The Man in the High Castle Season 3

"And of course, what you can't conquer you'll just destroy, won't you? That's what we all have to look forward to. Just a future full of endless worlds conquered and destroyed by fascists."

Of all the shows I watch, this is probably the one that rivets me (and terrifies me) the most.

I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

In a way, I’m glad I get to review this season. Because until now, I’ve been struggling to describe this show in a succinct way.

At first, the titular Man in the High Castle’s mysterious films mostly just served as a macGuffin to explore this eerily believable nightmare universe in which the Axis powers conquered the world and all the disturbing possibilities therein. Then the second season was mainly about exploring the various ways in which such a world forces the characters to compromise and change themselves, usually not for the better.

Now it’s clear to me what this story is actually about. It should have been obvious: Revolution. Not just a revolution of one nation or one world, but perhaps one that spans across all reality.

While we spent a lot of time in previous seasons exploring the idea and implications of alternate realties, it was mainly confined to Trade Minister Tagomi’s arc. Not so here. This season, many people are exposed to the multiverse concept, most worryingly the Nazis, whose all-consuming tyranny threatens to invade and dominate these other worlds.

Their attempts at doing so are hindered by the other interesting element Tagomi’s arc introduced: Travelers, people who can slip out of one reality and into another.

It may not feel as striking as the first two seasons did -- if only because we've sort of grown accustomed to the horror of this alternate universe -- but season three accomplishes a lot more on a narrative level. It continues to put our characters in the most unnerving and heart-wrenching situations. And like the previous seasons, it ends on a great cliffhanger that leaves you desperate to see where the story goes from there.

I especially love that, as much as everyone and everything in the story is drastically affected by all this surreal phenomena, we never lose sight of what’s really interesting: The psychology of these characters. What they're going through is always top priority.

We get a lot more new additions to the cast. Most notable is Wyatt Price, an Irish black market figure Juliana meets in the Neutral Zone. There's also Jack, a cowboy-type outcast whom Ed forms a connection with; Thelma, a closeted lesbian journalist in the Greater Nazi Reich; and Tamlyn Tomita as Tamiko, an Okinawan-Hawaiian painter who befriends Tagomi. We also discover the roles that historical figures such as Josef Mengele, George Lincoln Rockwell and J. Edgar Hoover play in Nazi-America.

Another great benefit of this season’s more focused plot is that we get to see several of our protagonists come full-circle. In case it wasn’t obvious before, it's made very clear that Juliana is a revolutionary icon. Her weathered idealism and magnetic good nature have shaped her into one of the strongest, most resourceful heroes. And Tagomi is basically her Obi Wan, a wise, noble mentor who recognizes her worth and helps guide her along her righteous path.

Although, in contrast to the previous seasons, they didn’t attract my attention as much this time around. Surprisingly, it was someone like Joe Blake, a secondary character presented as a leading man, who most intrigued me. In the first season, his significance wanes after the first few episodes. In the second, his story doesn’t get interesting again until the latter part. Here, despite being more centered in his motives, he's somehow even more of a wild card than ever. Which is saying something for a guy who went from All-American hero to Nazi spy in the space of a pilot episode.

The same goes for Ed McCarthy and Robert Childan, who actually feel like main characters this time around instead of guys who are mostly just playing second fiddle to Frank Frink.

However, the ones who consistently intrigue me the most are the show’s two anti-villains, Oberst-Gruppenfuhrer Smith and Chief Inspector Kido. Seeing the inner battle inside of these staunch imperialists as they try to make sense of all these extraordinary developments along with their personal demons in the face of a world that compels them to do all manner of evils is just enthralling. They are both surprising characters.

The plight of John Smith is especially unique. In fact, he and his wife Helen being revealed as people who are basically trying to survive and protect their Rockwellesque family from the Reich by completely embodying the Nazi-American mold eventually became the thing that most interested me. Last season, we saw John use every underhanded tactic he could think of to save his terminally ill son from the Reich’s policy on “useless eaters,” only for the devoted young nationalist to submit himself for execution in the end. Here, they go all out with the fallout of that subplot, with Thomas Smith being used by the Reich as a symbol of Aryan pride, to the disgust of his mother and father.

This ends up playing into one of the more twisted things happening in the background of this season. And that is the Reich’s new goal of erasing American history and reshaping it to suit their agenda. There’s a lot of images that affected me more than I would have imagined, like seeing men eagerly destroy the Lincoln Memorial or Heinrich Himmler’s delight as the Liberty Bell is melted down and remade into a giant swastika.

I couldn’t help but feel slightly hypocritical about being aghast at the idea that symbols of my cultural identity could be so ruthlessly corrupted or undone entirely, since this is basically what my culture did to the Native Americans. But, of course, this show is aware of that as well. Which is why we get a brief but very meaningful scene in which Ed and Childan are purchasing some sweet Americana from a Native man in the Neutral Zone, and Childan is met with a cold gaze when he obliviously attempts to haggle over the price of a family heirloom the man already stated was not for sale.

But that's why a show like this is so important. It highlights the atrocious consequences of coldblooded empires that manipulate, pervert and in some cases even destroy the very essence of civilization for the pettiest of gains. It's especially important in our modern era, where this brutally toxic worldview is constantly threatening to reassert itself. There are quite a few moments here which emphasize the horrific potential of the kind of blatantly fascistic practices we're seeing take hold in the current political climate, both in the United States and abroad. It's not good. And, as a tale like this illustrates with powerful clarity, it needs resistance.

It's a show with a solid message, but it does more than beat its audience over the head by preaching against the terrors of fascism. As well as dropping much-needed anvils, The Man in the High Castle offers a nuanced perspective on the human journey in the face of overwhelming and devastating odds. It offers a subtle portrait of a science fiction story in which the spiritual and the paranormal may be intertwined. And overall, it offers some of the most compelling and entertaining drama in television right now. I would highly recommend it.

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

What a terrific read, Logan. I didn't finish season two, but you've made me interested in getting back into this series.

Logan Cox said...

Couldn't have asked for a better comment. Thank you, Billie!

Darryl Stieler said...

You hit the nail on the head in this review. Having finished 5 out of 10 episodes in the third season I am once again hooked. It is a show that brings to life what the world may have looked like had the unthinkable happened over half a century ago. It's indeed terrifying yet gripping at the same time. The one thing that terrifies me the most is that in today's political climate, there may be people in office who look at this alternate universe and silently wish their future contains some aspects of this. But great read Logan.