As Chancellor Heusmann prepares for total nuclear war, Smith and Kido team up to find a path to peace
The season 2 finale of The Man in the High Castle doesn’t begin the way you might think it would. Rather than picking up with the immediate aftermath of the bomb Frank set off in the Japanese headquarters, “Fallout” begins with a flashback. It’s December 11, 1945, and John and Helen Smith have arrived at what seems to be a motel, or maybe their first apartment. They come into the small room, and John, outfitted in his original American military garb, rubs his wife’s belly, pregnant with their son, Thomas. Then, a huge explosion shakes the room. They look outside and see a gigantic mushroom cloud. Helen wonders aloud what’s happened. John knows: The Nazis have just bombed Washington.
That’s where the scene ends. It’s just a small peek into how this world, where John Smith is a Nazi official, and where the Nazis and Japanese occupy what we’d refer to as America, came to be formed. It’s an interesting choice, as The Man in the High Castle has always chosen to focus on the future, using its time travel conceit to vaguely explain the “propaganda” films. Here, the show looks backward, and it’s a brief moment that works to add some context to everything we’ve seen this season.
After that scene, we’re back to the aftermath of the bombing at the Japanese headquarters. Kido takes in the devastation around him. He’s hurt, bleeding badly from the leg, but he’s fine. More than that, he’s now the highest-ranking official following the death of the General. The future of the Japanese is in his hands.
Meanwhile, the Nazis are preparing their assault on the Japanese, a retaliation for the “act of war” that was the poisoning of Hitler. Chancellor Heusmann has sent more high-ranking forces to New York in order to help with the Resistance, and one of them recommends a drastic plan: make a statement by destroying a whole city where the uprising is particularly strong. He recommends Savannah, Georgia, which would amount to 86,000 deaths. As we learn later, that’s really just the beginning.
In a meeting in Berlin, Chancellor Heusmann takes a hard stance. He wants total global domination. He wants Tokyo destroyed in the first phase of bombing. He’s not interested in negotiated peace. Rather, he’s planning to conquer by force, assuring that the only race left on earth is the “master race.” His advisors estimate it will take them a mere two weeks to execute the full devastating plan, which would result in more than 20 million deaths worldwide.
Joe, the most ridiculous and boring character yet again this season, suddenly has a moral crisis when he hears his father’s plan. He tries to talk some sense into him, but the Chancellor is hearing none of it. What follows is some of the flimsiest, most inconsequential character work so far this season. Joe goes to Nicole with his dilemma. He just wants to do something so badly, but he doesn’t know what. All he knows is that it’s urgent. So urgent in fact that there’s time for an overdramatic sex scene followed by… Joe doing nothing.
Joe’s so-called moral crisis will be important to remember later when the show once again tries to hit an emotional note that it doesn’t earn, but for now let’s continue with an unlikely pair: John Smith and Inspector Kido.
The two men have always seemed to have some sort of grudging respect for one another, and that becomes important here. When Kido manages to secure a meeting with Smith, he shows him the film Tagomi brought from future San Francisco. It seems Smith also understands the strange nature of these films and is invested in keeping their time-traveling origins a secret. Still, he needs that film. It’s the only way to avoid total war, to keep his wife and kids safe.
Again, this is a bit of an unearned character turn. Smith has been a pretty ruthless Nazi for most of the show’s run, but now we’re supposed to see the good in him because he loves his son and because we got a two-minute flashback to when he was part of the American military? That’s hardly enough, considering the atrocities he’s responsible for. In fact, one of the more troubling aspects of the way the finale plays out is the villainization of the Resistance.
The “twist” of the finale is that Kido and Smith are working to prevent total war, while the Resistance are stubbornly charging ahead with murderous plots. Suddenly we’re supposed to see the humanity in the Nazis and Kempeitai and see the monstrousness of the Resistance. The Man in the High Castle is trying to add some moral wrinkles here, but they don’t really work. It reads as a simplistic, and rather out of touch, way of conveying dubious morals, rather than a twist that’s actually earned and in-line with the plot. So when Thomas sacrifices himself for the Reich, it ends up falling flat, rather than feeling like a true devastation to the Smith family. It’s just hard to empathize with Nazis, you know?
To the episode’s credit, “Fallout” does build to a rather thrilling final few scenes. There’s Smith covertly getting to Berlin and going to Joe with the film. That secures him an audience in Chancellor Heusmann and his military advisors, where Smith shows them the footage, that the Japanese have a new form of weaponry called the Hydrogen Bomb. Of course, Japan only has that power in the alternate future timeline, but that’s something Smith keeps hidden. His goal here is to avoid nuclear destruction.
What’s frustrating about this climax, though, which sees Smith have Heusmann arrested for treason after proving that he and Heydrich were responsible for poisoning Hitler in order to secure their own hold on the Reich, is that it’s filled with shoddy character motivations and rushed plot points. Joe, in particular, is a mess here. First, he complains that he can’t stop his father from killing millions of people, then when Smith presents him with an opportunity to do so he refuses until he learns that Juliana is still alive. So he won’t save millions of people like he stated, but he will try to save Juliana? But then when Smith has Heusmann arrested, Joe reacts as if he actually cares that the monstrous father he just met is being arrested.
These gaps in character motivation keep the finale from truly making an impact. Add in the last-second twist, where it’s revealed that the Man in the High Castle was betting on Juliana empathizing with the Nazis and shooting George, that her decision was the only thing that could stop the war, and that Trudy is seemingly still alive, and you have a finale that’s packed with twists simply for the sake of being packed with twists. They don’t do much to enhance the plot or themes and instead feel like cheap, ineffective shocks.
Again, perhaps the show does see a way forward in season 3, as this season ends with Lem showing up at Tagomi’s door with a box of films. Then again, The Man in the High Castle hasn’t exactly proven it can be trusted to follow through with its mysteries and storytelling. That said, season 2 was much more action-packed, and managed to latch on to a timely relevance every now and then. Here’s hoping it can harness that momentum heading into next season.