The Man in the High Castle

⭐⭐⭐⭐½ based on 2 reviews.

tl;dr: A brutally tense and depressing show with a great cast of characters, some exceptional plot lines, and beautiful cinematography. The sci-fi is still a little odd, but the alt-history is intriguing and the world-building brilliant.

Season One

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Utterly blown away. I went in knowing a little about the original short story by Philip K. Dick, but I haven't read it. From what I understand, the show has significantly broadened the scope and ideas of that story, which is understandable (it really is quite short). I don't know how I feel about the whole parallel-universe cliffhanger ending element, but they were already heavily hinting at some kind of time-travel or timeline manipulation with the tapes so I'm glad to see them making the leap.

Serious sci-fi elements to one side though, what a whirlwind of a first season. The characters are brilliant and nuanced, the plot balances pace and tension expertly, and the setting is excellent. I love the idea of alt-history in general, but they've really run with it here. The whole Neutral Zone, in particular, is a great concept, both from a narrative sense and a world-building one. Similarly, it's great that we get to see into the lives of people on all sides. The stark differences between the day-to-day lives and the similarities in the behind-the-scenes politics between the Japanese and Nazi empires, as well as those in the Resistance versus the people just trying to get by in places like the Neutral zone, give the show a lot of nuance and an excellent degree of world-building.

From an acting perspective, the cast are brilliant, but personal standouts are definitely DJ Qualls as Ed who I really hope gets more screen time next season, both Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Joel de la Fuente as the Japanese Trade Minister and Chief Inspector, and of course Rufus Sewell as John Smith. As a huge fan of A Knight's Tale it's just great to see him again, but he plays the role of an American Nazi so well. He's threatening and scary when he needs to be, but still human and weirdly relatable. His arc – from clear villain to man just desperately trying to keep his family safe – is a powerful one and a great take for a film about such impactful topics. You never end up rooting for the Nazis, but you do begin to understand how seemingly normal people could end up working for them.

I'm still not entirely sure how much I enjoy the romance plot between our "main" characters, Joe and Juliana, but I don't hate it either. Honestly, of all the plot threads hers is the least interesting in some ways, but she's a useful device for fleshing out the tapes and what they mean. The only other negative I have is that the show is so damn bleak. I get that it needs to be – and I really wouldn't change that in any way – but man does it make it a slog to watch. I don't think I've come across a less-bingeable TV show that's still exceptionally good. It's a weird combo but I'm looking forward to more.

Season Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Well, I did say we struggled to get through season one. As a result, it took three years to get the courage together to watch season two. I'm glad we did.

I'd heard that the show falls off a bit of a cliff once the sci-fi elements were out in the open but I think that's largely been fine. So far, all we know is that the tapes are probably coming from other parallel versions of Earth, and that Tagomi appears to be able to hop between two of these versions. Are there more? It's hinted at, but I don't think it particularly matters. For season two, all it means is that Tagomi is able to get a tape of his own and uses it to "prove" that the Japanese are much more advanced in their nuclear armament than the reality, which prevents all-out war. It's a great storyline and exactly the kind of intricate plot the show is great at; what's more, the relationship between Smith and Kido that makes it work is a fascinating part of the show.

In fact, if Kido, Tagomi, and Smith were three of the big standouts in season one then season two was almost perfect. All of their roles are massively inflated and each character is given a brilliant arc, none quite as heart-wrenching of that as Smith, whose son's plotline is riveting and superbly acted. Kido is also brilliantly done and it left me so conflicted as to the final bombing. In fact, both Kido and Smith are deeply conflicting characters that speak volumes to the shows writing capabilities. Speaking of the bombing, I also continue to feel like Ed is underutilised and really enjoyed him this season, but the relationship with Childan was just great. I look forward to seeing where they go in the future. Frank, on the other hand, just felt a bit annoying. I'm actually not that bothered if he died or not in the explosion. His actions made sense, but his character left me a little cold.

On the other hand, Julia and Joe really hit the ground running. I wasn't sure I liked the initial set up of her defecting to the Nazis but the resultant plotline around her pseudo-imprisonment with the Smith's was great. At the same time, sending Joe across to the Motherland allowed the show to flesh out Nazi Germany and introduced some intriguing new characters. Plus, that it set up the big twist around his father and the further advancement of Smith (now thoroughly sprinting just to keep up) was a very satisfying ending. I hope Joe himself comes out of it okay, as I enjoyed his character development, but it was one hell of an ending.

In other words, I thought the show did a great job of taking the initial premise and really expanding it. It felt a little lacking in pace at times and I feel like a couple of characters are just treading water at the moment, but there's still a lot to enjoy here... even if it's just as much of a tense, dark, and morbid slog as the first season.

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