The Man in the High Castle
The incredible cinematographer and director Ernest Dickerson helms the best episode of The Man in the High Castle in a long time, certainly the best of this season. This episode had the tight pacing that this show so often lacks, finally reuniting Juliana Crain and Joe Blake, deepening John Smith’s understanding of the crazy world of this show, and ending in a cliff-hanger that fans of the show kind of saw coming.
One of the reasons this episode works better than so many others is the focus brought to it by Dickerson and the writers this week. There are subplots like Ed/Robert in no-man’s-land and the return of Hagen, but this hour unfolds primarily on two fronts — in New York City with the Smiths and Joe/Juliana/Tagomi in the Japanese Pacific States. What makes it even more satisfying is both arcs thematically intersect in the closing scenes as their main protagonists watch films of alternate realities that devastate them. In one, Juliana Crain watches Joe Blake shoot her and then himself; in the other, John Smith sees his dead son Thomas in an alternate, happier reality in which he’s still alive.
The episode opens with Juliana watching that film in which she’s a prisoner in an underground tunnel, stopped and shot by an SS soldier who then shoots himself. Did anyone else know it was Joe doing the shooting the first time they saw it? The episode treats it like a revelation in the closing scenes but it looks like him from the first time it’s shown, and the whole show is about how certain people will make historical differences no matter the alternate reality. Juliana Crain is one of those people; Joe Blake is another.
Before their reunion, we get to see how tough Joe Blake has become as a Nazi enforcer. He has tracked one of the few remaining traitors who tried to overthrow the Reich and executes him in his own home, only after killing the two Japanese guards in the car outside. Joe has clearly been hardened by his torture and forced execution of his father. This is Joe Blake, Killing Machine. And yet something in him shifts when he sees Juliana at the reception — and actor Luke Kleintank is very effective at conveying how Juliana may be the only thing left in this world that Joe really cares about, but he can’t show that too explicitly or possibly be deemed a traitor. They chitchat and catch up at the reception, but it’s not long before Joe is whispering her name.
Meanwhile, John Smith has covered up the death of Alice Adler at the hands of his wife, Helen. Will this draw the Smiths closer together? Shared secrets have a tendency to do that. He tells her that she has to change her public face. Stop drinking and popping pills in public. She can’t go to therapy. They need to be the face of the Reich, and that face needs to be strong.
This theme is emphasized later in the episode at the premiere of Nicole Dormer’s film about the “sacrifice” made by Thomas Smith. At a really awkward public event that’s basically using their son’s death as fuel for the propaganda machine, John and Helen Smith have to smile and nod. John drops the cover story about the Adler murder for his new press contact Thelma at the party, but suspicion is starting to grow that the Smiths had something to do with one or both of their deaths. And then there’s the film. It’s kind of horrendous, centering not Thomas but John as the new strong face of the Empire — he’s the patriarch so inspiring that his own son sacrificed his life for his cause. The film calls him “Father to the entire nation.” Even as everyone gives him and the film a standing ovation, John Smith looks reticent to take that title.
Part of that reticence could come from Smith’s discovery of the alternate realities that resulted in the films of the Man in the High Castle, learning that some people can even travel between the worlds. Earlier in the episode, he’s shown a test subject who is also a “traveler,” and then told he has to watch some of the films to gain as much knowledge from them as possible. Anyone who’s watched this show this far knows what will result from this — John Smith sees Thomas, who looks a little older and happier, in one of the films. Rufus Sewell is great in all of these scenes, particularly the first one, in which he has to silently convey Smith’s awe at what he’s being shown and the intellectual dissection going on internally about what to do about it (as well as, it appears, wondering even then if this means Thomas could “travel” back to him from a reality in which he didn’t die).
Finally, it appears that Joe and Juliana are on a collision course to Lackawanna. That’s the location of the film in which Joe shoots Juliana in the tunnel, and it’s a location gleaned not from the reel itself but from Juliana’s “memory” of the alternate reality (the show is playing kind of fast and loose with what Juliana knows and how she knows it, but whatever). After an extended conversation in which it’s unclear if Joe wants to rejoin Juliana in the Resistance or recruit her into the Reich, Juliana doesn’t know how much she can trust her former beau. But she knows that he matters. Even as he says to trust her before shooting her in the head.
Finally, Kido and the Japanese capture the “Criminal Priest Hagen” and torture him, interrogating him until he finally says three words so faintly that he has to repeat them: “Frank … Frink … Alive.”
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• A little Dickerson love: His cinematography on Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X should have won him Oscars. He’s been a prolific TV director over the last few decades, helming multiple episodes of Dexter, Treme, The Walking Dead, and Bosch. Let’s hope he does more High Castle.
• A thought I had this week even as I enjoyed watching Joe and Juliana reunite: Might there be a stronger version of The Man in the High Castle that really centered John Smith as the protagonist in every episode? Joe and Nicole, and maybe even Juliana, could have been supporting characters, but he’s the most interesting role and filled by the best performer. Just a thought.
• I cringed at the line, “Is Dr. Mengele gonna be there tonight?” Creepy.
• Robert Childan refers to wanting memorabilia from Rockwell — “Norman, not George Lincoln.” You probably know who Norman Rockwell is, but if you’re unfamiliar with George Lincoln Rockwell, he founded the American Nazi Party, and is working with J. Edgar Hoover on this show to topple Smith.
• Smith refers to the concept of reality traveling as being “Like something out of Fredric Brown.” He probably couldn’t have said Philip K. Dick without the show being a bit too on the nose.
• Smith is shown behind the curtain at a place called the Ahnenerbe Institute. If you’re unfamiliar with Nazi history, you may not know that’s the name of a think tank within the party up to and during the war. More here.