By the end of “Truth,” we’re more than two-thirds of the way through this first season of The Man In The High Castle, and there’s never been less of a sense of urgency. That big cliffhanger at the end of the last episode, with John Smith catching Joe thumbing through his decoy “Grasshopper” file, results in no major game-changer when we pick up the action where it left off. Joe isn’t executed or tortured or even given a particularly harsh lecture by Smith, who hours earlier had sent one of his oldest friends to his certain doom. Instead, Smith chides Joe for letting his feelings for a woman interfere with his mission and makes him promise to never, ever do it again, then sends him back out after Juliana unsupervised. You could argue that Smith has paternal feelings for Joe that are clouding his judgment, and that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that the show has taken the least interesting possible path following last episode’s “gotcha” moment.
In “Truth” we learn more about Joe without getting to know him any better. He lives in Brooklyn with a woman and her son, and like Smith and Juliana they see something in him that is utterly lost on me. I’m trying to think of another prestige drama with a protagonist as hollow as Joe and I keep coming up empty. I don’t know if Luke Kleintank can act or do anything besides stare blankly while trying to evoke deep internal conflict, and since the writers don’t seem interested in giving him anything else to do, I may never know.
Juliana fares better by comparison, maybe just because she’s given more to do. She and Frank reconcile, at least for the moment, and her new boss Tagomi has taken an interest in her because the Oracle suggests she has a role to play. When Kido informs him that his new employee is the sister of a known subversive, Tagomi reacts by increasing Juliana’s security clearance. Having spotted Arnold in the surveillance room last episode, Juliana now runs into him at work, prompting an awkward diner conversation in which Arnold insists he’s collaborating with the Japanese for the sake of his family. He’s the one who identified Trudy on the wire and is under the impression that she was allowed to escape to the Neutral Zone.
The “Is Trudy alive?” storyline that takes over the episode feels a little desperate, given that this is a character we met very briefly in episode one, whose murder sparked Juliana’s entire arc. Juliana thinks she spots Trudy alive in a crowded marketplace (a set the producers get their money’s worth out of in this hour), questions her boss about her sister’s final resting place, and seemingly finds Trudy’s remains in a pit of stinking corpses. (I say “seemingly” because I’m not entirely sure I’d recognize Trudy if I saw her again at this point.) Maybe there’s a payoff coming that will make all of this worthwhile, but High Castle hasn’t earned much trust on that front.
As usual, the most interesting parts of the show are happening on the fringes. Who had antiques dealer Robert Childan becoming a major player at this point? His dinner with the Kasouras was fascinating in its awkward dynamics, with the obsequious Childan eager to please with his knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions and his growing bafflement that the Kasouras are far more interested in Americana than their own heritage. He mistakes their interest for genuine friendship until it becomes clear the Japanese couple care nothing for him as a person, only as a convenient resource. It makes sense that American pop culture (or at least the pre-World War II variety) would exert the same appeal it always has, despite the country’s current degraded state, just as it makes sense for Childan to dismiss the Kasouras as dilettantes after feeling personally rejected (and noticing that Paul’s prized Colt revolver is a fake). That he and Frank would team up to create phony artifacts to sell the Kasouras as revenge is unexpected, but it feels right.
Frank’s lunch meeting with Mark Sampson also resonates, mainly through the benefit of timing. Sampson’s story about the treatment of Jews in America in this alternate world carries a particular charge in the wake of certain political statements about Muslims in recent days. It can’t happen here, until it can. Moments like these provide a glimpse of the potential that, for The Man In The High Castle, is still frustratingly out of reach.
- Childran’s remark about the lighter that was in FDR’s pocket “when he was assassinated” was so offhand, this major piece of the historical puzzle almost slipped past me. One thing I do appreciate about The Man In The High Castle is its willingness to let bits and pieces of this alternative history slip out rather than providing one big exposition dump.
- References to Kansas and “behind the curtain” in the transcript Juliana swiped from the surveillance office have me a little concerned everything is going to turn black-and-white and we’ll find out the whole season has been Juliana’s dream.