Spoilers ahead for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle.
Season 4 of The Man in the High Castle arrived on Amazon’s streaming service this past Friday, bringing the adaptation of Philip K. Dick‘s acclaimed alt-history novel to a close. But with 40 hour-long episodes, the creative team behind the scenes (led by series creator Frank Spotnitz) had to fill out the story beyond what the 240-page novel covered. With such adaptations come the expected good and the bad; The Man in the High Castle has been, overwhelmingly, on the good side of things, but the Season 4 / series finale may just divide fans and undercut the series’ overall legacy. Or perhaps, with a little time to ruminate on the finale, “Fire from the Gods” may just be a fitting end to a fantastic series.
Before we get to the final moments of The Man in the High Castle, it’s necessary to go back over the story so far. (Here’s your second spoiler warning.) Essentially, this alt-history take exists in a world where the Axis powers won World War II and divided up the United States into the eastern Greater Nazi Reich and the western Japanese Pacific States; a neutral zone between the two exists along the Rocky Mountains and provides a haven for a growing resistance movement. So while the gears of empire and rebellion turn in New York City, Denver, and San Francisco, encompassing the men and women on both sides of the conflict in a rather realistic way, the sci-fi element of the story comes into play when a series of films showing alternate realities are discovered. These films show the possibility of victory over the Nazis and Japanese Imperials alike, and they also hint at the potential for those who can physically travel between worlds.
And that’s where protagonist Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) comes in. She’s a sort of woman out of time and place, the linchpin of the rebellion (and of the narrative itself), and the key to the war between worlds as a constant. It takes her the full run of three seasons to master the ability to travel between worlds, but when she does in the Season 3 finale, it’s a game-changer. We learn, early on in the first moments of Season 4, that Juliana transported herself out of John Smith’s (Rufus Sewell) clutches in the main universe and landed in an alt-universe, complete with newly received gunshot wound. It’s here that Juliana is rescued by alt-John Smith and his son, hale and hearty Alt-Thomas (Quinn Lord), alive and well.
Then we get a time jump of one year. And that’s where the troubles begin.
Season 4 moves briskly along as the creative team attempts to wrap up a myriad of character arcs and overall plot points. Perhaps too briskly. I started to feel that there simply wasn’t enough time to tie everything off in a satisfying way somewhere around the seventh episode; there were too many loose ends and the arcs just hadn’t progressed far enough along their tracks to deliver a meaningful ending in just a few more hours. The first clue? The death of Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). This event happens more or less off screen and in flashback sequences, setting up Juliana’s quest to move from student to teacher in Tagomi’s absence and giving Kido (Joel de la Fuente) a case to solve this season (and a path to patching up his relationship with his son). It also robs us of any appearances by Tagawa in this final season, which is rather unfortunate.
With Tagomi out of the picture, save for some mysterious clues he leaves behind for Juliana to solve (largely off-screen), we’re down a traveler between worlds. Juliana can manage it, and does so throughout this season; Hawthorne Abendsen (Stephen Root) has already seen numerous visions of other worlds but is now working under duress for the Nazis creating their own propaganda (and also leaving clues for Juliana … which she solves largely off-screen); and the Nazis, who continue sending their own operatives (dubbed “weltkommandos”) into alt worlds in order to sabotage their defense programs, steal military technology (like attack helicopters and Harrier jets), and destabilize as many government organizations as they possibly can. While Nazi domination of one world is often a scary enough premise for a story, Nazi domination of all possible worlds is about as extreme as it gets.
And yet the Good Guys’ side of the fight doesn’t ever quite feel like it can rise to the challenge. Season 4 introduces the BCR, the Black Communist Rebellion, as a stand-in for the Black Panthers; this group and its charismatic leadership fights against the Japanese Empire in San Francisco in order to win themselves a sovereign state. Ultimately, this is exactly what happens, and it’s a powerful moment, but not as powerful as it should be. Why? Because the Nazis are the Big Bad of The Man in the High Castle, and while the series often plays up Black Americans’ suffering under their regime, it never gives them a chance to directly fight back against their oppressors. That opportunity goes to Juliana, Wyatt (Jason O’Mara), and, surprisingly, the ladies of the Smith family, led by matriarch Helen (Chelah Horsdal) and older daughter Jennifer (Genea Charpentier).
On the action-y side of things, we get small guerrilla warfare wins, some covert spy ops, and more victories on a personal level than all-out wars, all of which are important, but when this Worlds War has been building for more than three seasons, the ultimate resolution feels like more of a whimper than a bang. It’s actually No-Good Nazi John Smith who gets the best moments of the final season, a bizarre storytelling option in part because of the way the writers decided to conclude his arc and in part because, y’know, the Nazis are the bad guys…
Smith has been the main wild card throughout the series. We learned the mystery behind the title character many episodes ago, but we didn’t really know which way Smith’s loyalties would lean until the final moments of the series finale. He’s had plenty of opportunities to rebel against the oppressive regime he chose to work for, and plenty of reasons to do so: His only son Thomas sacrificed himself due to the Reich’s cruel and unscientific eugenics policy, he’s seen evidence of a better life lived by his alt-selves in other worlds (and experienced it himself for a brief but pivotal 48 hours), and he’s constantly haunted by horrific choices he’s made in the past, like turning his back on his Jewish brother-in-arms, Daniel Levine (Charlie Hofheimer), essentially resigning him to the concentration camps and gas chamber through Smith’s inaction. And yet, when push came to shove, John Smith teamed up with a young and ambitious General (Marc Rissman) to execute the Nazi Party leadership–including the American Reich Bureau of Investigation head, J. Edgar Hoover (William Forsythe)–and assume total control over the American Reich. Rebellion is growing in the West, dissension has been sowed among the existing American Nazi leadership, and America maintains not only 103 nuclear missiles but the advanced military tech they’re pulling from alternate realities. Now would be the time for Smith to declare American independence from Nazi Germany, right?
No. The Man in the High Castle denies viewers of this character turn. Instead, Smith embraces the nearly unlimited power he now has with the excuse that he’s doing it to keep his family safe. How exactly new American concentration camps, gas chambers, and elimination of non-White citizens keeps his family safe is anyone’s guess, but John Smith has gone full Hitler. It’s this realization, in concert with Jennifer’s own bald-faced accusations about their family’s part to play in the persecution and death of millions, that forces Helen to betray John in order to keep their family safe, for real.
The Season 4 finale delivers a bang-up bit of action to bring the whole thing to a close. We get a rocket-powered train, carrying John and Helen Smith, through the Poconos where Wyatt, Juliana, and the resistance lie in wait. A well-placed explosion derails the train, killing Helen, but Smith and his senior officials manage to live through it. They lead the resistance fighters through the surrounding woods and buy Smith time to escape. Except that Juliana tracks him down to a rocky overlook, seeing a hexagram sign from her visions with Tagomi in the process: “Not Yet Complete.” (I’m going to keep that phrase in my back pocket to describe this series as it stands.) There, Juliana has her chance to finally kill John Smith. Instead, she listens as he gives his final monologue. It’s not an apology, really, not an admission of guilt, just a statement that he’s seen that he could have lived a better life but was unable or unwilling to do so in this reality. Rather than take this one last chance to use his power to make things right, to make amends, he commits suicide. Juliana is robbed of the opportunity to get some small act of vengeance. And viewers are robbed of any real dramatic punch…
But there’s a silver lining here. As the American Reich leadership is informed of Smith’s death, his second-in-command Bill Whitcroft (Eric Lange) assumes command, calls off the Luftwaffe airstrike on San Francisco, and gives up his Nazi medals. The implication here is that Bill will do what John could not; he’s taking advantage of his power and using it to restore the America that he and John used to fight for before the Axis victory. With the Japanese fleeing, resistance fighters in both the BCR (with support from the Chinese) and the former neutral zone, and the support of domestic military forces, not to mention the daughters of the Smith family safely in resistance custody, Bill could very well reunite a divided America and rally other countries to the cause to fight back against Nazi Germany once again. That would have made a great Season 5–including a sort of culture war between Jennifer and her younger sister / pro-Nazi Amy Smith (Gracyn Shinyei)–but alas, it is not to be.
Instead, we get one final shot of the Nazi’s world-traversing machine. It’s been acting up this season. Juliana knows that something is coming, but it’s never really explained just how the door opens from the other side (though Smith himself expresses concern at just that possibility in an earlier episode). Regardless, Juliana and the resistance fighters are there to welcome scores of newcomers who have traveled through the gate. Who they are is up for debate: They could be the refugees from other worlds where Nazis rule but the gate technology exists, they could be the lost and missing from this world who have been freed from other alt-resistance fighters in order to make their way home, or, more spiritually and religiously speaking, they could be the souls of the dead returning to life. For my interpretation, I’ll take the poetic route.
Even if Season 4 featured a rushed finale to bring the story to a close, even if Season 5 could have done a better job at ending on a feel-good note by once again eradicating Nazis (especially as they seem to be on the rise in our own real world), I’m of the opinion that the creative team behind the scenes has envisioned this final moment for some time. The Man in the High Castle, at its best, serves as a cautionary, eye-opening tale against repeating the sins of the past and allowing racists and Fascists to get a foothold, or allowing man’s inhumanity towards their fellow man to propagate. But the series occasionally dips into more metaphorical themes, too.
Perhaps the travelers returning through the portal in the finale are stand-ins for everyone we lost in our world, be they to World Wars, acts of terror, or homegrown domestic violence. Perhaps the hope that The Man in the High Castle gives us is that in a world of limitless realities, of infinite stories, we still have the right and the privilege and the power to make our own decisions and choose our own path. There is no one perfect world, and every world comes with its share of hardships to overcome and injustices to fight against. But it’s through experiencing these different perspectives and empathizing with others outside our spheres of influence that the right and proper path reveals itself. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., who himself paraphrased Theodore Parker, the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends toward justice … if and only if righteous people fight for it.
The Man in the High Castle may have shortened that arc a bit by delivering numerous perspectives from multiple universes at once, but we’ve only got this one reality to influence. It’s thanks in part to visionaries like Dick, and popular entertainment like The Man in the High Castle, that we can remain aware of the sins of the past while keeping an eye on our path into the future. And if we stray, we only have ourselves to blame.