The Man in the High Castle Comes To A Compelling and Frustrating End
The final season of The Man In The High Castle premiered over the weekend on Amazon Prime. The series has been streaming since 2015, based upon the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Over the years, the show has had its ups and downs, so how did the last season stand up? Let’s dig in and see how successful this wildly ambitious alternate reality show was in the end.
Image via Amazon
Major spoilers for the fourth season of The Man in the High Castle below.
Philip K. Dick is one of the most adapted science fiction writers ever. He penned the source material for hit films like Bladerunner and Minority Report. Dick was an ambitious writer who had some incredible ideas and storytelling moments in his work. But he also had a tendency to meander too long on strange tangents, and his endings were often baffling and open-ended.
It is possible that The Man in the High Castle, a show that veered so far from its original source material might actually be one of the most true to the spirit of Philip K. Dick’s work. This show was weird and ambitious. It spent too long on tangential storylines that never paid off. Just like a Philip K. Dick novel, the show had interesting ideas, but the execution of the high concept story did not quite stick the landing.
The Man in the High Castle has always been an ambitious show. Set in an alternate world where the Nazis won World War II, and split up North America with their Japanese allies. The show veered hard into science fiction with the introduction of parallel worlds. But a revolving cast of characters made it hard to emotionally invest. The departure of original showrunner Frank Spotnitz after season 2 also weakened the show.
The final season of The Man in the High Castle has its strengths and weaknesses. It starts slow but picks up steam as the season moves along. There is excellent acting, compelling storylines, and grand ideas. The show asks deep questions about what we compromise in order to keep those we love safe. But it is certainly not perfect.
Trade Minister Tagomi | Image via Amazon
The Man in the High Castle Kills Off A Major Character To The Detriment of The Final Season
Within moments of the premiere episode, a major character is unceremoniously killed off. Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is an important book character and became one of the heroes of the show. Tagomi was the first main character to travel between worlds. Over the course of the series we saw him evolve and mature, lending his wisdom to others and struggling to maintain peace and his loyalty to Japan.
Last season, Tagomi even got a love interest and there was no indication that his story was at its end. So why kill him off at the beginning of the final season? It was a baffling move that I cannot find an answer for. It is possible that there was some kind of scheduling conflict for the actor, as he also has a role in the Netflix show Lost in Space. Or maybe Amazon didn’t like that Tagawa was in a show on a competing streaming service?
There is no clear reason to write Tagomi off, and the lack of his presence during the final season is deeply felt. Without Tagomi, focus shifts to Inspector Kido who is a compelling character, but hardly one to root for. It leaves the San Francisco plotlines feeling like filler, as the show clearly wants to focus more on John Smith and Nazi politics.
Helen Smith | Image via Amazon
The Man in the High Castle (Eventually) Gives Helen Smith Something To Do
The plotline with John Smith’s family makes for one of the more compelling threads in the final season. Helen Smith (Chelah Horsdal), the loyal ‘Reich-Wife’ of the past has finally started to question the world that they live in. The cracks started to show after her son Thomas willingly went to his death in the second season. At the end of last season, Helen panicked at the idea that her daughters would be tested for the same congenital defect that her son had. So she packs up and escapes with Amy and Jennifer to the Neutral Zone to stay with her brother.
The final season picks up one year later, skipping over Helen’s time in the Neutral Zone as she returns to her husband in the Reich. But her eldest daughter – Jennifer (Genea Charpentier) – has learned some dangerous ideas from the Resistance Radio that she listened to every night. Finally one of the Smith children confronts a parent about the horrors that they committed in order to keep their family ‘safe.’
The storylines with Helen and Jennifer are emotionally resonant and compelling, with strong acting from the actresses who play mother and daughter. Unfortunately this storyline is undercut by some confusing plot holes (were Amy and Jennifer ever tested for the defect? Why was that just swept under the rug and never mentioned again?). Little progress is made with the youngest Smith daughter, as Amy seems to be fully brainwashed this season. It makes me ask, if the Reich does fall at the end of all this, then how will the Resistance, or the Americans or whoever takes control un-indoctrinate the youth?
Juliana Crane | Image via Amazon
Juliana Is The Unwitting Spark of Resistance
It is a bit strange that it has taken me this long to get to talking about the protagonist of the show, Juliana (Alexa Davalos). Juliana spent a lot of time waiting around this season, despite the fact that she pushes so much of the plot forward. At the end of last season, Juliana finally travels between worlds after John Smith shoots her. She is rescued in a world like our own (but not quite the same) by an alternate John Smith – and a very much alive Thomas Smith.
Juliana spends a year in this alternate world, taking notes and observing the alternate John Smith. She seems to believe that killing Smith will take down the American Reich. And… I’m not sure why she believes this. The Reich is clearly much larger than one man, as the show proved by killing off Hitler in the second season. Smith knows how to operate the portal between worlds, so she is really trying to save the other worlds. But this is also wrong, because many people can operate and travel through the portal. And what even happened to Himmler’s plan to invade the other worlds?
Image via Amazon
What Is the Purpose Of The Alternate Worlds?
Once the portal was operational, it seems like the Reich was prepared to march troops through and invade other worlds. But that storyline is also discarded this season. The stakes are drastically lowered when the portal pretty much becomes a reason for John Smith to travel to another side and see his son again.
It was possible that in traveling to an alternate version of America, John Smith might realize how much he has lost by giving into the Nazis. The show gives him a healthy son, a wife that still loves him, a best friend whom he never betrayed for being a Jew.
This could have sparked a redemption cycle for Smith that would have led to him taking down the Reich from the inside. He has a chance to rebel against Himmler and declare America as its own superpower again, outside of the Reich. But he doesn’t do any of these things. In the end, he is just as misguided and lost as ever.
There is an issue here, spending so much time on a main character who is a Nazi. The show clearly wanted us to empathize with him, to find the good traits in him. The show spent a lot of time humanizing John Smith… and in the end he didn’t really earn it.
Frances Turner as Bell Mallory | Image via Amazon
The BCR Should Have Been Part Of The Show From The Beginning
You would think that after the show killed off so many core characters (Joe Blake, Frank Frink, Trade Minister Tagomi) that the showrunners would have focused in on the core characters of Juliana Crane, John Smith, and Inspector Kido. But instead, the show attempts a last ditch effort to finally address race relations in this world by introducing a new Resistance faction: The Black Communist Rebellion.
Led by rising revolutionary Bell Mallory (Frances Turner) the BCR is a group of Black Nationalists. They are struggling to eke out a life after escaping from American concentration camps. In half a season, the BCR accomplishes more than the Resistance does in the entire series.
Turner is excellent in the role of Mallory and I would have loved to see her play against Juliana or other lead characters. But she is arrives too late in the series to allow for that to happen. Mallory and the BCR are also fighting against the Japanese occupation of California and the Pacific Northwest. However, the show truly missed out on an opportunity to speak to real-world race relations and tensions between black Americans and white nationalists by avoiding having any member of the BCR ever interact with a Nazi. The storyline involving the BCR is one of the best of the final season, but it feels like too little too late.
Image via Amazon
Final Thoughts On The Man In The High Castle
Over the course of four seasons, I enjoyed this show. But there was so much more they could have said about our own world and society that was never really addressed. The series fully ignored homegrown Nazis and instead gave us John Smith. The show tried to tell us over and over again that Smith was a good man at heart. That he was forced to assimilate due to circumstances outside of his control. Rufus Sewell gave an amazing performance over the course of the show, but I’m unsure that his acting abilities made it worth focusing so much on him to the detriment of other characters and storylines.
There are some excellent moments in the final season, but overall it is a bit uneven. Much like the source material, the show has presented some interesting ideas and concepts but has ended with a baffling open-ended finale that may leave viewers unsatisfied.
The final season of The Man in the High Castle is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
(Featured image via Amazon)
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.