Review: “The Man in the High Castle”

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The fourth and final season of the Amazon Prime alternate history and sci-fi show “The Man in the High Castle” was released Nov. 15. The fourth season continues the show’s penchant for clever historical references and homages, complex characters, incredible production designs and ambiguous tone, all the way to the show’s final scene. This final season has divided viewers and critics but is a satisfying conclusion to an enrapturing series. 

The show is based on the Phillip K. Dick book of the same name, and while it deviates heavily from the source material, it remains faithful to the work in its themes, tone and some major plot points. The show is set in a universe where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan win the Second World War. I started watching the show when it first came out and was hooked immediately. The show balances many concurrent plots and can be confusing for new viewers. I highly recommend that readers go and watch the first three seasons of “The Man in the High Castle” before reading further, as there will be spoilers for the first three seasons. There will also be hints at spoilers for the new season.

The new season is easily the darkest of the series and starts off immediately where season three left off. Juliana Crane – played by Alexa Davalos – escapes from captivity by traveling to the parallel universe, right as Reichsmarschall John Smith – played by Rufus Sewell – shoots her. While Season 3 ended on an ambiguous note, with viewers unsure if the shot killed Juliana, we learn that she has only been wounded and successfully travels, only to be found by this alternate universe’s version of Smith. The show then jumps to one year later. Trade Minister Tagomi – played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa – has recently been assassinated, and Inspector Kido – played by Joel de la Fuente – is tasked with investigating his murder. Smith’s wife, Helen, still reeling from the loss of her son, has taken their daughters and fled the Reich, living in the Neutral Zone. Hawthorne Abendsen, the titular Man in the High Castle, is still in captivity, and Wyatt Prince is leading resistance in the neutral zone.

The new season has left some of its less impactful plotlines by the wayside, many of which were resolved rather well at the end of Season 3. The loss of Tagomi, however, who had been a major character from the first episode, feels like a waste, as many roles he may have played are now pushed onto newer characters, leaving his arch incomplete. 

At the end of Season 3 it is heavily implied that the driving element of the series going forward will be the multi-verse and the Nazi’s portal into the multiverse, Die niebenwelt. Instead, this element of the plot is sidelined to focus more on the elements within the main universe, with the alternate universe and portal acting more as McGuffin’s and tools for character development. This is especially important for Crane, who is in the alternate universe at the season’s beginning, and Smith, who travels there after his alternate self is killed by a Nazi agent. 

Smith’s plotline is easily the most fascinating and satisfying of the series. Rufus Sewell’s performance is superb, and the contrast of the Smith we’ve grown to know over the past seasons and the alternate universe’s version of him gives us new insights into the character’s motivations and emotions, which have long been conflicted and ambiguous to the viewers. His progression from a more one-dimensional antagonist in the first season to a complex and multifaceted character is easily the most well written and performed plotline in the series. Helen Smith’s progression from a side character in the first two seasons to a major character in her own right only makes this plotline more interesting. 

We are also introduced to a new resistance group in the Japanese Pacific States called the Black Communist Rebellion, which is quickly established as a major concern facing the Japanese forces. The BCR is very clearly based on the real-life Black Power movement of the 1960s and is led by a man named Equiano Hampton, a clever reference to 19th century abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The BCR quickly establishes itself as one of the best subplots in the series and comes to play a significant role in the finale. 

I don’t want to go into details on the show’s conclusions, but as someone who has watched the show from the beginning, I found the conclusion satisfying. It was difficult to see how the show would end, and I couldn’t see any route to a completely happy ending. I knew that some questions would need to be left unanswered. I found the conclusion to be rather ambiguous, but I was happy that it was not completely definitive. While the multiverse element played a much smaller role than I anticipated, I was happy that they focused more on the alternate history aspects of the show, which were always the most intriguing.

For new viewers, the show will likely be confusing, but in the context of the preceding seasons, it is certainly a satisfying conclusion to a very engaging show. While it is not without its flaws, it is certainly one of the best shows I’ve seen in recent years, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys history or science fiction, complex and ambiguous characters and incredible set design.   

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