It's assassination day on the season finale of The Man in the High Castle. As the first season ends, we learn more about the power of the films, but we're also left with a series of somewhat disappointing cliffhangers that set the stage for a very-likely second season. It's a good ending to an occasionally great season, and I'm convinced its sophomore outing will be even more confident and creative.
Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and Frank (Rupert Evans) have just watched the latest film from the Man in the High Castle, in which Frank is executed by Joe (Luke Kleintank). It's a nightmare on celluloid. Frank is clearly a part of this destiny, and always has been. Juliana sees another man in the film that looks familiar, but Joe comes in before they can watch it again. They hide the film. Frank and Joe get into a fight. He clearly believes the film's portrayal of Joe as a Nazi, which seems like a bit superficial of a reading. (Frank isn't dead, after all.) Nonetheless, they have had reasons to doubt Joe, so the film really confirms their suspicions.
John Smith (Rufus Sewell) prepares to go hunting with Heydrich (Ray Proscia), while on the other side of the country, Kido (Joel de la Fuente) is nearly out of time. Both men are being pressured by superiors, but violence and luck will lead both to safety. First, Kido tracks down the Nazi sniper, who says he is ready to make a full confession — until Kido shoots him in the head. They clean up their mess, but Yoshida (Lee Shorten) points out that Japan won't be happy. This will require another sacrifice. Will Kido commit seppuku and let the truth about the Crown Prince's shooting die with him?
As a wanted man, Frank will need the Resistance's help to get out of town. Just as Wegener was forced to make a deal for his family's safety — and had to agree to kill Adolf Hitler — Juliana has to cut a deal to get her and Frank out of San Francisco. The Resistance makes two demands in return for their safe passage: They want the film, and Joe must die. Juliana will only be an accomplice, though. She'll draw Joe to the right location, and Lem will pull the trigger.
Smith arrives at his hunting trip. Heydrich not only brought a henchman, but wants to give him a rifle. Smith wisely refuses. The hunting excursion will keep him out of reach during a narratively crucial moment as the noose draws tighter around Joe's neck. Heydrich speaks in riddles: "The world will change forever today." Does Smith know that Heydrich sent Wegener to kill Hitler?
Kido goes to speak with Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), then reveals he knows that Juliana, who Tagomi hired, is the girlfriend of the suspected Crown Prince shooter. He also knows that Tagomi helped Wegener, but acknowledges that particular deception helped the Japanese in the long run. Is he trying to set up Tagomi? He speaks in as many riddles as Heydrich, saying, "There comes a time when all men must bear the weight of their responsibility." On his way out, Tagomi bows to Kido; Kido refuses to do the same.
We get a few strong scenes with Wegener and his family, and an emotional one with Frank and Juliana, where she explains how the second film has destroyed her will to keep fighting. Nonetheless, the centerpiece of "A Way Out" spins its wheels too much, like other parts of the first season have. I hope any follow-up is narratively tighter, both in its specific episodes and serialized arc.
Ed (DJ Qualls) finally gets some narrative purpose when he's caught with Frank's gun at the factory. Moments before Kido is about to commit seppuku, Yoshida brings him the gun. They have the evidence they need. It's a tonally uneven scene — are we supposed to be happy that Kido survives? It's impossible to forget that Kido tortures people and executes children. It would have been okay if he died, but now Ed is the patsy who will save his life.
As Joe shuffles through the Nazi embassy toward a certain death, Heydrich and his men try to erase evidence of their coup. Juliana shows up, but Joe doesn't know that she's wants him dead, too. Again, there's tonal ambivalence here — should we root for Joe? I supposed we're hoping that Joe, Juliana, Frank, and even Smith will survive. Yes, we're rooting for Nazis. But if The Man in the High Castle has taught us anything, it's that some Nazis are worse than others.
Juliana confesses that she watched the film and saw Joe as a Nazi executioner. "That's not who I am," he says. He reveals that his film showed Joseph Stalin in 1954, which isn't possible in this timeline. Are the films some sort of Rorschach test of destiny? Do they show people what they need to see?
Heydrich wants to know if Smith has answers about the films. He thinks he'll be the most powerful person in the world when Wegener assassinates Hitler, which should happen soon. He wants to hear Smith pledge his loyalty to Heydrich before anyone learns the Führer is dead.
At the same time, we see Wegener going into Hitler's office. He sees a film of the Allies winning the war. Is Hitler actually the Man in the High Castle? The men speak of what might have been: "Destiny lies in the hands of a few men." Hitler has a library of the films and knows Heydrich sent Wegener to kill him. He knows Wegener is a man with a guilty conscience and manipulates that guilt, pointing out that his death will only lead to an attack on Japan and more bloodshed. He's cutting a deal to save his own life.
The phone rings in the cabin with Smith and Heydrich. Smith says nothing. Hitler is on the other end of the line, not Wegener. Smith shoots Heydrich, then Wegener kills himself. I know the scene was directed to heighten tension, but how did this phone call happen? Wegener was pointing a gun at Hitler. That's a bit much in terms of plot holes. If Wegener shot himself and then Hitler called Heydrich, though, it wouldn't have been nearly as tense.
Meanwhile, Frank finds out that they caught the guy who shot the Crown Prince, and realizes it must be Ed. He has to save him. While he's running to do so, Juliana brings Joe to the spot where Lem will kill him. Not unlike Hitler, Joe makes a case for sparing his own life. "I might be a different man if I'd met you sooner. Well, I am. You changed me. That's why I'm not the guy on this film." She falls for it, letting Joe escape on a boat. "What have you done?"
In the cliffhanger of an epilogue, Tagomi goes for a walk. He sits on a bench, meditating, a good man brought down by tragedy and dissent. He pulls out Juliana's locket and holds it as he meditates. When he opens his eyes, he's in our timeline — the Americans have won the war. The flag is flying, a baseball game plays on the radio, and a poster for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita is plastered on a nearby building. As we hear the refrain of "round and round" on the soundtrack, the episode ends. We're left hanging.
- The opening theme song of "Edelweiss" may not be the best one for a show designed for binge-viewing. I'm glad I don't have to hear it again for a while. Too creepy.
- Time to hand out the season's acting MVPs: Rufus Sewell, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rupert Evans and Carsten Norgaard. Let's hope the show develops better roles for women in season two. We really only had Juliana this season, and she wasn't very well-rounded, often bouncing from plot twist to plot twist.
- The best episodes of season one were shorter than the typical Amazon/Netflix running time of close to an hour. "A Way Out" was 59 minutes and felt fat in the middle. Next season, they'd be wise to stick closer to 45 minutes for each episode.
- Where do you think The Man in the High Castle goes from here, assuming there's a season two? Is Tagomi stuck in the "real" timeline? And if he is, who else can get there?