A yellow school bus putters through a normal American suburb. But something’s not quite right. Some students are dressed in Hitler Youth uniform, all sporting Stars and Stripes/Swastika armbands. And the school is the Fritz Julius Kuhn High School. Two schoolboys chat over their history test, remarking upon the fact that Presidents Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. And this is something of which they’re proud.
The Man in the High Castle is back.
Chilling plausibility is one factor that makes the show so compelling – picking away, as it does, at the scab of America’s unsavoury past. A simple exchange between schoolboys reminds us that the USA the Third Reich fought (and in The Man in the High Castle’s universe, defeated) was a country where not only was an African American president unimaginable, but blacks and whites couldn’t even use the same water fountain.
And, had Hitler triumphed, there were plenty of US citizens who would have rejoiced. Fritiz Julius Kuhn, whom this fictional school in the Greater Nazi Reich of America is named after, was the real life leader of the German American Bund. He led pro-Nazi rallies across the USA, attended by tens of thousands of people. In our universe he was imprisoned at the outbreak of World War II, and deported in 1945. In the world of The Man in the High Castle, he’s a Nazi-American hero.
Season 1 of Amazon’s show, based on Philip K. Dick’s book, covered a hell of a lot of ground, as myriad plot strands, some starting in New York, others in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, became entangled. At the centre is the titular man – is he Adolf Hitler himself, a shadowy figure of the resistance, or both? — and the newsreel films he covets, appearing to depict different realities (our own included).
This makes for a maddeningly complex opening episode, one which would make not a jot of sense to newcomers; even for the initiated, a re-watch of Season 1 is recommended (or at the very least reading our handy catch-up here). The misstep the series’ creators make is to give us snippets of every single one of our multiple protagonists. The result is a frustrating watch as, with so many plates to keep spinning, the storyline barely moves on an inch. Perhaps they’d have done better to have taken a leaf out of Game of Thrones’ book and saved some of the storylines for Episode 2.
But there are still some superb scenes. Our ‘hero’ Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank ), Nazi undercover agent, sails from San Francisco via a tugboat crewed by African Americans. Joe returns to the office of Obergruppenführer John Smith (a brilliantly nuanced – and award-winning – portrait of banal evil from Rufus Sewell) and announces he wants to quit, declaring: “This isn’t the man I want to be.”
This theme of choice – that some people are bad in one universe and good in others, depending largely on whether “they have food in their bellies” – is underlined in a meeting between the show’s heart, Juliana (Alexa Davalos), and Abendsen (Stephen Root). Unstable and crazed, he lives in a vault full of film canisters, arranged by year, depicting a variety of different realities.
“That’s a home movie,” Abendsen says of a can Juliana picks off the shelf. “Fourth of July fireworks.”
“In 1961? That’s not possible.”
But everything – good and bad – is possible. And that’s the meat of The Man in the High Castle – the tantalising what-ifs and also the reminder that no universe is perfect. Yes, in our reality the Third Reich fell in 1945 and the Japanese Empire crumbled. But are we living in a paradise? No. And, as the character Kotomichi (Arnold Chun), hinted to be from our nuclear-ravaged Nagasaki, knows, the horror wasn’t negated in our reality, just moved to somewhere else.
This complex and adult outlook is reflected in the characters. Each of the various factions contains good and bad, cowards, heroes and hotheads. Even the resistance aren’t depicted as brave freedom-fighters and Connell (Callum Keith Rennie) is a murdering scumbag.
That this episode creaks a little under the weight of too many storylines is a minor quibble; it’s still one of the standout dramas currently on TV. Perhaps a feature-length opener would have been a good idea, but, in this glorious streaming age, Amazon Prime customers can simple watch the next episode straight after. Once the entire second season is released, best to set aside 10 hours and just go with it. Resistance is useless.
All episodes of The Man in the High Castle Season 2 premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 16th December. Season 1 is available to watch online now, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you also want free next-day delivery and access to Spotify rival Prime Music, a full £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.