This is a spoiler-free review for all 10 new episodes of The Man in the High Castle’s third season – which premieres Friday, October 5 on Amazon Prime.
Still as morose and unyielding as ever, The Man in the High Castle returns, almost two years after its second season dropped, for a run that not only deals heavily with the fallout of Rufus Sewell’s John Smith thwarting a German nuclear attack on Japan (while simultaneously losing his son back home), but also dives headlong into sci-fi, transforming the series into what it was always meant to be.
The show’s embrace of science fiction has been a steady, escalating one. Being based on an award-winning novel by sci-fi luminary Philip K. Dick, yet still deviating heavily from the book back in Season 1, the series now – as it becomes an eager, extended hypothetical of where Dick’s story might have ultimately gone – finally fits its shoes. It’s taken a while, and a generous amount of patience given how demonstratively sad the story can be, but the series now has a purpose. It has an endgame. Season 3 shapes things so that it’s not all just a “Well, this alt-Earth scenario sure seems terrible for everyone on every level, right?”
Likewise, with the sci-fi element, this year it becomes more than simply “Huh, an underlying multiverse arc. What a cool and curious quirk.” No, this season it all starts to grab hold and shake the tree. This show has to, whether it happens in Season 4 or beyond, wrap up in a hopeful way. It can’t just leave things as is. It can’t abandon all these sorrowful beings in a nightmare dystopia. Even John Smith, a lead character who’s actively betrayed his own country by flipping sides after the Axis powers’ victory, is laced and layered with enough sympathetic elements to warrant a satisfying conclusion.
So how does a glowering, glum show like this head toward a finish? By starting to actively fuel a rebellion. By building up its resistance ranks in such a way that you can almost believe that this warped and wicked world can actually be changed. Despite its muted-toned tendencies to wallow in some pretty harrowing stuff, Man in the High Castle also has some very powerful moments of beauty. The kind of sparse spectacular moments that can only be born from abject misery. This year continues that trend while also ramping up the individual desires of its characters to truly change their surroundings.
Sure, the mysterious films that depict the Allies winning – “our world,” if you will – are powerful. But even if you remove the science fiction alt-universe entanglements, they still just represent hope. When someone is shown those movies, whether or not they believe their fantastical origins, it’s as if they can clearly see a different way, a different life, for the first time. And that lights fires.
Keeping this review spoiler free is quite the puzzle box. There’s a ton I want to dish about, because it’s damn exciting. I’ll have to leave it at this though: The season starts good, but sluggish. Then, at the halfway mark…lightning. Man, the dial gets turned up to eleven and a huge new angle is revealed. And the sci-fi schemes involved will make you happy you stuck with a series that can be, admittedly, aggressively depressing. In Season 1, the films were an oddity that held no true bearing on the lives of our leads. In Season 2, with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Tagomi crossing over, the other world became real. It was no longer just background static. And in the end, a film was even used to trick an entire regime into halting a third World War.
In Season 3, we uncover the varied effects these films can have on the psyche. With more and more people discovering them, including a grieving Smith who’s asked to catalog Hitler’s old collection by new Führer Heinrich Himmler (Kenneth Tigar), we witness how the images in these reels can drive a dagger into the heart of some while providing others with the nurturing they need to rise up. With the films no longer being a secret just among a select few, we’ll now discover what someone like Himmler makes of the idea of there being other worlds out there that aren’t controlled by Nazis.
With Bosch executive producer Eric Overmyer now as showrunner, Man in the High Castle slows down a bit while also funneling everything toward a big finale-style showdown. Season 3 definitely marks the end of the road for some of the story’s main characters, but even as the herd thins, no one’s left with a short-sheeted send off. You may hate (or love) to see some of these folks go, but everyone gets their time, and their moment.
If Tagomi was Season 2’s surprise standout, then Smith is this year’s captivator. Not that he didn’t start becoming more complex and layered in Season 2, as a man quite often torn between his high-ranking duties and his deeply-buried conscience, but this year, after his son’s voluntary death, he starts to hollow out and really feel the depths of the Reich’s dastardly deeds. How might someone like this feel seeing a world where Eugenics-dictated euthanasia wasn’t state law? Tom may not be the only one in his family with this passed down genetic “defect.”
Smith, at times, is embattled on all fronts. Sure, he’s the Reich’s new hero, but he’s pinned down by doubt, blanketed by grief, and tested by a wife who’s even more shattered and unstable in the wake of Tom’s demise than he is (Chelah Horsdal’s Helen, who also has a standout season). Plus, there are those in the government (including William Forsythe’s J. Edgar Hoover) who seek to undo him, and supplant him as the Reich’s loyal, sacrificing hero. The enormity of Smith’s past decisions, along with his current ones, begin to chip away at him. Sometimes they sway him into something resembling a sympathetic character, while other moments see him doubling-down on his life of power, for fear of losing everything he holds dear.
New blood this year includes the aforementioned Forsythe, a Han Solo-style “I don’t take sides” smuggler (Agents of SHIELD’s Jason O’Mara), a gossip columnist (Watchmen’s Laura Mennell), a new adversary for Smith (Iron Fist’s David Furr), and an unexpected love interest for Tagomi (the always wonderful Tamlyn Tomita). Everyone mixes in nicely, joining Juliana (Alexa Davalos), Joe (Luke Kleintank), Kido (Joel de la Fuente), Nicole (Bella Heathcote), Ed (DJ Qualls), and Robert (Brennan Brown) – as well as a few surprises hidden in the nooks and crannies.
It’s Juliana though who continues to be the “key” to both the resistance and the series. As the character who’s had to bear most of the alt-universe brunt, Davalos’ role can sometimes be a thankless one. As a hero who’s constantly driven by a desperation she can’t describe to others, and dealing with surreal situations that only compound her agony, it would be very easy for her to wear thin. Her crucible defines the series as a whole, so there’s a lot of pressure piled into her. Once this show takes its magnificent left turn into crazed sci-fi, like it does in Episode 5 (“The New Colossus”), her entire story starts to gel like never before. And Davalos is superb when it comes to making Juliana feel like a grounded entity in the midst of insanity.
With a new season come new horrors, naturally. The show is still an impressively painful watch (and can be understandably polarizing in its bleakness) but this year it finds new ways to shock and sadden. Not with simply mass executions and widespread despair, but with an over-arching dismantling of America. Himmler’s new plan, which he calls Jahr Null (“Year Zero”), involves the complete eradication of this country’s brief history. No children will be taught it. No monuments will be left to honor it. It makes for a truly unsettling riptide here in Season 3, and one that feels like a savage warning for those of us living here on the other side of the film reel.