The first season of “The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon’s television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history novel, was an oddly muted exercise in reorientation — in altering the audience’s assumptions about Nazis and World War II by bringing to a life a world where the war ended much differently. The plot of the first season was not terribly interesting, but that was beside the point; the point was seeing Nazi America on the Eastern seaboard, while the Empire of the Sun shone over California. It’s in its dreamlike vision that the show “Man in the High Castle” has anything in common with Dick’s story — in its details and grace notes, it is about the fungibility of culture, and how some values and aesthetics can become embalmed in hegemony, while others become curiosities to wonder at behind glass display cases. The how, for Dick, was less power than fate — he was enamored of the cleromancy of the “I Ching,” and in addition to having his characters in “Man in the High Castle” utilize it, he used it himself to plot the novel, in a kind of extravagant commitment to the themes of his own story.
The show picks up on some of these mental exercises — but being a show with a mandate to keep storytelling, it can’t quite resign itself to the same squander. For a while, it did attempt to — and though it had its problems, it was weirdly enchanting to be immersed in a cinematic portrayal of Nazis and fascism that wasn’t tinged by war, but rather the immaculate bureaucracy of totalitarianism in peacetime. What is most fascinating about “Man in the High Castle” is that it is not trying to eradicate either Nazism or Hirohito’s empire, despite how hateful both can be. Instead, at its finest, it wonders what it would be like to really live there — as a human who, like most of us, has to invest at least a bit in the world around us in order to find some apparatus of survival. All-American patriot John Smith (Rufus Sewell) becomes a high-ranking Nazi, the obergruppenführer stationed in New York City, while secretly Jewish Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) makes money counterfeiting Americana for Japanese collectors. It is a drama of normalization, that word that has been bandied about a lot since the presidential election. It is about life proceeding apace, even when Jewish families and children with congenital ailments are carted away to be gassed, while Japanese officials make plans to secretly transport nuclear material on passenger buses.
But it’s not solely about that, and that’s when “Man in the High Castle’s” ambitions start to get the better of it. The show attempted to incorporate a complicated and lovely idea into its first season — loosely derived from the book — wherein reels of banned film circulating around the world, depicting alternate histories of what could have happened or might still happen to the world. It is not so different from movies in general — but these films are widely held to be mystical depictions that are absolutely real, not just clever fiction made by someone in the basement. To be fair, they do have chilling real elements that even Hollywood can’t quite produce. In “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” the reel that becomes the Magical MacGuffin of the first season, San Francisco is depicted being razed by an A-bomb, and a few of the characters see themselves and people they know onscreen, either dying or murdering others.
The first season introduced this supernatural device without, apparently, having much of an idea of where it would go. The second season does have an idea of where it would go, and… well. The show is fond of using the noise that projectors make when they run out of film in the reel, and keep clicking desperately waiting for new material. The second season feels a little bit like that noise. It lays an interesting foundation and builds up quite a head of steam by the final few episodes — but you can feel the projector sputtering with a kind of desperation as the final hours spool out. Season 2 produces more answers and more action than Season 1 — but those answers are curiously flat, following what has been hours and hours of little more than texture. And it ends with a bait-and-switch that is both too expository and too frustrating, the exact kind of twist you hope a show will not pull.
For what it’s worth the show still looks great, and in the second season, the performances ascend a notch — Alexa Davalos, who plays lead Juliana Crain, throws her weight into the role and is a lot more affecting as a result. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, as Trade Minister Tagomi, is the series’ best performer, and Season 2 finds a charming if absolutely confusing device to explore their odd kinship with one another, even though the two characters never meet. Tagomi found a way to use meditation to see not his timeline but ours — and in Season 2, he will do so again, finding himself in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The scope of the season extends to resistance movements across the country and a sojourn to the highest echelons of Nazi administration in Berlin (a rather unconvincing CGI Berlin, but I suppose that’s to be expected). Clever plotting ends up giving Helen Smith (Chelah Horsdal) and other Nazi housewives a lot of arresting and stomach-turning screentime — while rather too clever plotting gives Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) a story we could have entirely done without.
More often than not, “Man in the High Castle” doesn’t seem to know what it’s about — the show did lose its showrunner Frank Spotnitz midway through filming Season 2, and did not replace him — but to its credit, it still manages to engage with its ideas in interesting, evocative ways. The show can sometimes produce moments of astonishing and quiet loveliness, even when the scope of the plot has gotten so strangely overbearing that the characters could be all Atlases, holding up the weight of the world.
The show’s emphasis on alternate realities and their power is somewhat self-aggrandizing — if they’re all important, then what we’re watching is important — but ends up being, shoddily, the most passionately involving element of the show. “Man in the High Castle” suggests that the brink of nuclear war in 1962 would happen regardless of the timeline — and searches, in the midst of global meltdown, for that fragile web of people, ideas, and the possibly magical power of storytelling that somehow manages to keep us all from mutual annihilation. It ends up encompassing characters who are far-flung, who see each other only in visions and memories — who can only communicate through a covert network of media exchange, where the world’s fiction just happens to be completely predictive. It’s odd, and imperfectly executed — but beautiful, too. There is no indictment or victory in “Man in the High Castle,” just this web of humanity staving off the worst timelines. It’s some kind of message for our era — though one wishes this reel, at least, were shorter, tighter, and easier to understand.