The Man in the High Castle: “The Illustrated Woman”

(Episode 1.03)

TV Reviews
The Man in the High Castle: “The Illustrated Woman”

When last we left Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), she’d just straight up killed a guy, using some of those martial arts skills she’s been learning in San Francisco. The irony, of course, is that the skills she’s adopted from an occupying power were used against an occupying power in order to make sure her mission continues. Of course, it’s been made clear so far in the series that the Japanese and the Nazis aren’t exactly on the best of terms, and that the Japanese are mostly just interested in maintaining the stability of their rule, while the Nazis aren’t hiding the fact that their definition of “peace” is one of total world hegemony, but regardless of what flag these occupying powers wave, they’re both after The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Juliana has one (and so does all-American stud Joe Blake [Luke Kleintank], but she doesn’t know that), so she’s a popular vigilante nowadays.

After the seemingly resolute arc of The Man in the High Castle’s first two episodes, “The Illustrated Woman” expends much of its energy keeping the plot—any plot—moving, introducing a new villain and positioning ancillary characters for future machinations while Joe helps Juliana suppress her post-traumatic stress over the fact that she just ally-ooped some schmuck off the top of a dam.

Back in San Francisco, the Kempeitai release Frank (Rupert Evans), having just blithely informed him that, whoops, they couldn’t get to his sister and her children in time, so they’re dead. A few scenes following boil down Frank’s misery into some pretty straightforward mourning beats: First, he returns to his empty apartment, torn apart by the Kempeitai, to fall asleep on the floor with previously-heard dialogue dancing through his head; then, he must identify their bodies, but not before he’s told that because they’re enemies of the state (Jews), they won’t be given a proper burial; and third, he has to tell his brother-in-law (conveniently “away” on “business”) that he has no family to return home to. The way I relate these details makes it seem like there is much more concise, circular storytelling going on than there actually is.

Because—and maybe what I’m about to say isn’t all that fair—if these scenes were to have taken place in the midst of a “traditional” World War II/Holocaust film, they would almost definitely appear cliché, but within this alt-reality, they take on an unearned pall of grand humanistic melodrama. Frank may be dealing with the nebulous guilt tied to the fact that it was his girlfriend’s actions which indirectly led to his imprisonment and his family’s murders, but when Frank tells his brother-in-law about what’s happened, there’s nothing subcutaneously wrecking about their exchange at all. There is only workmanlike sadness, and obligatory emotional plotting.

Same goes with his coming home to a destroyed, empty apartment: tired, he flops down on the floor next to some pillows, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, the words uttered by Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente)—the person who told Frank that his sister has been killed—are repeated—the same words said at the end of the previous episode. It’s lazy writing, and lousy filmmaking—and it is as obligatory to endure as it is to describe. When Frank ends his arc of the episode by returning to his metal-working job just so he can build his own Colt .45, we don’t wonder what kind of tragedy the series will hold for him, we only vaguely care about how soon he’ll use it on a Japanese official so that he can fail and we can either move on past his rote storyline or get to the part when he becomes embroiled with the resistance.

Other characters are given even shorter shrift: Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) confirms that he’s got something super-secret planned with Wegener (Carsten Norgaard), the Nazi official who’s pretending to be a Swedish businessman in order to trade secrets with Tagomi. The two talk in hushed tones about something that will happen at the event in which the Japanese prince will address dignitaries and assorted folks from both the Pacific States and the Reich. You can assume—go ahead, it doesn’t hurt anybody—that they have something in store for the Germans, who are on the brink of initiating nuclear war (as soon as Hitler kicks the bucket), but that’s it for this episode. Back to Canon City.

Psychotic bounty hunter The Marshal (Burn Gorman) strolls into town, jonesin’ to investigate what happened to the man who makes paper animals. The Marshal is of course the embodiment of pure evil, a swaggering cowboy type who hunts down concentration camp escapees and is generally a vocal proponent of the Reich’s value system. Like a cross between The Man With No Name and Anton Chigurh (sprinkle in a bit of Raylan Givens minus all hints of charm), The Marshal rolls into Canon City, intimidating anyone who crosses his path, eventually posing an existential quandary to a bookstore owner who—uh oh—also happens to be a concentration camp escapee. That quandary? Something about lying—The Marshal continuously asks everyone with whom he has a “conversation” about what he or she would say if The Marshal told him or her he thought he or she was lying. The answer, of course, should naturally be “Huh?” because nothing The Marshal says really makes any sense—though he does prance around wielding a sawed-off shotgun, so he doesn’t really need to make any sense.

Played formidably by Gorman, The Marshal takes the grey color palette under which the series has been operating so far and sets it to pitch black, wreaking some efficiently despicable havoc on the small town with about as much to-do as a UPS carrier making his daily rounds. He’s a twisted man in control: With Eastwood’s signature phallic stub sticking forever out of the right side of his mouth, eyes squeezed together in a perma-squint, Gorman dominates whatever scene he’s put to, providing the series with a bit of showmanship that, up until now, only the scenery and thoroughly imagined backdrops of alt-USA offered.

But with that showmanship comes a price. Juxtaposed with the hyper-sterile efficiency of Rufus Sewell’s Obergruppenführer Smith, The Marshall is a picture of cartoonish villainy, an amalgamation of off-putting affectations. The Anton Chigurh comparison is apt, I think, because both psychopaths follow an unbending code of behavior—except, where Chigurh believes in the indifference of a chaotic universe, the survival of the individual above all, The Marshal follows little else but Nazi law, and the evil borne from such beliefs fits perfectly into his whole character. Which is to say: the best villains, the best “bads,” aren’t so ceaselessly black-and-white.

“The Illustrated Woman” does a bit of what its title suggests, illustrating what is so frustrating about The Man in the High Castle so far. With so many television industry vets pulled in by creator Frank Spotnitz to write and direct (the credits to each episode are a veritable who’s who of solid network and cable TV), it’s disappointing that the show is turning out to be so horrendously paced. This may just be a fatal flaw in Amazon’s formatting regiment—by having subscribers vote on which shows get a full season based on the strength of a premiere, the series blows its load early, and one can’t relish a full ebb and flow of a 10-episode season’s plotting. Though this episode ends on a cliffhanger, I didn’t feel the need to get to the next installment right away. Instead, I’m spurred on by the admirable accomplishments of a group of talented people crafting a program that provides so much to like, but so far nothing to love.

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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