A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
One of the primary negatives of the first season of The Man in the High Castle was its languid pacing. After a pilot that was far too packed for its own good as is the unfortunate tradition with pilot episodes, the season largely settled back into far too much of a calm demeanor. In a sense it felt as if the show was overcompensating for the sheer quantity of information dumped in the first hour by barely progressing forward at all. The attempted assassination of the Crown Prince was the first real jolt that jerked the series back to proper life. “Escalation” eschews its title and settles into that unfortunate languid pacing, occasionally jolting to life before falling back into an unfortunate stupor. That stupor, however, has an additional effect beyond diluting this particular installment. Character development has been arguably the greatest obstacle in the show’s arsenal and even the languid pacing would be tolerable if more characters either simply made sense or were more compelling. It is clear, with the development of Frank for example, that the show is completely capable of character development while simultaneously raising individual stakes. The writers are also thoroughly capable of creating complex secondary characters as well on multiple fronts so it becomes even more unseemly that that wealth of good writing can’t be spread to other individuals, primarily Joe and Juliana. Joe is by far the weaker of the two and I do apologize for the review repetition of “I see some hope for this character,” but the show is unfortunately quite consistent at being underwhelming in that instance. It is easily the weakest installment in a season that has largely been an improvement over the first.
The episode opens on Tagomi in the past and his envisioning of the cherry blossoms right outside the window. Cherry blossoms are a significant motif in Japan, their short bursts of blossoming representing the precious nature of life. It’s a sign of beauty and if one couples that meaning of life with the importance of love, the cherry blossom tree suddenly becomes tragic for Tagomi. His wife is deceased and with the newfound military aggression from General Onada, Tagomi faces tragedy from the personal to the political. Tagomi is in an understandably tough position here but as much as I like the character, he poses a moral dilemma that isn’t unlike the one facing John Smith. Smith is a more openly repugnant individual and that certainly makes it significantly easier to dislike him, to despise his allegiance to the Nazi State while hoping the show doesn’t get carried away at humanizing him too much. But Tagomi is doing his own part to uphold a fascist Japanese government that is having little consternation (or at least a part of that government) from specifically targeting non-Japanese civilians for the greatest exposure to radiation. He may not be supporting it personally, but he’s supporting the overall infrastructure of that Empire remaining constant. If the end result is fascism reigning supreme, then how much do the intentions of individuals at stake really matter? Tagomi recognizes that at least in part when he notes that when, not if, innocent civilians die, it will be because he failed to protect them. That resignation in particular is quite concerning. It’s a matter of being practical that Tagomi notes how difficult it will be to prevent the blast from occurring, but if there is hope for the character retaining his signature, he has to do more to prevent it from happening.
There are small moments of intrigue peppered throughout this slow hour, the most significant of which is Julia adopting the most espionage-heavy tactics yet. The shootout sequence at the train station was thoroughly terrific and a hopeful note that the show is going to adopt more substantive stylistic choices from film noir and not just ones that suit it aesthetically. It also signals more hope for Juliana becoming an active character in her own right. That isn’t meant to in any way diss all of the work that she has put into trying to do the right thing, but at a certain point audiences rightfully want to see the primary character on a series become a much more forceful actor in their own right. Her continued interactions with the Smith family are hopefully indicative of an upwards trend in making Juliana a more active character on her own. At a certain point, there has to be a greater purpose towards her meeting with the Smiths and becoming so intertwined with the family. Those interactions continue to be fascinating because Juliana inadvertently is providing a fantastic insider’s window into the inner workings of the Smith family. Thomas continues to be the most well-behaved teenager I’ve ever seen, albeit one who is a Nazi, so there’s that brainwashing to contend with. The Man in the High Castle, for all of its burgeoning espionage elements, isn’t particularly high on subtlety and the shot where Juliana notices Thomas’s trembling hand has to be deliberate foreshadowing. Helen’s behavior continues to be fascinating because she lets moments of fury and intensity slip beneath her veneer of respectability. She has always seemed to be loyal but as Smith’s grip may be grasping too many things, Helen’s may find hers to be tightening yet further.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+The production design on this show continues to amaze
+So Heydrich has been purged? Who then becomes Hitler’s replacement? Heinrich Himmler?
+Why did his gaze stop at Amazonia?
+Nicole is clearly going to be the brain half of her inevitable relationship with Joe
+The recollection of the workers rising up
Episode Title: Escalation
Written by: Wesley Strick
Directed by: David Petrarca
Image Courtesy: Amazon
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