One of TV’s most intriguing premises is back for another season that features some good character development, impressive moments and interesting twists. Let’s see how it played out and stacks up against the previous two seasons.
In the second season, there were a lot of moving pieces and arcs going on. Trade Minister Tagomi traveled to the other reality (our reality, where the Allies won the war) and met up with his wife, who was deceased in “his” dimension, and found out that Juliana Crain was his daughter-in-law. He is resolved to maintain peace with the Nazis throughout the season, though he is fully aware of the Japanese nuclear capabilities and plans for destroying their allies if need be. He obtains the last remaining films from Abendsen (the titular Man in the High Castle) and hopes to use them to maintain that peace. Juliana Crain spends much of the season living inside of the Smith home, after requesting asylum following a shootout with the Kempeitai. She strikes up a friendship with Thomas and he confides his illness to her, giving her something to use again John if need be. She spies on the Smiths for George Dixon, an old family friend (and, she discovers, the true father of her sister Trudy, who was killed in season one but appears late in season two as an inter-dimensional traveler) and Resistance leader. Always seeking information and being made to play sides against each other, Juliana fears she may have set in motion the events for a nuclear war between the two powers, and narrowly escapes execution by the Resistance in the season finale.
Elsewhere, John Smith is busy trying to protect his son Thomas from being discovered as “defective” by his superiors (and even kills to do so) while also discovering that the Nazis have been plotting to start a conflict with the Japanese, all while Hitler’s health is faltering. He orders Joe Blake to visit his father in Berlin, who we discover is the one pulling the strings to the looming conflict. When Hitler dies, Himmler is quick to seize power, arresting Blake and his father as traitors to the Reich. Chief Inspector Kido spends his time chasing Crain and some Japanese defectors, including the Yakuza, executing those he is able to get his hands on. He narrowly escapes death at the end of the season when the Kempeitai headquarters are bombed by Frank.
There were many other balls in the air in this juggling act, but if you watch the show then you already knew that and don’t need a complete recap, so let’s get to season three!
Here is one of the more frustratingly-written characters on TV, from my vantage point. This season makes some moves to tidy her up a bit and give her some clearer motivations and goals to strive toward, specifically unraveling the mysteries of the last films from the Man in the High Castle and stopping the Nazi’s plot to build a device that allows them to open a portal to other realities. Juliana has often seemed lost as a leading character, so it’s a breath of fresh air when she meets Wyatt Price and teams up with him for her mission, as he helps to steady her targets and overall arc. Juliana gives us one of the most gasp-inducing moments of the series, however, when she finally takes action against Joe Blake and cuts his throat in a very satisfying turn of events. Juliana ends the season in Nazi custody before revealing that she has learned the power of inter-dimensional travelling and disappears in front of John Smith’s eyes after being shot, leaving us with a great cliffhanger for season four!
The former American who has quickly risen through the ranks of the New American Reich is on a troubled path. On one hand, he gets promoted to the highest ranking position underneath Himmler, but on the other hand his son is dead after turning himself in for being “genetically defective” and his wife Helen is struggling with the ideals of The Party that took her child from her. John always has to stay one step ahead of the Resistance, the Japanese Pacific States, newly-arrived J. Edgar Hoover and more. He has to carry out the orders of Reichsführer Himmler, even if they mean imminent war with Japan. And he must do all of this while attempting to keep his house in order. Rufus Sewell plays Smith perfectly, walking the line of drawing sympathy from the audience and remaining a feared and detestable character, but there is a clear undercurrent of dissension toward his party within John Smith and it will be fascinating to watch going forward.
The Trade Minister of the Pacific States, Tagomi is one of my favorite characters on the show. He always seeks peace, giving some balance to the Japanese side of things with Inspector Kido often being so ruthless. Tagomi seeks to end an oil embargo from the Nazis, as he knows that a war between the two powers would threaten to ruin everything they have built. He is intrigued by what he has seen in the other dimension, and helps Juliana with the films because he sees them as a way to maintain the peace that he wishes to maintain. When an attempt on his life is made, he dispatches his attacker, but the violence has a big impact on him, even though done entirely in self-defense. When he meets with Smith in the Neutral Zone and says “war is far too grave a matter to go through traditional channels,” it gives off the distinct impression that the Trade Minister fully understands his importance not only to Japan, but also to the rest of the world, as he works to avoid World War III at all costs.
Here is a man who has been very hard to figure out thus far. He seems quite conflicted and it’s hard to figure out whose side he is really on. He begins the season in Berlin, where he is forced to denounce his father as a traitor and pull the trigger himself to prove that his loyalties lie with The Reich. Himmler recruits him for undercover work as an assassin, his targets including Tagomi himself. When he fails to complete that particular task, he finds himself reunited with Juliana and attempts to play her. But his journey came to an abrupt end when Juliana beat him to the punch and killed him.
Chief Inspector Kido
The yin to Tagomi’s yang, Kido is just as brutal as his counterpart is peaceful. Early in the series we saw him casually gas Frank Frink’s family to death and think nothing of it, so we know he is not afraid to get his hands dirty. He struggles with the empire’s newfound desire to employ a softer approach as a means of keeping order, especially after the bomb at the Kempeitai nearly killed him. His tactics are far less diplomatic than Tagomi’s, but at the same time, we see him slowly embrace his softer side, recalling his family back home that he hasn’t seen and visiting an escort at a social club that he eventually frees. Kido, however, is still a man of tradition and loyal to the empire, and when Frank Frink’s paintings start to spread and threaten the balance of power in the Pacific States, he doesn’t hesitate to act. Capturing Frank in the Neutral Zone, Kido drives him to the desert and states that letting him go alive once before was his mistake and swiftly decapitates him in a jarring and emotional moment. Kido seems slightly conflicted, so where does he go from here to keep his side in control?
A smuggler and member of the Resistance, Price quickly becomes essential to Juliana’s mission. His motivations aren’t necessarily clear from the get-go, but once he sees Juliana handle herself at the border when things erupt, he gains trust in her, which helps us gain trust in him. He isn’t (yet) just another love interest for her, he is interested in taking the Nazis down, even if that means wading through some murky waters as toppling a regime would have immediate and negative economic consequences. Wyatt is a skilled and charming negotiator, can handle a weapon, and now that he has seen the films and the Nazi’s portal machinery, he is fully in this fight to win it moving forward.
One of the more surprising moments of season three was the reveal that Frank survived the Kempeitai bombing and has been hiding in the Neutral Zone nursing his injuries (most notably some gnarly burn scars). He is living as as ecluded artist, painting emotionally-uplifting sunrises that have taken hold and become a rallying point for the Resistance, much to his surprise. He embraces this and decides to run with it, enlisting Ed (their reuniting was a beautiful scene) to help him plaster the image largely and visibly in Denver. When Kido catches and executes him, it is one of the saddest points of the show’s history, as the empire tries to cut the head off the snake to quell the uprising. Frank was a great character and both his entrance and exit this season carried big emotional weight.
Ed McCarthy & Robert Childan
Ed and Robert begin the season searching for more Americana for the antique store, with Ed serving as kind of a sidekick for Robert. But after they are robbed on the road in the Neutral Zone, their paths diverge for a bit. Robert returns to San Francisco to attempt to salvage his business, while Ed learns of Frank’s reemergence and reunites with him. It is Frank which gives their storyline a hard connection to the overall plot and it is essential (especially with Robert accidentally giving up information as to Ed’s whereabouts, putting the Japanese onto Frank’s trail), but aside from that, their arc gives a lighter note to the season and can be a breath of fresh air, with their odd couple demeanor. They both gain and lose things this season, with Ed gaining love but losing Frank and Robert losing his stash but regaining his store from the Japanese when he unknowingly gives them crucial information. It’s good to have side characters like this that can just be fun to watch, even if they always play a major role in plot advancement.
Taking over as Reichsführer upon Hitler’s death, Himmler proves to be every bith as ruthless as his predecessor. But he doesn’t stop at wanting to annihilate entire races, he wants to erase all of American history as well. Enacting an accord called Jahr Null (or Year Zero), Himmler employs propaganda filmmaking and outright destruction to attempt to create the world in the image of the Reich. In an awe-inspiring sequence, we see the Statue of Liberty decimated and sank, much to Himmler’s delight. And when we discover the Nazi project in the Poconos that means to give them access to other realities, we see his true intent: marching soldiers and tanks through the portal to other dimensions where the Nazis lost WWII and ensuring victory there, as well. This man is purely evil and a great villain for the audience to root against, especially as we see him undermine existing policies and treaties to try and have beloved characters like Tagomi murdered.
This show is at its best when it embraces its sci-fi side, and this season leaned into it pretty hard with all the multiverse stuff, which was a welcome change from the slower execution of previous seasons. However, there are still pacing issues, and one thing that I think would benefit the show in the future would be episodes devoted solely to one arc, or maybe only a small handful of characters. It would jump around a bit less and give us more investment into everything as a whole. What the show does well, especially the minutiae, it does very well. The detail that goes into the planning and presentation is immense, and you are given a fully-realized world to immerse yourself into. The Neutral Zone has a Wild West feel, the Greater Nazi Reich (specifically New York) is excellently-rendered as the America we knew back then with the Nazi stamp ever present (or, as they would think of it, an improved version), and the Japanese Pacific States have the old-timey San Francisco feel. It truly does feel fractured, with everyone vying for control of this expansive and diverse landscape. While this season took a few episodes to find its rhythm, I think it ended very strong, specifically with the final three episodes, and gave us a lot to look forward to next year.
Final Grade: B