'The Man In The High Castle' Returns To Amazon For Season 2

Dec 16, 2016
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The Amazon series "The Man In The High Castle" imagines what would have happened had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan won the Second World War. Its second season debuts today. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show resonates in turbulent political times.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The new season of "The Man In The High Castle" begins with a horrifying sight. A model student wearing a Brownshirts uniform with a swastika armband stands in a high school named for Fritz Julius Kuhn, the leader of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization in the 1930s. The student leads his classmates in a chilling version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE")

QUINN LORD: (As Thomas) I swear I will observe the law, conscientiously fulfill my duties at home and school, be faithful and obedient and pledge absolute...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As students) I swear I will observe the law, conscientiously fulfill my duties at home and school, be faithful and obedient and pledge absolute allegiance until death to the leader of the Nazi empire, Adolf Hitler.

DEGGANS: This is an America that was defeated by the Axis powers after Germany dropped an atomic bomb on Washington, D.C. Divided between Nazi Germany and Japan, this USA is occupied by two racist, totalitarian regimes that brutally oppress Americans.

But the real substance of "The Man In The High Castle" doesn't come from its apocalyptic setting. In its second season, the show shines brightest when it poses a simple question - what do you do when confronted with tyranny and totalitarianism? If you're American, do you join a resistance that allows innocents to be slaughtered by the occupiers?

The rebels believe the killing of civilians will pressure Americans working with the occupiers, known as pons, into destroying each other. But that strategy sparks a fight between the resistance leader and a new recruit to the cause named Frank.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE")

RUPERT EVANS: (As Frank Frink) Fear doesn't change anything.

CALLUM KEITH RENNIE: (As Gary) Fear changes everything, Frank. It changes everything. And once they're afraid, they'll turn against each other. They'll tear each other apart.

EVANS: (As Frank Frink) That's how we bring down the Pons. That's how freedom-loving people have always brought down empires.

DEGGANS: On the Japanese side, an official opposed to war helped his government obtain plans to build a nuclear weapon. He hoped to bring Japan's power in balance with the Nazis, but a hawkish Japanese general has other plans for their bomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE")

TZI MA: (As General Onada) When it is completed, the device must be in range of North American Nazi targets, of New York City. This is our moment. We must not hesitate to seize it.

(APPLAUSE)

DEGGANS: Based on a novel by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, Amazon's "The Man In The High Castle" struggled in its first season to build characters worthy of its brilliant setting. This season, the characters' stories are better told, and their motivations are clearer. 1950s-style suburban middle-class life is presented as the reward for Nazi Party members. In a pretty house, a well-groomed stay-at-home wife serves the family patriarch, who, in exchange for this lifestyle, must carry out the Nazi's brutal dirty work.

And we finally meet the man from the show's title, played by character actor Stephen Root. He's a custodian of special films showing alternate realities that Adolf Hitler, paranoid and deteriorating from Parkinson's disease, desperately wants to obtain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE")

STEPHEN ROOT: (As Abendsen) Each one of these films show a reality like ours but not ours.

ALEXA DAVALOS: (As Juliana) So you watch these films. You tell the resistance what you learned, about the people you see and the things...

ROOT: (As Abendsen) Things that could happen here, too.

DEGGANS: In the aftermath of a bitter election that's divided people over questions of patriotism, fear of non-Americans and the limits of government power, there's no better time for a series that asks the kind of questions "The Man In The High Castle" suggests to viewers. Perhaps in watching these characters search for answers, we'll find a few of our own.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.