Review: 'Man in the High Castle' Season 3 is Brutal and Pointless
If you are a frustrated reader stopping by to commiserate, let me just join you in asking, “Why?” Why after such a bleak, disorganized, and unproductive season 2 did we decide to watch season 3? And why did we decide to stick with it until the end?
The reason we watched season 3 may be fairly obvious. Because after Frank Spotnitz ditched the series as showrunner midway through season two (leaving the rest of the season rudderless and without a showrunner), we decided to see if the new showrunner Eric Overmyer could right the ship. He fixed some things. Season 3 is better. But it’s still not good, and more to the point: There doesn’t seem to be any point to the series. Where is it going? What is it trying to say? We’ve gotten through three seasons now, and while a number of characters have been killed off (including a few major ones), the story really hasn’t advanced that much.
Look, hypothetical commiserating reader, the reason we started watching Man in the High Castle to begin with was because we like Phillip K. Dick, there’s a tremendous amount of potential in the premise, and because there are a lot of great ideas worth exploring within that premise. Unfortunately, Man in the High Castle is not really interested in exploring those ideas. I’m not even sure it understands what a goldmine it has, because after three seasons, it hasn’t really even broken the surface.
Let’s back up a minute. Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate universe where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II and split the United States between them. Japan got the West Coast. Germany got the East Coast. There’s a neutral zone that runs through Denver in between, which essentially operates like the lawless Wild West. We’re in the early 1960s now; Hitler is dead (he died last season); Heinrich Himmler has assumed control; and J. Edgar Hoover is a Nazi.
The United States has been under the control of brutal authoritarian regimes for nearly two decades and so the nation has slowly begun to buy into it, a terrifying idea that is only cursorily examined — in the final episode, Himmler destroys the Statue of Liberty and New York City erupts in celebration. It’s easily the most chilling scene of the season because it appears that Nazi control has been fully normalized.
There is a resistance, and ostensibly, that’s the focus of Man in the High Castle, but it’s also strangely the least interesting part of the series. At this point, a lot of the people involved in the resistance are dead, and the ones that remain alive are largely obsessed with the sci-fi element of the series. There are film reels from other universes, like our own, where the United States won the war, and the resistance is trying to use these films as propaganda to inspire a larger resistance movement. That effort has largely failed to materialize.
However, there are a few “travelers” with the ability to go to other universes, but only if their counterpart in the other universe is already dead. What can these people accomplish by going to other universes? Not much, really. They can witness a better way of life. They can hang out with their alternate universe families (and conclude that regardless of what universe they are in, they still remain connected). The Third Reich is also trying to gain the ability to travel to other universes because they apparently want to take them over, as well, but there are too many limitations in place (at least, at this point) for that to be practical.
There is also a brewing war between Germany and Japan over control of the entire United States, and there is the threat of the atom bomb. However, this war has been brewing for a long time, and though there have been covert missions to disrupt the enemy, the status quo has mostly remained the same. It’s akin to a Cold War between Germany and Japan.
I could get into the details of the various characters in season three, but I hardly see the point. They’re not characters so much as they are bullet points. Inspector Kido spends most of the season trying to track down Frank Frink, successfully doing so and decapitating him. There’s a Leni Riefenstahl wannabe who helps create compelling propaganda films for the Third Reich, but she’s ushered back to Germany in the end because she’s a lesbian. Ed and Robert move from this point to that point and back and end the season by hanging a flag which is meant to help inspire the resistance in San Francisco. The actual Man in the High Castle — who is basically just a dude who collects and compiles films from those alternate universes — is captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. Juliana Crane bounces around from this place to that place before she is captured and imprisoned, and in the season’s final scene, John Smith shoots her and she travels to another universe simultaneously, meaning that season 4 will begin with her nursing a gunshot wound in another universe. A guy named Wyatt Price, introduced this season, also manages to shoot (and likely kill) Himmler in the season finale, but as we discovered after the death of Hitler, if you cut off one head, another will always pop back into place.
Through it all, there’s only one character in this whole goddamn show who is the least bit interesting, and he’s a Nazi. John Smith, played Rufus Sewell, is easily the most compelling figure. He’s risen to Reichsmarschall of Nazi America, a position he would be completely comfortable with but for the fact that his son — born with a genetic defect — had to be killed to keep the Aryan race free of defect. Though John Smith tried to prevent his son’s death, he’s subsequently been lionized for it, and his own son is being treated as a national hero for sacrificing himself to the cause. This, obviously, has not set well with John Smith’s wife, Helen, who in the end goes on the run with her daughters, fearing that they will become casualties. John is torn to hell emotionally, divided between his love of his family and his love for the Third Reich. It’s uncomfortable. It’s detestable. But at least there’s some emotional resonance in this one storyline.
As for the rest: What is the point? I don’t know, except that perhaps Man in the High Castle is offering a grim warning about the fact that there seems to come a point of no return, that occupying countries become so powerful and so entrenched that it’s practically impossible for a resistance to gain a toehold. That after a certain point, people just resign to their fates. Maybe the point is that all the power in the world won’t make any of these people happy, because the leaders of Japan and Germany seem to be as miserable as the people of the United States under their control. Everyone seems miserable, and it all seems hopeless, and after three seasons, I’m not sure there’s a fight to be had. Maybe the point of Man in High Castle is not to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese, but to escape them into other universes, but given the limitations of that, that doesn’t seem realistic, either.
Maybe the point of Man in High Castle is simply to make us all wallow in its misery. To that end, it’s been a smashing success.
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