The John Smith Show
In my review of The Man in the High Castle, Season 2 in 2017 I summarised the events of the first two seasons and praised Amazon Studios for the particularly skilful narrative closure employed, a rare artistic achievement in which the series could either have concluded there and then or continued into a third season. One of the most noticeable changes in popular culture in my lifetime has been the development of television into a serious, artistic mode of representation, which seems to have occurred in tandem with the technological changes related to streaming. Television series like HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001) and True Detective (2014-2019) were inconceivable in the nineteen eighties. The development of a genuine televisual art was accompanied by a narrative development, which is so obvious and commonplace that it may be regarded as essential to the medium rather than a studio choice for those who didn’t grow up with nineteen eighties television: most series appear to be created for a two-season run. I’ve noticed two consequences of this. First, if a series doesn’t progress to the second season, it rarely concludes in a satisfying manner. In this respect, Netflix’s Mindhunter (2017) was a rare exception (the series concluded rather than terminated with the last episode of season one, though a second was released in 2019). Second, if there is a third season, it is often disappointing – often, but not always, because the plot is tangential to that of the first two seasons. History’s Vikings (2013) is a particularly good (i.e. bad) case in point. Aside from the potential for literal loss of plot, many third seasons also suffer from a particularly potent combination of production problems: viewer interest typically begins to wane at precisely the same time as actors feel confident enough to demand higher salaries. With respect to The Man in the High Castle, the announcement of a third season was made together with the announcement of a fourth, which would also be the final season. I found season 3 something of a let-down on my initial viewing, although having revisited it since I’m not entirely sure why.
The season focuses on everyday life in Nazi America (America east of the Rocky Mountains) and the development of Die Nebenwelt, a machine that can transport people between the alternative world of the characters and the real world of the audience (in the nineteen sixties). The fictional Nazis call our world the Alt-World, of course, but I shall call it the real world to avoid confusion. The main difference between the alternative world and ours is that the Axis won the Second World War in the former, dividing the world into two super-states, the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Empire. The shared emphasis between Nazi America and the Japanese Pacific States (America west of the Rocky Mountains) of the first two seasons shifted subtly towards Nazi America, a shift that was exacerbated when Resistance leader Juliana Crane (played by Alexa Davalos) killed Joe Blake (played by Luke Kleintank), a German-American Nazi agent who linked both empires and both protagonists, Crane and John Smith (played by Rufus Sewell), the Reichsmarschall of Nazi America to Himmler’s (played by Kenneth Tigar) Reichsführer of the GNR. This subtle shift is exacerbated by the problem I noted in my previous review, Sewell stealing the show as an unrepentant American Nazi who is fiercely loyal to family and Führer, too shrewd to be outwitted by ambitious Nazis, and too tough to be killed by the Resistance. Notwithstanding its status as an interim conclusion, the last episode of season 3 – “Jahr Null” – was once again a masterful deployment of narrative closure, drawing all the disparate threads of the season together in a thrilling finish. The details most relevant to season 4 are: Helen Smith’s (played by Chelah Horsdal) flight to the Neutral Zone (America between the Reich and the Empire) following her son Thomas ’s (played by Quinn Lord) voluntary euthanasia; the shooting of Himmler by Wyatt Price (played by Jason O’Mara), another Resistance leader; the functional operation of Die Nebenwelt; and Smith learning that two versions of the same person cannot exist in the same world at the same time (i.e. he cannot cross to the real world until the real John Smith dies). The episode and season end with Smith realising that Juliana has found a way to travel between worlds on her own. He shoots her to prevent her escaping from custody, but a moment after the bullet strikes she disappears. My lasting impression of season 4 taken as a whole is that it completes the trend initiated in season 2, turning the series into The John Smith Show. With the decision to make a third and fourth series being taken at the end of 2016, I cannot help but wonder if this greater emphasis on Smith is a reflection of and response to the inauguration of Donald Trump as forty-fifth President of the United States in January 2017 – a question I’ll return to at the end of my review.
Season 4 begins a year after the end of season 3. In the JPS, Trade Minister Tagomi (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) has been assassinated and Colonel Takeshi Kido (played by Joel de la Fuente) of the dreaded Kenpeitai (the military police responsible for the criminal and security policing functions in the JPS) has been assigned the case. Kido will emerge as the main antagonist in the JPS subplot, working against a new character and protagonist, Bell Mallory (played by Frances Turner). Bell is head of the San Francisco cell of the Black Communist Rebellion, a resistance movement that has sprung up in the last year. In the course of Kido’s investigation, he comes to realise that the Empire has overreached itself and is struggling to maintain control of the eastern hemisphere, which stretches from India to the Rocky Mountains. Within the Japanese hierarchy, there is dissent as to whether order should be maintained in the JPS by allowing the colonised greater autonomy or by tightening the already draconian laws in place. The Navy, under Admiral Inokuchi (played by Eijiro Osaki) and the Crown Princess (played by Mayumi Yoshida), who is resident in San Francisco, favour the former and the Army, under General Yamori (played by Bruce Locke), favour the latter. The Kenpeitai is part of the Army, so Kido’s loyalty as well as his sympathies lie with Yamori. Yamori succeeds in appointing General Masuda (played by Clint Jung), fresh from his genocidal occupation of Manchuria, to lead the counter-insurgency in the JPS. Shortly after his arrival, however, Masuda is assassinated by Price, working with the BCR. Yamori launches a low-key coup d’état, placing the Crown Princess under house arrest and having Kido arrest Inokuchi for high treason. Inokuchi is sentenced to death by firing squad after a cursory court martial, but Kido intervenes at a crucial point, switching sides to the Navy after discovering that Tagomi was murdered by soldiers in consequence of his moderate political position. The BCR then launches an orchestrated series of attacks on the oil infrastructure of the JPS, with devastating results. Forty-eight hours later, the Emperor announces that Japan is withdrawing from the US in order to redeploy its military resources to China, where there seems to be either an insurgency or an open war (the details are never revealed) underway.
Meanwhile, in Nazi America, Smith has been sending agents to the real world, where they have been sabotaging the American space and nuclear programs and keeping his counterpart family (which consists of himself, Helen, and their son, but not their two daughters) under surveillance. Juliana is close to the Smiths in the real world and when alternative-world Smith despatches an assassin to the real world to kill her, real-world Smith intervenes and is himself killed. This frees alternative-world (now, the only) Smith up to visit the real world, a journey he is particularly keen to make because Thomas is still alive. There is a role reversal as Juliana returns to the alternative world to kill Smith and Smith travels to the real world. Smith’s position as Reichsmarshall is becoming increasingly precarious due to his falling from grace with Himmler. Himmler survived the assassination attempt, but his health has been ruined and he bears a grudge against Smith for failing to prevent the attempt and failing to take appropriately destructive action afterwards. Although Helen has returned to New York from the Neutral Zone, her year in voluntary exile is public knowledge among the Nazi hierarchy, which casts further doubt on Smith’s loyalty. Finally, with Josef Mengele (played by John Hans Tester) having explained that there is actually a multiverse rather than a universe (although movement is at present limited to transition between the alternative and real worlds), Himmler is desperate to despatch his legions to conquer this new lebensraum and blames Smith for the slow progress. When Smith returns to the alternative world, he finds that he has been summoned to Berlin to answer charges from two particularly odious historical characters, J. Edgar Hoover (played by William Forsythe) and Adolf Eichmann (played by Timothy V. Murphy), and that the Empire has no objection to a Nazi reunification of America as long as the Reich keeps the oil flowing east (actually west).
As the series reaches its final stage, the focus is firmly on Smith, who seems to have three options available:
- He can take advantage of the instability in Nazi America caused by the withdrawal of the Empire from the JPS and use his considerable influence in the American Armed Forces to launch a coup d’état against Berlin, fighting for an independent and united America.
- He can travel to Berlin to answer the charges against him and plead his case to Himmler, who was – up until the assassination attempt – his sponsor.
- He can escape to the real world with his two daughters, although he would have to leave Helen in the alternative world.
Being the man of resource, guile, and determination that viewers have come to know and (reluctantly) admire, Smith takes charge of the situation to carve out a fourth option, with the ultimate aim of abducting Thomas from the real world and bringing him to live with the Smiths of the alternative world. I have praised the conclusions of both season 2 and season 3, but the conclusion to season 4 exceeds both of them – tense, unpredictable, climactic, and tying up all the different threads of the different subplots so as to make the narrative closure appear retrospectively inevitable. In my review of Carnival Row earlier this year, I offered an interpretation of the occult detective story based on Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson’s fourfold theory of allegory. Jameson argues that sophisticated allegories operate on four levels of meaning simultaneously rather than the traditional two: the literal, the secret, the existential (concerned with the moral psychology of the individual), and the anagogical (concerned with the future of humanity as a whole). The meaning of the literal level in The Man in the High Castle is, naturally, obvious, the creation of a counterfactual world in which the Axis won the war. The existential level is the story of someone who starts down a particular path to save his starving child, continues along that path to protect his family, and ends up committing genocide without remorse (Smith and to a lesser extent Helen). The anagogical meaning is about the consequences of nationalism, imperialism, and colonialism, with perhaps a hint of American exceptionalism thrown in as well. Which leaves the secret level… are we meant to draw parallels between Smith and Trump (something I find difficult given the many virtues mixed in among the former’s vices) or between Nazi America and Trump’s vision for… well, Nazi America? I don’t know, but if it’s an excuse to watch the series again I’m going to say maybe.*****