This weekend, A.V. Club contributor Shelby Fero is watching all of the first season of The Man In The High Castle on Amazon Prime. After she’s finished with an episode, she’ll post a quick response. Though she’s working straight through the season, she’ll be taking some breaks, too, posting two reviews on Friday, four reviews on Saturday, and four reviews on Sunday. Weigh in on this episode in the comments below or discuss the whole season on our binge-watching hub page.
After building out the world and complex web of geopolitics in the first five episodes, it’s in the sixth that we really meet our characters for the first time.
Two covert operations take place on either coast—one carried out in the shadowy corners of the Nippon government building in the west, and the other on a sunbathed suburban porch during Veteran’s Day celebrations in the east—as Juliana investigates the mysterious lead from the Resistance and Joe attempts to read secret files in Smith’s office. These alone are interesting, active stories, but this is when High Castle’s lengthy and deliberate world-building pays off: Over the tales of relatively clear cut espionage are draped layers of emotional manipulation and testing between nearly every member of our cast (save maybe that nice guy from aikido practice).
The characters introduced in the pilot come off as hollow. Joe and Juliana, both, vacuous leads with one or two identifying factors (he’s very handsome and might be evil, she does aikido!) But with time and patience, the layers peel back to reveal the complexities of their character. It’s a slow burn, but one that allows for real depth: Instead of shoehorning their entire personalities into a flashy pilot forced to grab our attention, TMITHC introduces them to us like real people, and real people take time. This can backfire too: What if they’re not worth the wait? Luckily, the gamble pays off, and we finally get to really know everybody for the first time. There’s the Trade Ambassador, who reveals himself to be a deeply thoughtful and empathetic man that inspires loyalty in people; Juliana, who can’t turn back once she’s begun traveling down the rabbit’s hole; Joe, for whom what’s right and what’s right is moving ever further apart. Hell, even the Hitler Youth son got a brilliant moment, only dropping the ball during catch when his father throws it.
Rudolph Wegener, our Nazi/Imperial co-conspirator shines. When he openly questions the validity of the Holocaust, we’re given a peek into the state of his—and the Oberfrubengoober’s—psyche. On Rudolph’s end is remorse and empathy, while for Smith there is only cold determination: They’re two very similar yet very different portraits of a man haunted by his time in war. One man, stricken with doubts and remorse, the other doubling down on his belief system to survive. It’s a compelling scene, heightened by the presence of the relatively young Joe. Joe’s lack of a trustworthy father figure makes him a slightly naive and impressionable man, and watching him watch the stark contrast between the two older men shows all the confusing shades of gray in war and the daunting precipice of adulthood—when one still has a chance to dictate the type of person he or she wants to be.
Not to mention, Frank sucks less! After exposing himself as the ultimate Nice Guy during a fight with Juliana, blaming her for his obsession with helping the helpless, and questioning why there needs to be a Resistance at all, he joins a still-practicing Jewish family for an illicit prayer to mourn his sister and her family without somebody mispronouncing their names. As this family prays, Frank finally grieves for the loss of his own. It’s evident that he may finally understand why culture and heritage are worth fighting for. It’s a powerful climactic moment, holding weight with the two more “exciting” ones (Joe being caught by Smith, and Juliana’s discovery of her step-dad in the Nippon building), and proves the whole show might just be worth the wait.
Questions: What’s that stepdad doin’ in that secret room!? What’s that secret room?!
Fears: I have to care about this antiques dealer now.
Last thing: Usually I’m not a big fan of “omniscient evil” in villains. I’d be a little annoyed at the whole “Obergrouponfurher orchestrated this whole day with his traitorous friend to test Joe’s loyalties” except that we got some sweet sweet characterization out of it. If I have One Big Grievance so far, it’s that if this were a truly accurate Germanic alt history, they would be eating apfelkuchen and not apple pie on VA day.