[This review contains spoilers for Season 1 of “The Man in the High Castle.”] Despite my love for its first season, I was surprised to find my interest waning for Season 2 of “The Man in the High Castle.” But while the earlier episodes felt a little slow, the second season gained a lot of momentum as it progressed, and then went out with a satisfying bang. Overall, I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.
By the time Season 2 began, some of the novelty of the show’s premise had worn off. Its unique milieu — a post-World War II, occupied America in which Germany and Japan are triumphant — was already explored in depth. The show also felt scattered for much of this season … we follow disparate protagonists trying to negotiate or survive the alternate-history dystopia. Their individual stories felt like subplots, while the central plot line — the nature and purpose of the mysterious newsreels — was left in the periphery.
Compounding this problem is the fact that the characters themselves weren’t always interesting or terribly likable. Juliana Crain is always engaging to follow, given the strength and vulnerability brought to the role by actress Alexa Davalos. Far less so, however, was Joe Blake, a character as flat and boring as his generic name. (And this isn’t helped by actor Luke Kleintank’s wooden performance.)
There may be a few things that I am missing, as well. For one, various characters view the newsreels, which depict separate events in parallel universes. They then try to prevent those terrible futures from coming to pass in their own timeline. But why are they so certain those events will come to pass? They know they are viewing events in an entirely different universe, and not their own.
Also, it becomes clear that certain characters can actually travel back and forth between parallel universes, but there is virtually no exposition about this. Why do some people have this gift, but not others? How rare is it? What would happen if a character met their own double in a parallel universe? Why don’t people in power recruit these talented “travelers” themselves, instead of relying on the newsreels they bring back? Or are they doing that already?
Despite my misgivings above, however, “The Man in the High Castle” is a terrifically smart TV thriller, full of frightening ideas and detailed world-building. Its depiction of a mid-twentieth century America conquered by the Axis powers is unflinching. There are some really good performances by Rufus Sewell, Brennan Brown, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and the awesome, scenery-chewing Callum Keith Rennie.
The show is inspired enough to challenge the viewer with a lot of moral ambiguity, as well. American resistance fighters act as ruthlessly as the Nazis, while the worst secret police from both the German and Japanese sides cooperate to try to prevent a nuclear war.
“The Man in the High Castle” is still pretty intricately plotted, too — the last two episodes surprisingly do reveal how some of its scattered subplots tie together in the context of the larger story. And those final two episodes are damn dramatic and thrilling. I’m glad I stayed with the show.