This spoiler-free review of The Man in the High Castle is based on viewing the first five episodes.
The Man in the High Castle has had its ups and downs over the past three seasons, but if the first episodes of season 4 made available for review are any indication of the season to come, this may be one of those rare instances where a series improves with age. Although the political plot of the Pacific States is stuck on repeat, storylines involving John Smith and Juliana Crain are, as usual, the highlight of the series, and a new twist on the Resistance provides plenty of action and intrigue. Luckily, the opening of possibilities for trans-dimensional travel is treated with admirable subtlety, and it serves as an opportunity for some truly compelling character development and spycraft.
That’s not to say The Man in the High Castle season 4 ignores the original intent of Die Nebenwelt, the Nazi project in the Pennsylvania mines designed to travel to other worlds. The Führer does intend to open the portal to conquer new lands for the Reich, but as the new Reichsmarschall, John Smith has wisely chosen in this new season to mine the alternate dimensions for technological advancements and intelligence. But the brilliance of his plan is that it’s not only a better strategic use of the tunnel; it’s also a method by which he can investigate the veracity of evidence that his son Thomas is alive and well in the universe where the Allies won the war.
Juliana’s ability to traverse dimensions is also encouragingly used to its full advantage in The Man in the High Castle season 4. After escaping imprisonment in last season’s finale by meditating right into another existence, what could have been a stagnant or over-indulgent view of our world is instead a wonderful exploration of what could have been. In fact, her ability both allows her to see the dangers of Nazi sabotage from her home reality and takes her into a deeper mystery involving Tagomi and some unfinished business. There’s even a wonderful story arc involving alt-Thomas Smith’s desire to join the Marines in the early days of the conflict in Vietnam and Juliana’s clarity about what’s really worth giving one’s life for.
As usual, it’s these character moments that really carry The Man in the High Castle, much moreso than any science fiction or alternate history elements. For example, with Helen having left the Reich with her children in tow at the end of season 3, season 4 has the opportunity to show us what happens to indoctrinated youth and disillusioned mothers after they spend a year in the Neutral Zone. Even as John insists that his family return home to New York, the influence of “black music” and living without fear or scrutiny has a profound influence on the Smith family dynamic in the new season.
Black culture in general comes to the forefront in The Man in the High Castle season 4 to very great effect, and introducing a new faction of the resistance known as the “Black Communist Rebellion” in the Pacific States brings much more gravitas to the fight against oppression. Frances Turner (The Gifted) does a wonderful turn as an unlikely head of a BCR cell alongside her husband, Elijah, played by Clé Bennett (Homeland), and their urban guerrilla movement packs much more punch than any previous rebel group in the series. It doesn’t hurt that the BCR leader, Equiano Hampton, is played by the incomparable David Harewood (Supergirl) in a guest role that highlights his powerful charisma.
Even Wyatt Price, Jason O’Mara’s underutilized character from season 3, carries much more narrative weight in this final season of The Man in the High Castle. His band of neutral zone fighters have a number of action-packed sequences involving both the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States, and their tactics feel much more cohesive and give their part of the show a kind of caper or spy-story feel. Wyatt does pull some miraculous escapes from danger that stretch credibility at times, but the convenient victories are pleasant to behold nonetheless, especially when Wyatt and his crew cooperate with the BCR.
The only weak spot in the season is a recurring flaw: the repeated use of a failing Japanese occupation in the Pacific States. In The Man in the High Castle season 4, there’s a bit of an interesting twist involving the royal family of the Empire, but the use of yet another general with a hawkish approach that is at odds with Inspector Kido’s increasingly more conciliatory ways has the show returning to the well too many times. Kido has a side plot involving his son, who is experiencing PTSD after his time fighting in Manchuria, but it is not enough to carry the story of the Japanese crackdown on the BCR and the whisperings of withdrawing from North America.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy elsewhere in The Man in the High Castle, including more wonderful unintentional comedy and uncanny insight from Brennan Brown’s Robert Childan, who continues to have great success followed by colossal failure in season 4. Stephen Root as Hawthorne Abendsen has some unexpected but delightful developments for his original “man in the high castle” character as the Germans attempt to use propaganda to combat the spreading awareness of the films. In the end, the show has left some of its less effective storylines at the wayside and strengthened its final season with only the best aspects of its strong characters, compelling alternate history, and mysterious but promising cross-dimensional possibilities. Fans will not be disappointed!
The Man in the High Castle season 4 premieres on Amazon Prime Video on November 15, 2019.