Spoilers ahead for folks who aren’t caught up with the first two seasons of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle.
In Season 3 of Amazon’s Emmy-winning drama series The Man in the High Castle, the story takes place in a world where oppressive governments brutally invade intimate aspects of their citizens’ personal lives, nuclear war is a looming threat, and torch-wielding Nazis march in the streets. The only thing separating the fantastic adaptation of Philip K. Dick‘s alternate history novel from our current reality is the fact that, in this tale, the Axis powers won World War II and people who can freely travel between alternate, parallel universes exist; everything else is a subtle and nuanced criticism of the pervasive evils of man against mankind, and a celebration of the hopeful optimism and rebellion that springs up from the most unexpected places.
Viewers have plenty of choices of dystopian stories to choose from today, but The Man in the High Castle stands apart by focusing on hope and humanity rather than existential despair and shock value. Sure, awful things still happen, and brutal deaths and shocking reveals are a certainty this season, but they serve to illustrate the characters’ will to survive, to fight back, or even the lengths to which they’ll go to serve an ideal. What The Man in the High Castle does best in this regard is to develop characters on all sides of the central conflict who exist in gray areas of morality, with most of them sliding back and forth along the spectrum of morality as each difficult decision forces their hand. It’s a relatively slow-burn of a drama punctuated by a staccato of action and intrigue and spectacle, but with so many irons in the fire, Season 3 handles each and every plot point remarkably well.
To catch you up on just what those plot points are and where they factor in, the Season 3 premiere has a solid recap that takes up the first few minutes; a more in-depth video recap can be found here. I’ll sum them up here, so our spoiler warning still holds for folks who haven’t watched the first two seasons; however, the Season 3 review itself will be spoiler-free.
For the most part, the story takes place in one of three cities or regions: There’s San Francisco, under the control of the Japanese Empire, with Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Kempeitai Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido (Joel de la Fuente) vying for control of the region by diplomatic and brutally oppressive means, respectively, while attempting to navigate a tenuous alliance with the Reich; there’s New York City (with some time spent in Berlin) as the central hold of the Greater Nazi Reich, overseen in part by Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) who’s investigating the Resistance movement while rapidly rising through the ranks and occasionally mentoring the young Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank); and there’s Denver, Colorado, square in the middle of the neutral zone where protagonist Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and her revolving circle of allies attempt to rebel on two fronts.
This core cast is phenomenal. Tagomi knows that there is a better way forward, as glimpsed by his visions of parallel worlds, and he seeks a peaceful resolution to all conflicts, but is not afraid to take up arms against those who would harm him and those close to him. Kido is ruthless and rigid in his role, but Season 3 continues to develop his slightly softer side in rare moments when the Chief Inspector lets his guard down. Smith, haunted by the ghost of his martyred son in myriad ways, deals with trouble at home with compassion and a stern hand at times, while also ferreting out plots to undermine and betray him, and snuffing out internal threats in devious ways. (His arc this season might be my favorite, if only because his increasing sense of unease with the Reich and its ambitions is counterbalanced against his own rocketing rise through the ranks of the system itself.) Blake finds himself at the mercy of the Reich’s leadership and is put to the test in a number of heartbreaking ways that are meant to steel his resolve and prove his loyalty. And then there’s Juliana, a lynch pin in the show itself and in the internal mythology. Enemies and allies at all levels of seniority and proximity to both the Resistance and the governments’ attempts to quash it revolve around her; Juliana often uses them for her own means, whatever they might be, but this is done as a matter of emotional or practical necessity rather than deception. People gravitate towards Juliana because she is vital to both the Resistance movement carried on by the good people of her world and to the worlds-conquering plans of the Reich, and the ultimate destination on her journey may just be teased this season.