[Mild spoilers for “High Castle” Season 1 below.]
The word “Nazi” is, on so many levels, an ugly one. The hard Z sound seems to match perfectly with what the word represents to us not just historically, but in the all-too-recent present. It’s a word that has a visceral impact, and that’s why its use on “The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon’s alternate-universe period drama, always brings with it a touch of horror, because it’s used casually in conversation. It’s not a slur. It’s a part of daily life.
Season 1 of “High Castle” was distinctly unflinching about its depiction of what America in 1962 might look like, if the Nazis and Japan had triumphed in World War II (the fate of a young Jewish woman and her children, early into the run, made for a particularly memorable moment).
And Season 2, which premieres December 16, continues to find ways to make this world feel real and grounded, even as the mythology surrounding the more fantastical possibilities inherent in its premise gets deeper. For one thing, we finally meet the titular Man in the High Castle (the always welcome Stephen Root), though what exactly he’s planning — and what role his mysterious films from alternate universes play in those plans — isn’t information the show will give up easily.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that thanks to the events of the Season 1 finale, in the five new episodes made available for critics, the core triangle of Juliana, Frank and Joe has been scattered to the winds. And splitting up these characters actually does a lot to open up the show, bringing us more deeply into new parts of the world, and creating new relationships that honestly prove more compelling than what came before. The show’s award-winning production and detail-oriented tweaks to the world we know continue to be truly impressive and immersive.
The catch is that the biggest difficulty with the show is that some characters have always lacked the necessary definition and spark to make their journeys as compelling as the surrounding narrative. It’s toughest when it comes to the show’s ostensible lead: All the production design and period detail in the world can’t keep us invested in Juliana’s exact motives. Alexa Davalos isn’t unlikeable, but her exact drives prove hard to track.
As in Season 1, it’s the (theoretical) baddies who prove the most exciting. Some standouts from the ensemble: Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell, always a treat) and his aggressively Norman Rockwell-ish yet Reich-loyal family remain engaging — especially teenage son Thomas (Quinn Lord), with his pure heart, Nazi Youth uniform and untreatable medical condition that makes him a euthanasia candidate, per the government’s eugenics policy. Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), last seen discovering the ability to travel between universes, only continues to explore these new boundaries. And iconic Canadian sci-fi actor Callum Keith Rennie joins the cast as a resistance leader with his own dangerous streak.
There was a big question going into these episodes, which was how much the mid-season departure of original showrunner Frank Spotnitz (as well as the executive decision made not to replace him) would have a noticeable effect, and at least in the first half of the season, things hold together relatively well. If things fall apart after Episode 5, we’ll report back — especially when it comes to the repercussions of a few big twists.
“High Castle,” at its core, works best during its darkest moments, when the harsh realities lurking under the show’s polished surfaces serve as a reminder that normalization is an all-too-real aspect of human nature, one that can be too easy to find yourself embracing. The universe of the show (at least, the primary one) is one filled with buried horrors, as well as the brutal reality that human beings, so often, are built to survive above all else. Season 2 seems poised to not only challenge that instinct in its characters, but make us recognize it in ourselves — and hopefully, inspire us to fight against it.
“The Man in the High Castle” Season 2 premieres all at once December 16 on Amazon.