The Man in the High Castle: Season 4

“I never thought about those people, until… until we were those people.”

Well, the timing seems fairly opportune, so I’ll now present to you my long overdue review of the final season of The Man in the High Castle.

I have to say, of this show’s four seasons, this is probably the weaker one. And not just because it's the last.

Maybe it’s the change in show-runners, the absence of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Trade Minister Tagomi, or just the ambiguous open-ended nature of so many plotlines. I’m not sure.

However, this is still The Man in the High Castle. Still, one of the most gripping and creative shows I’ve seen. So it does manage to end things with a bit of a bang, regardless of the final episode’s inconclusiveness.

This season, the new American revolution is at an all-time high after the Man in the High Castle’s prophetic film reels were spread throughout the country. As a consequence, the German and Japanese forces have never been more motivated to crush these persistent threats, even as their own empires begin to break at the seams.

Since the previous season finale, Wyatt Pryce has gone from an independent smuggler to acting leader of the rebels. Overwhelmed by opposition, he makes a risky alliance with the tight-knit and well-organized Black Communist Rebellion (BCR), who have risen to prominence in their war against the Japanese occupation of the West Coast.

Fascist authority figures like John Smith and Inspector Kido are under tremendous pressure to uphold the will of their oppressive institutions, even as they slowly become compromised by tensions within their own families.

Our revolutionary heroine, Juliana Crane, finds herself nursing last season’s wounds in a parallel world. Where she has befriended an alternate version of the Smith family, now in the form of ordinary suburbanites. But destiny is calling her back to her own dark world, so that she can help light the way to a better future.

All the while, erstwhile American antiquities dealer Robert Childan continues his quest to keep his head down and survive.

That’s the set-up, but here’s how it all panned out in the end.

As usual, the storyline I found the most fascinating had to do with John and Helen Smith. Which still amazes me, because I so wanted to despise these two when I first started watching the show. They ended up being the most compelling characters. Helen especially had such great development, and we see that come to a head here.

Of course, it all comes to a head for the Smith storyline. John’s obsession with the parallel realities reaches some scary Monkey’s Paw levels as he begins to fear that the living alternate version of his dead son will be senselessly sacrificed again as the Vietnam War kicks off in the other world. This combined with Helen’s increasing disgust of her husband and the Great Nazi Reich and desperation to save her children makes for truly heartbreaking fiction.

But honestly, the reason it’s the best segment of the plot might be because it feels like it came to a logical conclusion. So many other storylines just sort of… stop.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some finality. The BCR manages to force the Japanese to withdraw from North America, and the Nazis fall apart when John Smith kills the Fuhrer, takes over and promptly dies. The revolution does win out, and there is hope for a brighter future.

But a lot of the more intimate details have been left ambiguous, like the characters we know and love or the mysterious inter-dimensional magic that’s permeated the show.

Kido is forced to take a hard look in the mirror after he sees what his country’s imperialistic actions (as well as his own) have done to his son as well as his fallen allies. He makes a couple of efforts to redeem himself, then chooses to remain in America after the Japanese withdraw, as penance I suppose.

The same kind of thing happens with Childan. As a man who happily profited off of the dissolution of his own culture, he tries to leave the country with his Japanese girlfriend, only to be separated by her during the withdraw, left penniless, and stranded in his homeland with no clear future in sight.

The same could be said of Juliana and Wyatt in the end. All of their daring risks and tactics manage to bring down the Nazis and prevent their nightmarish invasion of the multiverse. Then we get the final shot of the show, where they enter the Poconos base and discover a multitude of people mysteriously emerging from the dimensional portal.

These hanging threads feel less like the ending beats of a series, and more like set-up for a fifth season.

However, while I may be dissatisfied by this lack of resolution, I can kind of understand it on a thematic level. This is a show primarily about a world in which the Axis powers have taken over, so the destruction of that status quo seems like an appropriate place to leave it. And to be fair, how people deal with the aftermath of a world like that is another story all on its own.

A more universal criticism I have just has to do with the contrived nature of certain plot elements. The BCR, for example. While I appreciated finally seeing the African-American experience in this fascist dystopia, their sudden inclusion in the plot this late in the game felt a little hamfisted.

So did the introduction of General Whitcroft, John’s old war buddy and now second in command of the Greater-Nazi Reich, who we’ve never seen until now but who plays a key role in the story’s end game.

And this is not even getting into characters who suddenly are never seen again, like Tagomi, Kotomichi, Ed McCarthy, Nicole Dormer, or Thelma Harris.

Of course, there was much more that did work for me.

We get some fun new characters. Belle Mallory of the BCR was a strong character who I quickly empathized with, as was her partner Elijah. Then we have Wilhelm Goertzmann, an Obergruppenfuhrer from Berlin who is teased as another rival for John, and Rachel Nichols as Martha, a coldblooded gestapo agent assigned to be Helen Smith’s “wife-companion.” The Fuhrer’s wife, Margarete Himmler, also gives Helen trouble this season, but she kind of vanishes towards the end.

Juliana and John Smith's forays into our reality in the early parts of the season were probably the most interesting parts for me. Juliana gets advice from the kind and friendly alternate-John Smith about how to deal with her tyrannical oppressor... Reichsmarschall John Smith. And our Smith finds himself increasingly drawn to this other world where he hasn't sold his soul and lost his family, which leads to some of the most powerful moments of the season.

And the arc of Hawthorne Abendsen, the actual Man in the High Castle, leads to some unexpected satire as he has been forced to act as a puppet for the Nazis. Literally, he's been made the host of a white nationalist version of The Twilight Zone, with such mind-boggling scenarios as a white man who finds himself working for a black employer.

Overall, though, I appreciated the most resounding theme of the series, and this season in particular. Which is that fascist empires are inevitably doomed to fail. Realistically, an alliance between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire probably would not have lasted all the way to the 1960s had the Axis powers prevailed. But this is fiction, and we forgive those sorts of things here.

Since this is the final season, we see how quickly and easily the Greater Nazi Reich falls apart due to (surprise, surprise) the exact same things the original Nazis suffered from in real life: rampant in-fighting, incompetence, self-destruction and people backstabbing each other for more power. At a certain point, Himmler, J. Edgar Hoover and the newly introduced Adolf Eichmann all know John Smith has committed treasonous acts, yet are so convinced of their power over him and everyone else that they leave themselves completely exposed to his coup to take control of the Reich. Then John falls, and his American subordinates stand down instead of slaughtering the BCR who just liberated the West Coast.

It’s a somewhat uplifting resolution when you consider where things were in the beginning, as is the illustration that not everybody who gets wrapped up in these fascistic movements does so purely out of blind hatred. Inspector Kido did unforgivable things because he believed it was his duty to the Empire, John Smith did unforgivable things because he wanted to protect his loved ones. Both men realize in the end that they betrayed themselves and everyone else in the course of doing what they thought they must. They are victims of this corrupt system of power, though not as much as the people their system trains them to hate and destroy.

Maybe it’s sad that we still need all these shows that serve as prescient reminders of the toxic nature of fascism and xenophobia (especially when they are presented to us by a company that has become a symbol of corporate greed), seeing as how we've literally been getting those nonstop for the past 80 years; one of the many criticisms leveled against the new Star Wars movies was that the villains are still modeled after the Nazis. But as recent events have made clear, these hateful ideas and lifestyles do not just go away. The struggle against them is a constant one, otherwise our world will more resemble the one seen in The Man in the High Castle. We can't allow that, and that's why this story is still powerful and its message is still relevant. Because it rings true.

Four out of five alternate realities.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Thank you so much for reviewing this final season, Logan. I love having a full set of reviews. :)

Rufus Sewell was impressive in every season, but I think he really pulled it out in this one. I wanted him to go to the alt-world and see his son again and he did. And Frances Turner sending her resistance fighters into battle to "If We Must Die" gave me chills down my spine. I rewound that scene a few times, and then looked up the poem.

But I've been trying to figure out why the final season was fairly good but the ending didn't completely work for me. Did the JPS and GNR end too abruptly? Does power ever fall that quickly?

Logan Cox said...

And thank you, Billie. Sorry it took so long.

Rufus Sewell and Chelah Horsdal were definitely the standouts this season as the Smiths.

Another great moment I forgot to mention was Belle and Elijah's refusal to incorporate the American flag in their revolution, because to them (African-American people born in the '30s and 40's and living under racist regimes in the '60s) the flag is just a symbol of another less evil empire that enslaved and brutalized them long before the Germans and Japanese took over, and did it so well that the Nazis even modeled their own white supremacist state after ours. While part of me wants to romanticize American iconography after watching this show, that scene was a strong reminder that the U.S.A. is not so pure as that.

While it does seem like the JPS and GNR fell too quickly in the context of this season, in the greater scope of the series, they've been on a slow spiral to defeat for awhile now. I like the idea of the JPS's gradual disillusion with their tyranny over the Americans, and the Nazis shooting themselves in the foot by being themselves.

Plus, this show is often so dark and bleak that I don't really mind an optimistic ending.

Billie Doux said...

I was definitely happy with the optimistic ending. I binge-watched the entire series when season four dropped, and I was definitely worried that we were in for a dark ending.

milostanfield said...

I’ve been conflicted about the very end of the series. At first my reaction was "oh, no, it’s Lost all over again", only people coming out of the light instead of going into it. Seems like so many shows can keep everything flying for x years and then can’t quite stick the landing. Maybe the Writer’s Guild should enact a ban on the "light at the end of the tunnel" metaphor.

But the more I think about it the more I like the idea that maybe there was a season 5 rattling around in there as you said, Logan. The ending was optimistic. But it was also ambiguous. What would have happened between the peoples of the two universes as they interacted? The people who lost loved ones encountering that lost one who isn’t really that person? People as different as the two John Smiths were? The kind of stuff that Fringe explored a bit in their Season 3, but not enough.

If this kind of "alternate universe" story appeals to you I highly recommend the show Counterpart. Sadly it was cancelled after 2 seasons and ended on a major cliffhanger. But if you can hang with that it’s a good watch.

I loved "High Castle". Any series that adapts a Phillip K. Dick novel and keeps it humming for 4 years is a keeper.

magritte said...

Logan, I agree with you completely that the part of the season that worked best was the final arc of John and Helen Smith. It was almost perfect...and honestly, unlike you, I never really warmed to any of the New York characters until this final season.

I'm torn on the BCR. Conceptually, it makes perfect sense that they would exist and that their relationship with any white resistance groups would be prickly. But it seemed very strange for an organization capable of toppling the Japanese occupation to appear out of nowhere in season 4. An element that important to the main plotline shouldn't have been introduced so late in the game.