In the hyper-competitive streaming era, a series rarely gets a second chance to make a good first impression. If you found the first season of The Man In The High Castle boring and gave up on it, who could blame you? For the most part, it was boring. Subsequent seasons showed improvement after the departure of original showrunner Frank Spotnitz, but not to a buzz-worthy degree, even though Amazon claims the series as one of its most-viewed originals. Now that the fourth and final season has arrived, how many of those viewers who bailed on the show early on will be willing to play catch-up, even if they’re told the new episodes are the best of the bunch by far?
Two things can be true at the same time, as the show’s characters learned when a portal between parallel Earths opened toward the end of last season. It’s true that The Man In The High Castle has finally become the show it was meant to be, but it’s also true that the fourth and final season is a little late in the game for that to happen. If you’ve stuck with the show all this time, however, this is your reward: a conclusion that’s thematically rich, often exciting, and as satisfying a wrap-up to the series as one could hope for under the circumstances.
With yet another set of showrunners at the helm (Daniel Percival and David Scarpa replace Eric Overmyer, who oversaw the third season), High Castle launches its final phase with much of its original cast out of the picture. Joe (Luke Kleintank) and Frank (Rupert Evans) were both killed at the end of last season, but given the existence of a multiverse of alternate Earths, the actors could have been brought back as alt-versions of their characters. Not only does that not happen, but Ed (DJ Qualls) is nowhere to be seen and, most surprisingly, Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the man who first pierced the dimensional barrier, exits early in the new season. Whether this decision was creative or contractual, it feels abrupt and almost disrespectful of the character’s importance to the big picture.
As for the returning cast, the fourth season premiere “Hexagram 64” picks up right where we left off, with John Smith (Rufus Sewell) shooting Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) right before she warps into a parallel universe. The wounded Juliana falls into the path of a car and is rescued by the driver and his son. They happen to be John Smith and his son Thomas, who is very much alive on this alternate Earth. This version of Smith is a traveling insurance salesman living in small town America with his wife and son, but no daughters. If this reality is not our own, it’s a lot closer to it: The Nazis didn’t win the war here.
After a time-jump of a year, we pick up with the rest of the characters. Kido is investigating a political assassination that threatens the stability of the Pacific States at a time when Japan is becoming embroiled in a war with China. That war has affected Kido directly, as his son has recently returned from battle and is clearly suffering from PTSD. Sensing weakness, the American Reich is making incursions into the Neutral Zone, where Reichsmarschall John Smith’s wife Helen and their two daughters have been living with Helen’s brother, a farmer. Smith’s scientists have perfected the portal between worlds and have been conducting surveillance on the alt-Earth with an eye toward invasion. So it is that Smith learns his son is alive in this other world, and the possibility exists that he will see Thomas again.
We meet new characters as well. As the timeframe moves into the mid-’60s, an analogue to the Black Power movement is introduced in the Pacific States. The Black Communist Rebels are led by Equiano Hampton (Supergirl’s David Harewood), along with the Angela Davis-inspired Bell Mallory (Frances Turner) and her husband Elijah (Cle Bennett). The BCR forms an alliance with Wyatt Price (Jason O’Mara) and his resistance forces for a tense assault on the Japanese leadership in the second and third episodes of the season. Having lived on the alt-Earth for a year, Juliana is now convinced the resistance can break the Nazi hold on the America she came from.
The Man In The High Castle departed from Philip K. Dick’s source material long ago, with last season taking a turn toward hard sci-fi in lieu of Dick’s more allegorical vision. The final season restores the philosophical questions Dick wrestled with to a certain extent. Were the choices that made us who we are ever really ours to make? Did we get to our place in life through sheer luck, and if so, how easily could things have gone the other way? Would you be the same person under any circumstances? If you found out you were the worst possible version of yourself, would it be too late to change?
In addition to these existential matters, the final season is largely about war. The story of Kido and his son parallels that of alt-John Smith and Thomas, who is considering joining the service to fight in Vietnam. In any reality, it seems, war is inevitable. One conflict might be avoided, but that only opens the door to another. In such a system, what choice does the resistance have but to adopt the same tactics? As it has done all along, The Man In The High Castle can’t help but mirror our own current circumstances and force us to confront some of the same questions the characters contend with.
As the conclusion nears, those characters come to terms with who they’ve become, each in their own way. Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say the ending isn’t one Philip K. Dick would have written. But for the show The Man In The High Castle has become over its four seasons, it delivers just the right mixture of resolution and lingering mystery.