The fourth season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle will be the show’s last, leading fans to wonder whether the streaming-service hit will run out of ideas and limp to the finish line or give this epic sci-fi story an incredible closing chapter. It’s hard to tell after the season premiere, a slow episode that is either setting the table for more to come or a sign of the show spinning its wheels. In a world that has become dominated by stories of actual Nazis and #FakeNews, it sometimes feels like The Man in the High Castle is afraid to take risks with how it reflects its version of 2019, leaving us with an experience that can feel hollow. Add this sense of the show’s not quite living up to its potential to the roster of cast members who have departed, and the final season could wind up being more of a whimper than a bang.
The very long preseason recap should remind viewers that this is arguably the story of John Smith (Rufus Sewell) more than anyone else. The man who first felt like a supporting character in the saga of Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) has come to the front of the stage, and his slow pulling away from the party that made him a leader has been the most consistent subplot over three seasons. The last year left Smith alone after his wife, Helen (Chelah Horsdal), took off with their two girls when the loss of their son, Thomas, proved too much to bear. Smith also learned about the development of what we’ll call the “Nazi Stargate,” which the Reich is using to investigate alternate realities — including the one in which the Allies win World World II. Juliana jumped to that reality at the end of season three, and to start this one, she lands in a bed of flowers where she is nearly run over by John Smith 2.0. As the Beach Boys play on the car radio, the man who just tried to kill her in one reality carries her to safety in another.
In a shocking storytelling move, Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is assassinated without a line of dialogue or even a good look at his face. It’s kind of a lame way to write out a major character, but Tagawa might have been busy filming Lost in Space and let’s not forget that having alternate realities means no one is really dead in this universe. More important, the murder amplifies the already rising tensions between the Nazis and the Japanese. The crown princess orders Kido (Joel de la Fuente) to find Tagomi’s killer, but the military leaders around him don’t want to play that game. It’s more crucial that they stop the Reich, which is moving into the neutral zone in the center of the United States.
Cut to Denver, where we’re reunited with Wyatt Price (Jason O’Mara), the new, square-jawed, all-American lead of this show now that Joe Blake and Frank Frink are dead. The Nazis are moving west against the backdrop of a strengthening resistance led by black people. Finally, the series may really be starting to explore some of the racial underpinnings of a story about Nazis, something it has often seemed reluctant to do. The Japanese think the BCR — the Black Communist Rebellion — is behind the Tagomi assassination. Or do they? Could they just be pinning it on the BCR instead of igniting the cold war brewing with the Third Reich? Meanwhile, Price faces some setbacks in a scene that doesn’t really work for his character, but he’s quickly back on the horse, ready to fight the good fight. Can the white resistance join forces with the black one to topple the Nazis?
And what about Juliana? She’s in the “normal” time line now, but she knows the Nazis from her universe are working to come to this one. And she’s buddy-buddy with the guy who shot her in an alternate reality. Could that Smith be embedded in this one? The Man in the High Castle sometimes wastes opportunities to get truly philosophical. Is this leader of men really just a victim of circumstance? Is he more of an opportunist than anything else, or is the killer in the Nazi uniform the same person as the salesman of the year in an alternate reality where he was never forced to praise loyalty to Hitler?
Back to the Nazi Smith, who drops a plane and a few soldiers in a field in Montana to visit his wife and girls. What first seems like an understanding between John and Helen that she needs her space turns uglier when he basically orders her to return. Sewell is very good in the closing beats of this episode, mingling his sadness over his family with a high degree of anger. After all, he didn’t make the decision to support the Nazi Party alone; Helen was part of it. Why is he taking all the blame? So he takes his girls back to life in the Third Reich, leaving Helen alone in the heartland.
Finally, Tagomi may be gone, but he lingers in Juliana’s mind. She has visions of him drawing symbols in the sand with blurry soldiers on the horizon. She looks up the symbol from the vision to learn that it’s from the I Ching; it’s the hexagram that gives this episode its title: Wei Chi. She writes its meaning as “Not Yet Complete.” Nope, but we’re getting there.
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There’s a clever little song cue when Jennifer Smith is listening to “black music” early in the episode: “Farewell to Storyville” by Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Not only is the title a nice one to start the final season of a show based on alternate realities but it’s from a film called New Orleans and it’s about leaving home, another central theme of this episode and the series overall.
It feels like Amazon kept the budget high for this final season. The combat sequence in the Denver rail yard looks as good as any action scene in a streaming series lately.
Do you miss Frank and Joe? Do you think they could return in Juliana’s new time line? There are faces around, including O’Mara’s, that feel like shadows of the leading men who drove the first three seasons. At least so far.
Finally, some props to the producers for keeping the series creatively consistent throughout. The season premiere was written and directed by the same duo that did the third-season finale, Wesley Strick and Daniel Percival. Let’s hope they find a way to guide this show into its final port through what appear to be some choppy waters.