November 28, 2019
Streamin' Meemies: The Man in the High Castle, Season 4
I just finished the fourth and final season of The Man in the High Castle, and like many fans, my eyes nearly fell out of my head at the ending. I have thrown books against the wall in frustration upon reading the final pages, but I'm not going to treat my computer like that. Still, this emoji pretty well sums up my reaction.
Season 4, despite some excellent individual performances and one outstanding episode, managed to squander whatever goodwill the first three seasons had garnered for me. I went back and rewatched the last episode of Season 3, "Jahr Null," and the contrast is night and day. I don't know what happened to the writers and showrunners for the last season, but the story pretty much fell off a cliff.
SPOILERS ABOUND from here on out, so be warned.
I've never read Philip K. Dick's book and thus have no idea how well (or how poorly) it was adapted, but the overall thrust of the series was right up my alley: a world where the Germans and Japanese won World War II and divided the defeated U.S. (the Nazis developed the atomic bomb before we did, and wiped out Washington DC with it, forcing a US surrender) between them, and National Socialism spread pretty much planet-wide. The first two seasons explored the tensions between the American Reich and the Japanese occupation of the West Coast, as well as general fractures in the American Reich, spread by the films produced by the titular "Man in the High Castle," showing an alternate world (ours, maybe) where the Allies won.
Season 2 introduced the multiverse, and established that certain people (including one of the show's stars, Japanese Trade Minister Tagomi) could travel between them. The American Reich also cottoned to the existence of this, and developed a machine that could open a "portal" of their own. (The set built for this was really evocative, using 50's style buttons, switches, and vacuum tubes.) They began testing this portal, trying to determine just how people could move from one world to another (and who could do so) in preparation for invading those other worlds. Season 3 showed that the only ones who could travel between universes were those whose counterparts had died; therefore, in the Season 3 finale, Juliana Crain, knowing her alt-verse twin had been killed, was able to meditate herself into the next world, the world where the Allies won and the films were supposedly coming from.
(Although I doubt this is the same 'verse Tagomi went to, because even though the Allies also won in his, in that alternate Juliana Crain was his son's wife. There also seem to have been some films procured from that 'verse as well. This is one of the things about the worldbuilding you really can't dwell on for too long.)
The first three seasons of this show were some pretty solid TV, with rich characterizations and twisty plots, so I impatiently awaited season 4. Unfortunately, the very first episode of season 4 started the show on its downward spiral by killing off Trade Minister Tagomi. That was a shock, and his absence was felt more and more throughout the season. It became clear, at least to me, that despite the excellence of Rufus Sewell's portrayal of Reichmarschall John Smith, Tagomi had been the heart and soul of the series, and it made me angry that they got rid of him like that. He and Inspector Kido were great foils. I guess it was all parcel and part of Japan's improbable defeat at the hands of the Black Communist Resistance, and their folding up and running back to their home country. Obviously the writers had no idea what to do with them.
Also: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO ED MCCARTHY? He was one of my favorite side characters, and he vanished without a word. I went back and watched "Jahr Null" to prove that I hadn't imagined him, and he had a very good scene with his cowboy boyfriend and Robert Childan, dropping a Resistance banner off the side of a building in New York. From what I could tell, all three of them got away, but Childan shows up in Season 4 and Ed is never mentioned again, as far as I remember. This is not a good way to treat your characters, people. Or your audience.
(Robert Childan is not dealt with very well character-wise either in the fourth season. He always was a love/hate sort of fellow, an opportunistic money-hungry slime one moment and a reluctant hero the next. He gets a bit of the former in season 4, but is wasted on a silly love story in the latter half of the season. And then he too drops out of sight, and we don't even get to see him get on the boat to Japan or be reunited with his wife. Talk about lazy writing.)
John and Helen Smith are emphasized this season, which inspires mixed feelings in me because both Rufus Sewell and (especially) Chelah Horsdal really step up their game. The best episode of the season (and the only one to approach the levels of previous seasons) is episode 5, "Mauvaise Foi," focusing on Smith's journey to the alternate world where his son Thomas is alive, and his running head-on into the consequences of his choices. It's a tour-de-force performance by Sewell. But I also had an ugly thought while watching it: "I really hope they don't give this guy a redemption arc, because you feel for him watching this and he absolutely doesn't deserve it."
(They don't, fortunately. Maybe that's the only good thing the writers did this season. They show plainly that once you start riding the Nazi tiger you can never get off, as Helen emphasizes in the finale. Reichmarschall Smith's ending, as stark and ugly as it is, is the only possible one for his character. So is Inspector Kido's, pledged to the yakuza [and amputating one of his little fingers as the mark] and doing their dirty work--which he shows he will be very good at--as the price of his son's return to Japan.)
Juliana Crain is not emphasized as much this season, another unfortunate result of Tagomi's absence. The Black Communist Resistance storyline was okay, but this being the final season, they weren't around long enough for me to really care about the characters. But everything was eclipsed by the idiocy of the ending, which I suppose was meant to be mystic and ambiguous but which just came across as stupid.
To wit: Juliana, her lover Wyatt Price, and their Resistance group storm the portal, built in an old coal mine in the Poconos Mountains (somewhere in upstate New York, looks like), and derail the train carrying the Smiths and their guards to the site. This was the first sign that the ending was going to be shit, because they disabled the electricity, cut through the fence and planted the explosives, and....there isn't any pushback or a firefight? Where the hell were the guards while this was going on? This place was shown to be stuffed with brownshirts, and they should have come running out of that complex like their anthill had been kicked over. What happened to them, other than Plot Convenience for Dummies?
Then, after the train derailment and the Reichmarschall's death, the group comes into the portal's control room...and the bloody thing suddenly activates? With no power? After it had been previously shown that it was necessary to spin up all four turbines to open it? As Juliana, Wyatt, and Hawthorne Abendsen (the titular Man in the High Castle, who pops into the scene with no explanation, rhyme or reason) watch, people start coming out of it. Who the hell are these people, and why would they even want to come to this world? They look like they're sleepwalking, dragged here by....what? The fact that their alternates in this 'verse have been killed? Hawthorne must think one of them is his dead wife, as he says, "They've been waiting," and starts walking, obviously looking for her. And that's where the show ends.
Oh. My. God.
I can come up with a better ending than that in five fucking minutes. Let's start with: Juliana comes back to the High Castle world because Reichmarschall Smith is sending assassins into the alt-verse after her, as well as using other operatives to manipulate that world's timeline: killing one of the US's top nuclear scientists, for example. Thus her goals are twofold: 1) kill Reichmarschall Smith; and 2) close the portal. Her alt-world, and all the others, needs to be protected. So, in the final scene, Wyatt and the group set up explosives all around the control room, and Juliana has to make a choice. After all, she can travel from 'verse to 'verse without needing a portal, so she won't be trapped here like others will be. But what she can do is return to the alt-Earth and recruit freedom fighters from the ranks over there (specifically, those who have been killed in the High Castle 'verse). She knows the High Castle world will need help, since despite the death of the Reichmarschall and his second in command calling off the attack on the West Coast, National Socialism is hardly defeated (and America will probably soon be embroiled in a nasty war with Europe).
Also, Juliana is, or should be, feeling more than a little guilty. When the Reichmarschall's assassins came for her, the alt-John, a far wiser man than his High Castle counterpart, was killed protecting her. So that's another reason to return, to look after alt-Helen and alt-Thomas. (And maybe, just to sweeten the pot, she would have been shown a glimpse of the alt-verse's Frank Frink, her lover and fiancee from the first season, who was later executed by Inspector Kido. Yeah, she may be involved with Wyatt Price now, but Frank was a far more compelling character.)
So, in my fantasy version, the final scene would be: Juliana kissing Wyatt goodbye, saying "I'll be back," and meditating herself away to the alt-verse, and then the portal blows up. And as Wyatt and his group retreats, he says something to the effect that "The battle may be over, but the war is just beginning."
Yeah, I don't know anything about writing for TV, but this sounds like a far more satisfying ending than what we got.
If Amazon ever makes the series available on Blu-Ray, I'll buy it. The first three seasons, at least. But this fourth season (Rufus Sewell, Chelah Horsdal and Joel de la Fuente, as Inspector Kido, notwithstanding) sucked.