Marketing for the second season of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” began appearing in November. So just as the real-life election of Donald Trump sent some would-be viewers into a tailspin of anxiety, along came billboards and web ads featuring the Statue of Liberty draped in a swastika banner and giving a Nazi salute.
The producers of “High Castle” have, since the series premiered last year, walked a fine line between offense and staying true to their source material — the classic Philip K. Dick novel that imagined an alternative world in which the Empire of Japan and the German Nazi Reich won World War II and carved the United States in half. Their delicate task was complicated further for season two by the departure over creative differences with Amazon of showrunner Frank Spotnitz, who had spent years developing the series, and who left well after work on the second season was under way.
Rather than hire a new showrunner straightaway, Amazon handed the completion of season two, which debuted Friday on the company’s streaming service, over to Spotnitz’s fellow executive producers, among them David Zucker and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett. They spoke with Variety about the challenges they experienced, the revelation early in the season of the previously unseen titular Man in the High Castle, and the show’s future.
What were you goals at the outset for season two?
Zucker: I think the principal objective of season two was to really move aggressively into the world of the story, really instigate our characters in a manner given the urgency of their various situations and at the same time expand their purview a little bit. So what’s ostensibly been created is something of a butterfly effect against an ensemble of characters. That speaks to one of the principal themes of the story, which is how we individually, even up against enormous obstacles such as what totalitarianism does to one’s freedoms and such, how we as an individual can work to greatest effort to effect a better future.
Hackett: We wanted to dig into the mythology of the films and the Man in the High Castle, which as people will see, we will meet straightaway in season two, and something we don’t get to in the book until toward the end of the novel.
Did you discuss the possibility of waiting until later in the series to reveal the Man in the High Castle?
Zucker: It’s actually been debated since the top of season one. There was one clan of opinions that wanted that reveal to be the climax of our first season. There were a number of different scenarios that were considered, but I think at this point there were so many questions of significance regarding the identity of the Man in the High Castle and the things related to the films that we didn’t want to be playing hide-the-ball insofar as it would distract from the character stories we wanted to tell.
Hitler is very present in the premiere. How do you handle having Hitler as a character rather than just something lurking in the background?
Hackett: There’s a bigger dose of him at the beginning. By the time you get to the end [of the season], you’ll see that his character isn’t particularly essential. But there was some set up necessary for other things. But I don’t think we were thinking about him as a character necessarily, as much as piece of the plotting and the Cold-War aspect of it and his involvement with the films.
Zucker: He is a preeminent figure, obviously in the escalating conflict, not only between the Empire and the Reich, but more acutely, as we’re encountering the Man in the High Castle himself, and the competition of sorts that he is directly engaged in with Hitler, it feels appropriate to have that presence be one that is more tenable versus one that is strictly behind closed doors. And to Isa’s point, as we venture for various reasons more extensively into Berlin, it felt like, if we’re going to play this game of chess, we should encounter the corresponding kings.
Did you worry about making Hitler appear sympathetic? The show at times portrays him as a more moderate alternative to Himmler and others, and in the premiere, we see him reacting very emotionally to things.
Hackett: I think the way that we’re showing him is in the context of the fictional Cold War. It’s necessary for the plotting, but certainly there is no intention to make him a sympathetic character in any fashion.
Zucker: I think it’s an interesting question, and I think it speaks to the perversities that abound in this world. Certainly I think one of the most unsettling relationships the audience has is with John Smith as an American Nazi, knowing the crimes and the horrors he’s perpetrated, and yet he has an extraordinary storyline this year, among a number, trying to deal with encountering the devastating effects of the kinds of policies he’s enforced himself.
The marketing campaign features a lot of Nazi imagery. It happened to roll out right as Donald Trump was being elected president. Were you worried about the optics of that?
Zucker: I think that is a concern that has existed since we undertook the production and that will continue for however long we’re given the opportunity to produce the show. We encountered on the very fist day of shooting this the reality of how enormously sensitive the iconography is.
How much was Frank Spotnitz involved in this season? What we heard was that he worked on the first five episodes, then there was a hand-off.
Zucker: I think that’s fairly accurate. We launched the season and had probably written through about halfway. So directionally there were a number of storylines that we carried through to the resolution that had already been initiated. And then there were some that we sort of changed course. But also we didn’t undertake what would typically happen in this interest and try to bring in someone who would take helm and more radically affect our creative course.
Are you acting as showrunner now?
Zucker: No. I think the way that we described it [at Television Critics Association press tour in August] was that we really sort of approach the show more as a republic. … I think the intention as we pivot to Season 3, and I think Amazon will be revealing this at some point, we’re going to be organizing ourselves differently so we can carry forward with as much strength out of the gate as possible.
Hackett: Each person has been a custodian of the show. I think together we pull through, and certainly Frank’s original adaptation has carried all the way through season two.
Zucker: But we intend to have in Season 3 a proper showrunner again.
Would that mean you stepping into the role, or bringing someone in?
Zucker: No, a proper showrunner, a proper writer-producer that we would work with an in support of.
You’ve already expanded the world of the show pretty far beyond the book. How far can you take it? Do you have a set number of seasons in mind?
Zucker: That will probably be easier to answer once we get ourselves around this next turn —needless to say getting ourselves through this next year, and all the focus has been most singularly on accomplishing everything that needed to be accomplished. It was quite a breathless effort on everybody’s part.