The Man in the High Castle
This season of The Man in the High Castle asks one thoroughly interesting question: When would a fascist regime possibly be satisfied? If it was determined that we could access alternate planes of reality, wouldn’t the next question be who gets to rule them? It’s arguably been too much of an undercurrent this season and not foregrounded enough but it’s a scary thing to consider that this program not only imagines a world in which the Nazis won WWII in an alternate reality but one in which they’re building a device to win it in ours too.
That may be the background, but this episode is really about a reunion — bringing Juliana Crain, Frank Frink, and Ed McCarthy back together. It’s a good idea, and arguably something that should have happened earlier. Not only do these performers have a comfortable, believable rapport, they have more purpose now that they’re back together. BFFs reunited with no less a purpose than the end of fascism. Let’s keep ’em together for the last three.
“Excess Animus” opens with one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of the show. Nakamura is tied to a pole, clearly having been severely beaten. Kido doesn’t just kill Nakamura, he orders his men to, one by one, stab him with a bayonet. It’s an amazingly painful, brutal way to die. It’s cruel and horrible and hard to watch. Kido doesn’t look away. It’s good to be reminded that this character is a merciless monster. Don’t let the occasional moments of humanity fool you.
John Smith may work for the Nazis, but he’s much less of a monster, still haunted by what happened to his son Thomas. In fact, his grief may have surpassed that of his wife Helen, who seems to be doing very well in therapy. Perhaps she’s doing too well? There’s a dream sequence about her therapist and a moment when she touches his shoulder in the real world that feel ominous. And when Helen seems unresponsive to John’s flirting later in the episode, it’s time to worry that the writers are going to make Helen Smith into even more of a liability for her husband by having an affair with her therapist. We’ll see.
More than any episode so far, a lot of “Excess Animus” takes place at Sabra, the Jewish community near Denver. After dropping Wyatt off to get them traveling papers, Juliana heads to Sabra in an effort to build the Resistance. Her plan is to show Sampson and his people the most important film, the one that most dramatically shows the Allies winning World War II in our reality. The idea is that seeing that victory is possible creates hope. That concept — that seeing something that hasn’t happened but could can spark passion — has been the most compelling element of The Man in the High Castle, so it’s nice to see them exploring it at the end of this one.
Juliana shows the film to the people of Sabra, relatively quickly getting Ed and Frank on her side, but most of the people there seem unengaged. It’s good that the writers didn’t just turn everyone in the community into Resistance fighters, especially given the hidden nature of this religious group. They know a harsh reality; fantasy isn’t going to have an immediate impact. But there are a few who seem engaged, and Juliana knows that it only takes a few. Her plan, with Frank, is to show the film to everyone they can. Get it on the biggest screens in the Japanese Pacific States. Like Frank’s drawings of “Sunrise,” perhaps they will help feed a revolution.
It’s also worth mentioning the emotional undercurrent of the Sabra plotline this week. This show often lacks in real human emotion, so it was nice to see Juliana moved to tears by the sight of Frank and laughing giddily when she spots Ed. There’s also a lovely chemistry between Lilah and Sampson, who looks honestly surprised when she kisses him. This show has needed a ragtag group of heroes to fight the more magnetic villainous characters like Kido and Smith. This is one of the few episodes recently in which it felt like they found one.
Most of the action went down in the Neutral Zone, but we do need to talk about the poor fate of Robert Childan, the antiques dealer who came back to San Francisco to find his belongings and home taken over by the Japanese. He uses his few remaining funds to hire a prostitute and then uses his whole hour dressing her in Japanese garb. He’s unable to even afford the tea ceremony. That doesn’t stop the Yakuza from beating him later for more cash, pushing Childan back to his store, where he’s arrested for trespassing, robbery, and assault. This final incident brings him into the grip of Kido, who knows that Robert knew Ed, who knew the notorious Frank Frink. After another beating, Robert confesses that he was hanging out with Ed at a hotel in Denver called the Grand Palace. Kido now has a destination.
He also has some more information. Sensing that Kido really wants to find Juliana, Tagomi goes to the madman and pleads for him to not hand her over to the Reich. Kido wants the truth. He asks about Trudy Walker, the woman he knows he killed, but who popped up again in San Francisco. Tagomi tells them they are different people, even if they have the same fingerprints. “One is from this world, the other is not of this world,” Tagomi says. And he admits that he too is a traveler. He tries to convince Kido that the Nazis are trying to take over not only this world, but all realities, and that Ms. Crain is trying to stop them. Does Kido believe him? Does he care?
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• Sometimes the smallest production design touches are the most interesting part of this show. This episode included reel-to-reel recorders with swastikas on the reels and a shot of a lamp in Smith’s office with a base made up of that harrowing icon.
• Much credit to the physical work required by Brennan Brown this episode, who gets beaten up twice and tied to a chair. Robert is an interesting character, and it was nice to see him get a plotline of his own this week. I only hope that it isn’t the last we see of him. Given how Kido typically treats his interrogation subjects, there’s a chance it is.
• Another bit of credit to Jeffrey Nordling, who I remember doing underrated work on the excellent Once and Again in the early 2000s and has been a consistent TV presence since then. Having said that, I expect his character here to get close enough to Helen Smith to get himself killed any episode now.
• Anyone notice the show is a bit sexier this season? Juliana and Joe, Thelma and Nicole, maybe Juliana and Frank (or Juliana and Wyatt?), even Helen is dreaming about her sexy shrink and Ed has found love. Even when fascism is rising, people have their needs.