The Man in the High Castle Season 3: The Reluctant Rise of John Smith

The cast of The Man in the High Castle reflect on their roles in season 3 and how the show is more relevant today than ever.

The alternate history presented in The Man in the High Castle in which the Nazis won World War II became all too real during a visit to the set of season 3 at this same time last year. In a massive rally scene in simulated Nazi-occupied New York City, housewives and businessmen in 50s-era garb and swastika armbands rubbed shoulders with Hitler youth and SS soldiers, all gathered to celebrate a new initiative within the American Reich that will be a big part of the new season, including a distinct shift in the power dynamic.

John Smith’s rise to power after the shake-up at the end of last season, for example, may end up being more restrictive than liberating for him and his family, and the tension on set reflected the carefully controlled nature of the scene. However, the filming of the rally also took place mere weeks after the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, lending the crowd scene another chilling level of relevance that will likely be felt when The Man in the High Castle returns to Amazon on October 5, 2018 for its third season.

Rufus Sewell, who plays Smith, noted that he didn’t have to take a huge leap to incorporate the alternate version of the past depicted in The Man in the High Castle. “You don’t have to shift the 1950s Americana idea very far for it to work in complete tandem with Nazi ideology because what remains of that world in terms of the advertising and the television is more or less white, Anglo-Saxon, male-oriented,” Sewell said. “You don’t have to change it much; it’s practically already there for you. So as an actor, you don’t need to adjust your world view terribly much.”

Bella Heathcote, who became a series regular in season three playing Lebensborn filmmaker Nicole Dormer, shared that seeing reality mirror the show gave the story an even greater purpose both for her as an actor and for the audience. “It kind of made me proud to be on this show in a way because it’s like we’re actually dealing with it and showing the pitfalls of demagoguery,” she said. “It can kind of take your breath away sometimes when you walk into these sets. Thank God for the green screens because you can go, ‘Oh, it’s not real!’… When you see all the swastikas, and it can be a bit overwhelming.”

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Production designer Drew Boughton acknowledged the difficulty of detaching from a backdrop that seems so real and possible in today’s political climate. “The more we make it seem like it’s almost normal, the creepier it is, the more relevant to our present time it is, the more insidiously disturbing it is… and I hope that what we’re doing can show that,” he said. “That we can actually turn the mirror on ourselves in a really effective way to be really, really vigilant about what we’re doing right now. Meanwhile, we’re all having fun playing in this sandbox, but our overall objective is to get out of the sandbox that we’re in now.”

Once the actors and the audience get past the horrifying historical premise, however, The Man in the High Castle still manages to make even some of its Nazi characters sympathetic by presenting viewers with the consequences of their complicity. “With Smith, there is no rise in his fortunes that doesn’t coincide with the opposite internally because there’s a huge price to be paid,” Sewell explained. “He’s hitched himself to a wagon that has started to demand bigger and bigger payments of him. The higher he goes, the bigger the danger grows. Initially, his idea was that he would protect his children, but actually it’s the very thing that he sought to protect that’s the most in danger.”

Shouts of “Sieg Heil!” from the many extras in the scene being filmed behind the interviewees brought home the discomfort of the situation in which John Smith and his wife Helen, played by Chelah Horsdal, find themselves this season, having moved from the suburbs to the big city. Horsdal admitted it was a bit of an adjustment for her character. “One of the things you’ll see this year is her struggle to try and reconcile that they are still the same family that they were,” she said. “It’s like having a dress put on you that doesn’t feel right and trying to figure out how to make it your own… It is trying to cope with the uncomfortable in these very urban circumstances. She loved their life in Long Island — it was perfect!”

Since John Smith essentially foiled the conspiracy within the Nazi ranks last season, there will be many in leadership positions expecting him to represent the American Reich in season 3 of The Man in the High Castle, but Sewell insisted it’s not because of his character’s personal ambitions. “He might have moved to the city, and he’s moved to what appears to be a flashier place, but that’s not because he has natural ambition to improve his lot so to speak,” he said.

“The fact that he was living in this seemingly very expensive but quiet part of town in his family home when we first met the character is not because he lacked means but because of an outlook he had, a certain attempt to maintain humility that was very much a part of his character, and I don’t believe that’s changed,” Sewell continued. “It’s just there’s been a change in his circumstances, and it’s meant that he’s come under pressure to make a move that outwardly looks like a social climb upwards. But that was not the purpose behind it.”

Horsdal concurred with this view of the Smiths, adding that Helen is a woman bound by the social norms of the time and of the current Nazi regime. “I don’t think that she looks at herself as being necessarily the wife of someone powerful; she’s just a partner to John, who happens to have climbed to these heights,” she said. “It was never his objective; he’s not ambitious. So it’s not as though they got into this with the ambitions of achieving this. It has really just been pure circumstance that has led them to where they are and his very clear abilities and probably the woman behind the man.”

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Interestingly, whereas Sewell and Horsdal see the Smiths as stuck with what Nazi society expects of them, Heathcote noted that Nicole will be exercising greater freedom in The Man in the High Castle season 3. “Last year I was there really to support Joe Blake and to try and encourage him to use his father’s position and power to further his own cause and to further my cause, and this year, I think I’m more independent. I go to New York, and my career’s really blossoming.”

Whether Nicole’s coming to America as a documentary filmmaker will bring her closer to the mysterious films that stand at the center of The Man in the High Castle’s vision of this world versus our own remains to be seen, but Heathcote is looking forward to exploring an aspect of her character that was only mentioned briefly in season two. “[Nicole] talked a lot about being a filmmaker but didn’t actually make any, and I get to make some this season, which is really fun,” she said. “I’m kind of like the next generation of Leni Riefenstahls. I think my filmmaking’s a bit more avant garde, and I’ve got a different style to hers and a bit more modern, but that’s definitely the path that I’m following.”

In the end, Sewell and the other actors portraying Nazi characters have no illusions about the kind of people those who cooperate with the regime really are. When asked about any new relationships Smith might encounter in season 3 of The Man in the High Castle, which returns to Amazon on Friday, October 5, 2018, Sewell answered, however tongue-in-cheek, “If I develop a new friend, chances are I’m going to kill them within an episode, so I relish the opportunity to work with new characters who might survive. So there’s a possibility some of the people I meet might live in this season, but — well, it remains to be seen.”

Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter.