The Reels of Fate

manin12017.10: The Man in the High Castle Season Two (Amazon VOD)

The Man in the HIgh Castle, based on Philip K Dick’s Hugo-award winning book, has a killer premise. Its the early ‘sixties, and we are in a world in which the Nazi’s won the race to create the Atomic Bomb and in so doing won the Second World War. After the Germans dropped the bomb on Washington DC,  America capitulated and the country was divided between the Germans in the West and the Japanese holding the Eastern seaboard. Hitler is still alive but his health is failing, and various Nazi factions are positioning for power ahead of the political chaos that would follow the Führer’s death. The alliance/truce between the Germans and the Japanese is fragile, threatening to collapse into war, a war the Japanese cannot possibly win as they still do not have the technology to make an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, strange reels of film displaying events that have not happened, some in which the city of San Francisco is nuked, some in which the Allies won the war instead of the Axis, are being secretly distributed. What do they mean? Where are they from? Are they alternate pasts, alternate futures? Why does Hitler collect and study them? Who is the Man in the High Castle who has allegedly authored them? How can the films be ‘real’?

I had my doubts, but I have to admit, with season two, this series has really hit its stride. After the gripping pilot, season one took a long time to find its way and didn’t totally convince me, but this season picks up most of the arcs from the first series and takes them on to what turns out to be a very satisfying conclusion. Indeed, if the show had been cancelled (thankfully it hasn’t, a third season has been commissioned) then I must confess I’d have been pretty satisfied how things finally panned out. Most of the major threads are resolved, more questions answered than you might expect, and the stodgy pace of the first season replaced with a fairly swift run towards its finale. In some ways it seems to mirror how the series Caprica turned out, but from a different perspective- Caprica was one long season split into two, aired over two years by its network, the first half suffering from a dull pace from world-building and setting up arcs, the second half picking things up and resolving them at a better pace, but slaughtered by having a twelve-month gap in between, whereas The Man in the High Castle is two short seasons made over two years that forms a whole.

main3Its nice to see a series actually deliver rather than stretch things out further and tease viewers over multiple seasons. We see Hitler’s sickness progress to its inevitable conclusion, the conspiracy amongst his Nazi followers reach fruition, the threat of global conflict between the Axis superpowers reach its zenith, and a tragic twist that likely brings the arc regarding John Smith’s sons illness to an unfortunate end. Its the repercussions of these that will follow in season three, no doubt, rather than simply a continuation of them. Add to that some delightful new teases in the final coda and the second season ends with some style. Much improved over season one,  I’d urge anybody who gave up on the show to return to it- I do think much of season two causes the viewer to reconsider season one in hindsight; it informs much of what may have seemed wrong with that first seasons pace. Had the two seasons been an old-fashioned 22-episode single season it would have been a very solid whole, and I’d advise anybody starting the show to watch the two seasons together.

Its also refreshing to watch a modern show that doesn’t resort to nudity and violence to justify its worth or gain notoriety from such. In many ways The Man in the High Castle is an old-fashioned drama and quite reserved. Violence is very restrained and much of the conflict is from the opposing viewpoints and political ideals. Its very much a drama about ideas, and in so doing remains faithful to Philip K Dick’s works. There’s a number of ‘shifts’ in reality that honours themes prevalent in much of the authors output, disorienting viewer and character alike. Its wonderful that we actually end up rooting for the bad guys to save the world, undermining preconceived notions about whose side we are on and the story we expect the series to be- those same bad guys who save the world are still monsters. And yes, although season two offers resolutions to many of the first two season’s arcs, plenty of mysteries remain.

Its also a very unsettling work- there is something very nervy about an ordinary-looking scene, almost like something out of Mad Men, suddenly invaded by characters in Nazi uniform, or the Nazi banners with the Swastika billowing in the American breeze and dominating the New York skyline. Likewise the evil ideology of the Reich and its perceived superiority of its Master Race and genetics is quite harrowing, particularly in some of the offhand comments made by characters- things that might be lost if the viewer isn’t paying due attention. A worldview and alternate history is slowly established, and the world is increasingly horrific- not in a brutal, in-your-face kind of way, but in a subtle, almost insidious way. Shots of Gestapo officers looking out of panoramic windows on to the New Berlin of Hitler’s dreams -realised with quite impressive photo realism and clarity by the shows effects teams- are the stuff of nightmares.

manin2The show isn’t perfect, but any faults I had with the first season have mostly been fixed with this second season. The scripts are more focused, the acting is excellent and the music score really quite sublime. Its very much improved and I’m really looking forward to season three. I only wish it might turn up on Blu-ray sometime; the show deserves a wider audience than it is likely getting on Amazon and I’d appreciate the opportunity to own it on disc (the possibility of commentaries are intriguing to say the least). Above all else though, this show deserves a bigger audience- more people should have the opportunity to see it, something that can be said of many television programmes these days.

 

 

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