Despite its high production values, disturbingly relevant through-line about encroaching fascism, and creative pedigree that included not only sci-fi author Philip K. Dick but also former X-Files writer and producer Frank Spotniz, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle often felt overwhelmed by and occasionally lost in its own immense storytelling ambitions. The series seemed at odds with its slow-burn exploration of the spread of authoritarianism, in an alternate reality where Nazi Germany and Japan won World War II, and its need to deliver the kind of fast-paced genre entertainment that not only ensures subscribers continue subscribing to Amazon Prime. For all intents and purposes, that need now also extends to the streaming service's efforts to garner the kinds of accolades and global attention earned by HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Suffice to say, The Man in the High Castle is no Game of Thrones, at least not yet. After Spotniz parted ways with Amazon during the production of season 2, the series drifted along, rudderless without a formal showrunner who had a vision of what the show's future looked like. The result, then, was a lackluster second installment that followed an admittedly slow-paced first season. By all accounts, it seemed as though Amazon’s ambitious foray into genre television was collapsing under the weight of its own concept. Caught between an attempt to deliver meaningful commentary about the fragility of democracy and nationalism’s easy seduction of a population, and its baser genre inclinations. At the start of season 3, it seems the latter has won out. Yet maybe The Man in the High Castle is better suited to such a story, one whose pursuits are more focused on twisty inter-dimensional dualities and, ultimately, a looming battle between the fascists in control of an altered reality and those fighting to free themselves of it.
That may not be what the original text was meant to cover, or the direction Spotniz himself intended to take the series, but it nevertheless pulls The Man in the High Castle out of the creative tailspin it was in following season 2. The climax of the second season established a solid foundation for the series moving forward, one that was apparently successful enough that Amazon already renewed the show for a fourth season. Those efforts pay off early, too, as the new season is much more focused in its presentation. Even though problems with pacing and and overall urgency still persist, showrunner Eric Overmyer has worked to streamline various character threads by aligning characters and giving them the opportunity to enact change.
By now it’s clear that Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) is the series’ primary protagonist, and that she is destined to have a tremendous impact on the Reich’s stranglehold of what was once the United States and, certainly, the rest of the world. The series isn’t exactly subtle about Juliana’s role in the story to come, either, as she comes to experience the sort of visions most saviors of mankind are prone to in stories such as this. As Juliana’s role becomes clear, so too do the roles of those assigned to support her. In addition to Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and her half-sister from another dimension, Trudy (Conor Leslie), Juliana finds herself in business (and more) with series newcomer Wyatt Price (Jason O’Mara), a black market dealer who takes a shine to her early on.
Juliana’s plot exists primarily to give weight to the idea that the Man in the High Castle’s films aren’t just peculiar examples of an alternate course of human events, but that they can somehow effect change in the reality in which this story is set. Juliana, as it turns out, is key to enacting that change, and the ways in which the series sets out to prove this gradually become more interesting, even as the series’ third season becomes more convoluted as it moves forward.
Much of that has to do with the story threads within the Reich, mainly the continued rise of John Smith (Rufus Sewell) and the conspiratorial path taken by Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), after his journey to Berlin in season 2 ended disastrously for him and his father, Martin Heusmann (Sebastian Roché). That these threads are so disparate from Juliana’s is often a cause for concern. Not only are the characters separated from each other by the better part of the country, but, thematically, they are miles apart as well. Smith is struggling to keep his family together in the wake of losing their chronically ill son, while Joe once again puts his loyalties to the test, aligning himself with one group and then the next.
These contrasting threads sometimes grind the story to a screeching halt. Viewers may well suffer narrative whiplash when an episode swings from Juliana’s attempt to send her sister back to her own dimension to John’s still-grieving wife Helen (Chelah Horsdal) violently assaulting a neighbor. But without them, The Man in the High Castle would lose its most appealing yet problematic asset: the immense scope of its narrative. The ability to jump from San Francisco to Colorado to New York and even Berlin instills the show with a sense of enormity befitting its concept. And in season 3, that enormity does more than build a fascinating, terrifying world; it helps create stakes for the characters, concretizes their place within that world and, in some cases, hints at how they may play a role in this world’s undoing.
It’s a risky bet, narrowing the ambitions of a show down to a fight between good and evil, but considering the troubling sense of aimlessness in the first two seasons, narrowing things down is a move in the right direction. That much is made clear as the season’s overarching plans come into focus. The more The Man in the High Castle gives in to its science fiction leanings, the more it entertains. It may not elevate the themes of the drama in quite the same way as originally intended, but at least the series’ newfound focus keeps it from getting lost in the sprawl of its own story.
The Man in the High Castle season 3 will stream on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, October 5.