DJ Qualls, Rupert Evans/Amazon

If there truly are an infinite number of alternate universes, each with its own subtle differences, perhaps there exists one in which The Man In The High Castle has figured out where it’s going by its third episode. Unfortunately, the one in our universe is content to spin its wheels for the most part, as “The Illustrated Woman” offers little new of interest. The one major addition this week sticks out like a sore thumb, or perhaps a visitor from one of those alternate universe versions of this series.

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That would be the Marshal, played by Burn Gorman as a Spaghetti Western character complete with Raylan Givens hat and Clint Eastwood rasp. He’s a bounty hunter with the faces of his targets printed on playing cards, a terminator of the lawless Neutral Zone hanging his victims high from lamposts. The Marshal is tonally off from every other character on the show, but although that makes him somewhat ridiculous in this context, its easy to picture him fitting into a version of this show that leans more heavily into its sci-fi/fantasy elements. Maybe such a version of High Castle would be too cartoonish to support a dark, Nazified vision of America, but as broad as the Marshal is, at least he’s not boring.

The same can’t be said for the characters with whom we’re spending most of our time. Three episodes in, Joe Blake might as well be named Joe Blank; we can project whatever qualities we like onto the character because the writing and performance are giving us almost nothing. Joe tells Juliana several times that they have to get out of Canon City, and his Nazi handler calls him back to New York when Joe stands by his story that he hasn’t been contacted yet, but by episode’s end, he’s gone nowhere. Juliana isn’t a great deal more developed, but at least we’ve seen evidence of her personal stake in the drama. With Joe, everything he says may be a lie (as when he tells Juliana about a hijacker he once killed even though we know this is his first trucking job); when he talks about the father he never met, there’s no real emotional weight behind his words since we don’t even know if he’s telling the truth.

It’s easier to grasp what Frank is going through. Instead of having his sympathies flipped to the Resistance following his torture and the execution of his sister and her children, he blames them (and by extension Juliana) for bringing trouble to his doorstep. When he breaks the news to his brother-in-law, he tries to deflect responsibility by pointing to a Jewish grandfather as the reason they were targeted, but that doesn’t explain his survival. Although he blows off a Resistance member who approaches him in a bar, it’s clear he can’t duck back under the radar. By episode’s end he’s armed himself, but what he plans to do with the gun is still open to speculation. Could it have something to do with the visiting crown prince and princess, who plan to go ahead with a public appearance despite the Nazi ambassador’s warnings?

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“The Illustrated Woman” finally comes to life in its waning minutes, when Joe and Juliana dispose of the Line-Faced Man’s body and discover a map with a significant marked location called Copper Gulch Mine. It is there they find the decomposing body of a woman with a list of names in her pocket. Most of the names have been crossed out, except for Trudy’s and one Lemuel Washington, who happens to be Juliana’s boss at the diner. (This is a welcome development, since Rick Worthy has made the most of his brief appearances to date and has earned a little more screen time.) The Marshal opening fire on Joe’s truck and pursuing Juliana may feel a little desperate as a cliffhanger, but at least something is finally happening.

It was easier to overlook the flawed characters when the High Castle world was so dense and immersive, but now that the sweetened pilot budget has dried up, the production elements have been scaled back considerably. We’re spending more time on the same sets, and aside from a few stock CGI establishing shots, the exteriors are mostly confined to Canon City, with its drab brown palette of dirty snow and grimy gas pumps. Every episode can’t be a visual feast, but sooner than later High Castle is going to have to compensate with more compelling drama.

Stray observations

  • The title “The Illustrated Woman” may have had Blindspot fans on the lookout for a cameo from Jaimie Alexander, but instead it only referred to Frank’s drawing of Juliana, improbably still sitting on top of the dam where the Marshal can find it.
  • This father Joe never knew…might his name rhyme with Fitler?
  • One thing that definitely struck me as plausible: If the Nazis were still around in the ‘60s, they’d be using LSD as an interrogation enhancement. Not that Obergruppenführer Smith is crazy about the idea.
  • I’m enjoying the detailed comments from you history buffs who are watching the show. Keep ‘em coming.

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