murdered.

Yet, when Juliana watches the reel, she can’t quite place the man she’s seeing. “Then we’re screwed,” Hawthorne concludes, taking a 180 from his enthusiastic mood seconds before. With that, the pair end up talking. Juliana tells him Trudy had thought of the films as a way out, but after she wonders whether she did see Trudy a few days ago in the streets of San Francisco, he tells her, again, that she shouldn’t ask questions. At that, she wonders why he’s so angry at her. He doesn’t give her a straight answer, instead letting Gary in to shoot her again, but it’s clear: He has seen her do something (or multiple somethings) in the films and isn’t willing to let that go. Like he said before, some people are rotten in some films, kind in others.

John Smith could be considered both in this reality. Arriving home from escaping Heydrich, who’s been taken into custody to be hanged for his disloyalty to the Fuhrer, John embraces his wife and reassures her after she had to come so close to possibly harming their children to keep them away from whatever the Reich would have done to the family if Heydrich had succeeded. At his office in New York, he meets with Joe, who arrived there safely. Their reunion is chillier than ever: “In the future, you have to learn to keep your feelings in check,” John says, chiding his mentee for developing a friendship (or is it something more?) with Juliana. Joe, in retaliation, asks to resign, saying he can’t handle the nature of the job anymore. “This isn’t the man I want to be,” Joe says, prompting Rufus Sewell to deliver his Rufus Sewell-est performance yet in the episode. “This isn’t the man you want to be?” he whisper-sneers. “I see. It seems I’ve misjudged you, Joe.”

Later, John gets a chance to go to Berlin to meet the Fuhrer himself. He arrives, expecting to be commended for his actions in taking down Heydrich, but instead, the Fuhrer watches the reel Joe delivered to John first. The reel, showing the destruction of San Francisco, sends Hitler reeling, and he doesn’t recover in time to talk to John. In fact, he tells him that loyalty isn’t enough; the paranoid, dying Hitler tells his officer he has to find the Man in the High Castle, not just search for him. If John doesn’t find him, “all will be lost,” the Fuhrer sputters. John leaves, as shaken as his protégé had been at sea.

NEXT: Where, oh where, is the Japanese trade minister?

It would have been very easy for The Man in the High Castle to leave the plot of the shooting of the crown prince be, but it doesn’t. In fact, it goes full throttle on Mission Save DJ Qualls. First, it has an extremely guilty and repentant Frank tell Inspector Kido himself that Ed is innocent. “I’m the one who’s supposed to die,” he says, shaking, as the ever-apathetic Kido tells Frank that Ed had signed a confession. Trapped, Frank smashes glass back in his apartment, before falling asleep.

He wakes with a start when Arnold — Juliana’s stepfather, remember — arrives to check on dear Jules. With his girlfriend and best friend gone, Frank channels his anger toward Arnold instead, accusing him of having played a part in the death of Trudy. After all, Arnold is a pawn for the kempeitai, listening in on their behalf inside the Nippon Building. Thrown by Frank’s aggressive accusation, Arnold advises him to find someone who has connections. If they can find someone sympathetic to their plight, maybe Ed can be freed.

Frank thinks — and realizes he knows just the guy: Robert Childan, who sells “prized” “American” “artifacts” and constantly sucks up to the Japanese buyers despite using people like Frank to make forgeries and copies of actual artifacts. Inside the shop, Frank forces Childan to work with him because the gun Ed had been accused of using to shoot the crown prince was one obtained with bullets in Childan’s shop. Childan immediately panics, thinking he’s bound for death, as he can’t possibly imagine himself living in the “armpit” that is the neutral zone. Frank, however, mobilizes and pores through Childan’s list of contacts.

Eventually, he spots a good possibility: Paul Kasura, the lawyer to whom Childan had sold a neck plate forged by Frank in season 1. When they head to the Kasuras’ home, Childan advises Frank not to speak; after all, the yakuza are there, too, ready to take them out. But Childan isn’t convincing enough for Paul; the lawyer has no interest in fame for taking Ed’s case. Instead, he decides not to throw them out when Frank points to the neck plate and tells him it was forged. (Yeah… “not throw them out,” in this case, means “hold them prisoner.”)

Unlike Childan and Frank, Tagomi has walked free — he’s even traversed across realities. When we finally see him again, he’s just returned in order to make a meeting with the General (character Tzi Ma, joining this season), finally quelling Kotomichi’s fears that his boss has disappeared. During the meeting, Kido picks up on how strangely Tagomi is acting, especially when the General explains that the Japanese science minister found a capsule with information smuggled from Berlin with data on how to build a Heisenberg device. Last season, Tagomi had helped Rudolph Wegener (RIP) slip the intel into the science minister’s pocket, and as the General giddily explains how they’ll seize power back from the Reich, Kido stares unsmiling at the trade minister.

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He tracks Tagomi down in the hallway after the meeting, telling him directly that he knows what Tagomi did. But Tagomi isn’t all that shaken by Kido’s threat: In his office, he meditates and explains to Kotomichi that when he meditated, he was brought to a strange place. Kotomichi isn’t of much help figuring out what Tagomi means, but it’s curious that this scene ends with a shot of Tagomi through glass, as if he’s already out of reach from this world. It’s a repeated shot — the next time we see Tagomi through glass, he’s at home, praying for his dead son and wife at his shrine before calling Wegener’s family and discovering the bad news of Wegener’s suicide after failing to kill the Fuhrer.

Kido could continue investigating Tagomi, but he’ll have his hands full soon enough: Juliana, after being “shot” by Gary, wakes up in the trunk of a Resistance car. As Resistance members Karen and Lem argue against Gary that Hawthorne had wanted Juliana kept alive and should not be taken to Stockton, Juliana starts trying to bang her way out. She manages it at the worst time, leaping out of the trunk right in front of a kempeitai checkpoint. Gary turns around to try and retrieve her, but a soldier walks up to the car and violence quickly breaks out. Shots are fired, kempeitai soldiers fall, and Karen dies from a gunshot wound.

Juliana makes it away, but the episode ends with an unlucky kempeitai soldier crawling away from a chilly Gary, echoing a scene from season 1, in which John Smith walks up to a Resistance member and pulls the trigger, showing no mercy. There are parallels between these two men: Both are fiercely loyal to the cause, and both aren’t afraid to shoot. So who’s in the right? As sirens are heard, Lem finally pulls Gary out of his reverie, and the two drive away, leaving Karen’s body behind and speeding right past Juliana, now hiding in the woods. Suddenly, she has a flashback: She sees the man she saw in the film and couldn’t identity. He was the man who had turned to look at her at the funeral. But who is he?

It’s another in a long string of questions The Man in the High Castle raises immediately in its season opener, despite revealing much more to the show than I expected. (Who knew season 2 would introduce the titular man in the high castle so quickly?! Welcome, Stephen Root.) Some of the hanging threads — who’s this guy in the reel and how will Frank get out of this one? — might be hard to untangle, but if the cast has grown in size and the mysteries have gotten longer, that’s okay. So far, the drama’s major themes are just as strong as before: Who do you trust, when neither side is 100 percent moral? Are you to be trusted? Are you guilty for the actions of your seniors, your bosses, the party you’re loyal to? Can you ever let that guilt go? And yes, I realize I haven’t addressed the elephant in the room: This show has indeed been referred to as a point of comparison for today’s U.S. politics. While 2016 has brought about more headlines on fascism than before, The Man in the High Castle remains, on a purely entertainment level, entertaining. That’s how I’ll be grading these episodes at least. So, without further ado…

Episode grade: B+

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Amazon adapts Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel about an alternate universe where the Axis powers won World War II.
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  • 01/15/15-11/15/19
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