The Man in the High Castle
After a wonderful intro that sees the return of Stephen Root as Hawthorne Abendsen, aka The Man in the High Castle, now forced into a role as a Rod Serling for the Nazi propaganda machine, “Happy Trails” becomes another chapter heavy on wheel-spinning but with a solid final 15 minutes. There’s a disturbing pattern this season in which it really feels like one could skip the first half of each episode and still get the “good stuff,” and pretty much be able to follow what’s happening. Let’s hope that changes.
Much like Helen Smith returned to New York last episode, Juliana Crain decides she’s not going to wait around anymore for the Nazis to come and get her. She “travels” back to her original timeline, allowing for some nice production design regarding the state of Washington DC, including the decimated rubble of the Lincoln Memorial. Juliana is quickly picked up by inept authorities, whom she even more quickly escapes from, finding her way back to a Resistance. Here’s the key question that the show hasn’t really answered, though: How did Juliana’s time in the “good” reality change her? If she just returns to the Resistance to topple the Reich, will it feel like a narrative waste of time?
Meanwhile, John and Helen Smith are preparing for an important dinner with Fuhrer Heinrich Himmler. They’re both not-so-subtly threatened by people allied with Himmler, including a new rising star in the party for John and Himmler’s horrendous better half for Helen. The former meets with Smith about moving to New York, clearly threatening his position. The latter throws a bunch of passive-aggressive strudel at the feet of Helen Smith about her being away and how to be a good Nazi wife.
There’s some junk about Kido investigating corruption and how the Resistance hurt their cause, but the next major moment comes when John learns from his Nazi Terminator that, well, he’s been murdered. Sewell’s pause is glorious on “You killed…me?” You can tell he understands that John almost enjoys the insanity of it all, and that he knows now that he can just Marty McFly the whole thing and step right into the shoes of the Salesman of the Year. But what about Helen? Could he leave her in this reality with his daughters and just go live with his son and the other Helen in ours?
Again, we’re distracted by Juliana forced to convince people of her worth again by teaching them about the New Deal and Kido doing some espionage stuff that doesn’t matter until we zip back to the real draw of this episode: Himmler Dinner! The Himmlers brought toys, chocolates, and their new Aryan favorite son for the dinner. While showing off her German, young Amy Smith betrays her mother’s story about being away to take care of a sick brother, and one could cut the tension with a sausage knife. Helen is worried that they’re building a case against her for leaving New York and possibly even her husband for letting it happen. During dinner, Himmler yells about germ warfare and clearly has one of those coughs that’s bad enough in episode four that you know he’ll be dead of tuberculosis or something by episode eight. Himmler also speaks of smiling faces all around him but absolutely no one he can trust. He doesn’t want John’s loyalty; he wants his devotion. The former is easy to fake; the latter could get you killed.
It turns out that the awesome cameo by Emmy nominee Stephen Root (isn’t that fun to say?) in the opening wasn’t it for Hawthorne Abendsen this episode. Joining up with him again, we learn that he’s not only a reticent part of the propaganda machine but that he’s doing so in order to keep his wife alive. Again, the theme of having something to fight for returns, although it can sometimes be double-edged. He’s doing what he’s doing just to keep her breathing and so he can see her, but he’s harming the cause. She wants him to stop. We also get a wonderful scene between Root and Sewell — they should really be in a buddy comedy — in the creepy room with the multiverse map. They discuss how what happens in one universe can impact another. What impact will the death of John Smith in one timeline have on this John Smith?
Well, it’s gonna turn him into a Nazi Stargate jumper, that’s what! He’s going in. The Nazi leader gets his wedding ring from the real timeline that the man who killed, well, him retrieved, and dons an ordinary beige suit. No one will even notice. Well, as long as he can keep the Seig Heils to a minimum.
Join the Resistance
• The very existence of a show like Tales from the High Castle is one of the cleverest touches so far. Of course the Nazis would make a politically blatant sci-fi show. After all, that’s the cover they’re using to explain the Man in the High Castle’s films in the first place — that they’re just sci-fi. And the entire premise of the show is something straight out of an episode of the clear inspiration here, The Twilight Zone.
• Smith discusses the theory with Abendsen that just observing something changes it, which Hawthorne informs him is the Heisenberg Theory. No, not Walter White’s nickname, the actual Uncertainty Principle, which you can read more about here. In this context, it’s a bit odd. Is Smith wondering if just going to our timeline will alter it? Or are the writers just showing off their big brains?
• Anyone else think Alexa Davalos is a bit weak this year? She’s always been best with a strong partner, and she’s been left on her own a lot so far this season, failing to really convey the fear and confusion that Juliana Crain would be feeling — although that’s partially the fault of the writers too, who seem to be unsure of what to do with her without her male counterparts.
• It could have been tempting to completely invent brands, celebrities, etc. in this universe, but the writers have stayed incredibly loyal to reality. Even the chocolates that Herr Himmler gives the Smith family are from a real shop in Vienna: Demel Café.
• While I’ve been a little hard on this season for a lack of “final year” tension, much love to the producers who decided to make a few episodes closer to 45 minutes than 60, like these last two. Most TV is too long. Keep up the good fight.