6.7

The Man in the High Castle Review: "The New Normal"

(Episode 1.05)

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<i>The Man in the High Castle</i> Review: "The New Normal"

Halfway through the first season of The Man in the High Castle and we’re already out of steam—long past that point, in fact. Limping along on fumes only, the series has developed a habit for setting up spectacle and then blowing the landing, struggling to alloy 1940s pulp sensibilities with high-art prestige filmmaking, more alluding to both than embracing either.

Which wouldn’t be such an obstacle were the series not a goddamn bore. Screeching to a halt after last episode’s comparatively enthralling cliffhanger, the story continues exactly as you’d expect: trauma-addled, bullet-riddled Frank (Rupert Evans) realizes that, even though he clearly didn’t shoot the Japanese prince, he’s holding a gun (and is pretty much the only white person in the crowd), so he should probably hightail it back home before anyone sees him. In the kerfuffle, he of course drops Juliana’s necklace—which falls off of his person for no other reason than: PLOT!—which Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), long after everyone has left the area in which the attempted assassination occurred, finds it and, drawn to its metaphysical allure, pockets it. You may be wondering why the Kempeitai weren’t combing the area for any shred of a clue, what with their prince just probably-murdered in broad daylight, but you might as well pocket that thought just like Tagomi pocketed a magical locket, because that would complicate an already untenable plot.

Later, Juliana (Alexa Davalos) finally makes it home from Canon City, but not without an ice-cold greeting from boyfriend Frank, who’s still nursing the shoulder where the walking manifestation of schmaltz, best friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls), shot him, trying to keep him from going to try to kill the Japanese prince in the first place. Juliana can’t get much out of Frank, including the fact that his sister and her children were killed, though she fills him in on what’s been happening on her end (minus, probably, talking about how much time she spent gazing into the perfect eyes of American Adonis Joe Blake [Luke Kleintrank]). It’s only after she goes to visit her mom (Macall Gordon) that she learns of Frank’s loss. To which she responds by running home to give Frank a real doozy of a hug.

This dynamic—Frank’s refusal to tell Juliana the role she vicariously played in getting his sister killed, and Juliana’s incessant guilt, not to mention Juliana refusing to tell her mom that her half-sister Trudy is dead—takes up a huge chunk of this episode, and, like so much on this show, confuses moody emotional meandering for genuine dramatic development. Why is no one saying anything? Because Frank’s mad? Because it’s hard? The stalling feels exactly like that: killing time while disparate storylines lock into place for what—God willing—will be a wonderful finale.

Meanwhile, Tagomi’s ally, fake-Swede Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard), is detained by the Kempeitai post-assassination-attempt because he’s supposed to a foreign national, and that’s apparently just standard operating procedure. The detainment in due time stretches out to worrying lengths, so much so that Tagomi knows he’ll need to step in to make sure Wegener is freed and their plans (whatever they may be) aren’t hindered. This leads to Tagomi attempting to appeal to Inspector Kido’s sense of reason (Joel de la Fuente), which of course goes nowhere, which of course means that Tagomi orchestrates an actually pretty simple escape. Again: more tedious floundering, as characters navigate each other’s shark-infested waters with little actual development—neither character- nor narrative-wise.

On the other side of the former United States of America, mega-manmeat Joe Blake makes it back to New York to debrief with Obergruppenfuhrer Smith (Rufus Sewell), only to be literally given the third degree, with Smith sitting by on the “official” interrogation without actually conducting it, just creepily staring at Joe the whole time while Joe does his best to shape his story to fit the fact that he’s now in love with Juliana and probably isn’t actually a Nazi anymore. A lot of tension builds up to nothing, the whole scene sort of farting-out upon Smith’s invitation for Joe to attend the Smith family’s All Saints Day celebration—or something like that. Whatever: It’s a Nazi thing, and I’m sure next episode we’ll hear all about it.

After Juliana does all the crying she can muster for an episode, she inevitably meets another member of the Resistance, who shares a painfully idealistic conversation with her about loss and purpose, and other grandiloquent themes telescoped throughout the already bloated four and a half hours that have transpired thus far. Juliana learns that there’s a job opening at the Nippon Building (where tagomi works, and from where much of the Pacific States’ government is run), after another Resistance fighter “vacated” the position. Thus, Juliana decides to apply to be a secretary to continue fighting the good fight, hoping to learn more about her sister and the Man in the High Castle in the process.

Julianna’s interview essentially plays out like a humorless Saturday Night Live skit parodying Mad Men: A sleazy, paunchy Japanese businessman assesses Juliana’s womanly figure and then stubs out his cigarette to let Juliana know what her job will entail, unzipping to pull out his little sleazy, paunchy businessman from his pants. Juliana looks down in horror; the Japanese businessman smiles as if he is the smarmiest creature to ever roam this earth. It feels like one more trope of 1950s America the show is willing to subvert—in much the same way one could speak of Mad Men—but like pretty much every setpiece in the series, the trope isn’t investigated, power dynamics aren’t dissected, it’s all simply performed, without substantial historic rewriting, in front of a backdrop of Alternate Universe America.

Juliana is unwilling to “do what it takes”—alluding to another boring conversation she had with Joe Blake—so she bolts from the office, but not before running into Tagomi, who drops Frank’s necklace in the collision. Juliana oneirically recognizes the jewelry, though her befuddlement isn’t enough to keep her from running away. The episode ends on Tagomi watching her go, a look of existential knowing scrawled across his brow.

Dots are finally starting to align, and though the characters seem to be closing in on one another, pretty much functionally nothing happens in this episode that bears anything strong enough to compel us ever forward. While the show is as handsome as ever, worth watching as one might watch some gorgeous paint dry, the thrill of finally learning what that conclusion may be is all the more quickly waning behind the exhausting thought of the sheer effort it might take to slog through to the end.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.

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