Heil Hitler! We’ve got about 2 months before the November 15 release of the final season of Amazon’s chilling alternate history series The Man in the High Castle. Since I haven’t recapped season 1 yet, I’m going to spend some of that time catching up. Recaps of seasons 2-4 are here, at the show’s tag. Season 2 was one of the first seasons I recapped on the blog and I was still figuring out my style, so if I get time someday I may revisit it more thoroughly.
For now, let’s journey back to both the Amazon Prime Video of 2015 and an alternate version of 1962, where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War 2. The Germans developed the atomic bomb first and dropped one on Washington DC, leading the US to surrender. 17 years later, Hitler continues to lead the German empire, while the Japanese continue to be led by Emperor Hirohito.
The two empires have divided the world between them, leaving various swaths open as lawless neutral zones. The eastern and midwestern portions of the former United States are now part of the Greater Third Reich. The West Coast states are now the Japanese Pacific States.
The Rocky Mountain and desert states are the Neutral Zone, which serve as a buffer between the Japanese and Germans, who are in a Cold War. The Neutral Zone also serves as an escape for the types of people neither empire wants and as a hub for the continent’s thriving black market.
The American Reich continues the racist, oppressives policies of the Nazis, but it is economically stable and technologically advanced for the time. There is a thriving middle class, however law, order, health and productivity are enforced with an iron fist. Life is great, as long as you’re able to conform to the Aryan ideal at all times. Needless to say, there is also a resistance movement.
The Japanese Empire hasn’t been able to keep up with the Germans technologically or economically, and this is reflected in the Japanese Pacific States. The capital city is San Francisco, where the action in the show takes place. Most non Japanese people are working class and down on their luck. The Japanese are much looser about allowing former US citizens to continue their culture, and much less racist than the Germans, but they are still oppressive toward non Japanese citizens.
The Japanese government is under continuous pressure from the Germans to tighten up restrictions on Jews and other unsavory types. The resistance also operates in the Japanese Pacific States. The Japanese fight back through their military secret police, the Kempeitai, whose methods are little better than the Nazis.
The episode begins with Jeanette Olsson’s awesomely spooky version of Eidelweiss, a song familiar to many from the musical The Sound of Music as the favorite of the anti Nazi Captain von Trapp. In the opening sequence, it plays over maps of the show’s post World War 2 North America and then a series of national monuments which slowly change from what we’re used to into the ones the Germans erect after winning the war, so it’s worth watching the visuals closely if you haven’t seen them before.
In a movie theater somewhere in New York City, Joe Blake watches a typical 1950s propaganda newsreel. The narrator exclaims over how well the country is doing, which is attributed to the amazing conformity, order, productivity and traditionalism that’s been achieved. This is all thanks to the foresight and wisdom of our leaders. A bald eagle, symbol of American freedom, flies across the screen. As a 20 foot tall American flag fills the screen, the narrator tells us that things are going to get even better. The narrator finishes with, “Sieg Heil,” and we notice that there’s a swastika where the stars should be on the flag.
As the film draws to a close, another man sits next to Joe and hands him a business card with a line drawing of an eagle on one side, which we’ll later learn is the symbol of the resistance. “Lariat manager” and an address are written on the other side. Joe pockets the card and walks out. A man notices him walk through the lobby.
Joe walks through the Times Square area, giving the audience a view of businesses and advertisements. The city looks much the same as the real version as he travels through it, but with more Nazi symbols. Plus it’s cleaner and the trains are faster. Gonna take a wild guess and say they run on time, too. There are various varieties of Nazi soldiers and police everywhere. The cleanliness and order are strictly enforced.
Joe goes straight to Lariat Shipping and tells the manager he was sent by a friend about a job. The manager isn’t impressed with Joe, since he’s a 27 year old kid who didn’t fight in the war and doesn’t remember what true freedom was like. What’s left of the resistance is full of Nazi spies, and the manager, Don Warren, has no reason to trust Joe or to believe he could handle the dangers of the job. If the Nazis catch him, he’ll be tortured, and is probably too young and uncommitted to stand up to it. Joe gives a fiery speech about his father, his honesty and his belief in the cause, so Don gives in.
A man named Doc brings in a map and explains that Joe needs to drive a truck full of coffee makers across the country into the Neutral Zone to Canon City, Colorado. Then he needs to wait until a contact gets in touch, if they do. If the contact thinks he’s been compromised, they’ll stay away. They give him a gun and some benzedrine, a drug he should take to keep him awake so he can drive the whole way straight through.
They won’t tell him what it is that he’s bringing that’s more dangerous than coffee makers, but they do tell him that he’ll never see them again. Just as they show him to the truck, the Nazis ambush them. There’s a shoot out between the shipping employees, who are really resistance members, and the Nazis. Joe shoots a Nazi to save Don, then escapes in the truck. Don and Doc run, but Don is captured. The employees of Lariat Shipping are executed while the Nazi leader, Obergruppenführer John Smith, supervises.
In a dojo in San Francisco, Juliana Crain practices aikido against a must larger man and brings him down. The teacher explains that aikido is about skill, not strength. Another student, Doni, approaches Juliana after class and asks her to tea. She has errands to run, so she arranges to meet him the next morning instead. Doni also admires her necklace, which she tells him was made by her boyfriend, Frank, who used to be an artist.
A banner on the street announces an upcoming visit to San Francisco by the crown prince and princess of Japan.
Juliana stops at a Chinese herb shop to buy gentian root and meadowsweet for her mother’s arthritis. While she’s there, her sister, Trudy, who she hasn’t seen for weeks, finds her. Trudy says that she’s gotten a job out of town and is only back briefly. She doesn’t want Juliana to tell their mom she was home, since she has to rush out again. She tells Juliana not to worry about her, because she’s “found the reason for everything.” Trudy looks happy when she says it. Then she hurries out of the shop.
As she pays for her herbs, Juliana wonders what just happened, and if she should be worried.
At her mother’s house, Juliana makes the tea and gives it to her mother, Anne, who’s watching a TV game show from the American Reich. Her mother doesn’t want Japanese tea, since she still hates the people who killed her husband during the war. Juliana assures her that the herbalist and herbs are Chinese. Anne continues to criticize Juliana for fraternizing with the Japanese. Her husband, Arnold, tells her to give Juliana a break. Juliana says her goodbyes.
Juliana meets her boyfriend, Frank Frink, in a tiny dive bar. Frank was drawing a portrait of Juliana while he waited for her. She tries to convince him to sell his art, but he reminds her that the Japanese think modern art is degenerate and aren’t interested.
They move on to discussing her aikido practice and her mother’s disapproval. Juliana finds aikido to be beautiful and doesn’t think her father would mind, since the men she studies with aren’t like the men he fought in the war. Frank is supportive of her, but also wonders if she’s ready to get a job, now that she’s recovered from her accident. It sounds like she’s been using aikido as physical therapy while she recovered from serious injuries.
Juliana asks Frank where he sees their lives going. He lists the normal milestones- marriage, kids. Juliana isn’t sure about having kids in a world like theirs, but Frank figures someone has to. He realizes that she’s worried because his grandfather was Jewish, so if they have children together, the kids would also be considered Jewish. If anyone found out, they’d be at risk. Frank doesn’t think they should let themselves be ruled by fear.
Their friend, Ed McCarthy, arrives at that moment, and Juliana decides to go home, taking the portrait with her. Ed notices Hitler on the TV news and points out that his left hand stays in his pocket. Ed explains that Hitler has Parkinson’s disease. His hand is in his pocket to hide the shaking. Goebbels and Himmler are the main rivals for his position when he dies. They speculate that he doesn’t have long, and when he’s gone, whoever takes over will bomb the entire West Coast so that the Reich can claim the entire continent.
Juliana runs into Trudy again in the alley outside her flat. Trudy shoves a small satchel into Juliana’s hand, tells her it’s a way out, then runs down the alley and out into the main road. The Japanese military secret police, known as the Kempeitai, chase Trudy and shoot her dead in the street while Juliana watches from the dark alley. The leader of the operation, Chief inspector Takeshi Kido, orders his men to search the area.
Juliana hurries inside her flat and discovers that Trudy handed her a film labelled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. She pulls out her projector and watches the film over and over, at first in confusion and eventually in tears. The film shows the Allied Forces winning the war.
She’s still watching when Frank gets home. He recognizes it as the work of The Man in the High Castle, a rumor Ed told him about. The Man in the High Castle makes fake anti-fascist films. Juliana insists that it looks real, but Frank says that it can’t be real. Either way, he says it’s treason to possess one of the films. Hitler ordered them all destroyed.
Juliana tells Frank that Trudy is dead. He holds her, then tries to convince her to bring the film to the police and to tell them she didn’t know anything about it. He’s afraid they’ll kill her if they discover she has it.
Joe makes it most of the way through the midwest listening to the radio, but the American Reich doesn’t offer much variety, so he takes the benzedrine when he gets drowsy.
In the morning, Frank packs up his portfolio of designs. Juliana contemplates the bus ticket to Canon City, CO, she found in Trudy’s things. “Sunrise Diner 12:5” is written on the back of the ticket. They figure it’s a meeting place and time.
Frank tries again to get Juliana to go to the police, and even plans to go with her. He’s trying to keep them both safe, but he’s willing to risk his safety for hers. She insists that she can go on her own and that he shouldn’t risk getting noticed by the police. She promises to tell her mother and Arnold (who maybe is Trudy’s father?) what happened. Frank apologizes for being overbearing.
Then she makes what on TV is obviously a goodbye speech. She thanks Frank for being there for her when she needed him. He says, “Nothing can keep you down for long, Jules, not even a bus.” He’s referring to the accident that has kept her out of work. She was hit by a bus.
He gives her a kiss goodbye, which she doesn’t really reciprocate. He notices, but he needs to leave for work.
As soon as he’s gone, she packs a few things in a bag and takes off the necklace Frank made her. She packs The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and a second film, Popeye, switching the two out between their cases so the contraband film is disguised.
As Juliana is leaving her apartment, she runs into Doni, the student from her dojo, in the street. He reminds her they were meeting for tea. She puts him off again while trying to hide the luggage and film she’s carrying. He’s accommodating, but the meeting was a bit odd. She may not be able to count on his discretion.
Nobusuke Tagomi, Trade Minister for the Japanese Pacific States, and his assistant Kotomichi meet with Ambassador Hugo Reiss and SS Officer Kurt Scausch to discuss the upcoming visit from the Japanese crown prince and princess. The ambassador uses a scale model of the German embassy to explain the plans for the royal couple’s visit in detail, then notes that they’ll finish in the very room the group is now standing in. Trade Minister Tagomi looks pained and politely explains that the furniture in the room won’t work for the meeting.
The Germans agree to change the room according to specifications which the Japanese will send to them and the meeting ends on a polite note. But after the Japanese visitors leave, Reiss expresses his frustration, since the same furniture is used in high level offices in Germany. Scausch explains that the room as it’s currently arranged doesn’t have good chi, part of the Chinese and Japanese belief system. Both men look forward to the day when the Führer drives the Japanese Empire out of North America.
In the elevator, Tagomi and Kotomichi also discuss the Führer and worry that the days of peaceful coexistence between the two empires are numbered. Tagomi has consulted his oracle, the I-Ching, which gave him the message “Darkness. Pay attention.”
Somewhere in the rural midwest, Joe Blake’s truck blows a tire.
Back in New York City, his resistance boss, Don Warren, has been taken to Riker’s Island Prison to be tortured, just as he predicted. Obergruppenführer Smith and his assistant Erich Raeder stop by to check on the situation. Don tells Smith that the truck was bringing coffee makers to Alabama. Smith informs him that they intercepted one of his resistance business cards a month ago. They already know he’s a resistance leader, where the truck is headed and what it’s delivering. As Smith leaves and the torturer resumes his work, Don is left to ask what they need him for then?
A local police officer stops to help Joe change the tire, since there’s no tool kit in the truck. He even shares his lunch. While he checks Joe’s papers to make sure he’s allowed to be where he is, they chat.
The officer fought for the US in the war, but now he’s a loyal citizen of the American Reich. He asks if Joe’s dad fought in the war, and if his dad is proud of him. Joe says, “We’re not really close, but me getting this job is pretty important to him.”
The air is hazy and odd flakes start falling. The officer explains that it’s ash from the hospital ovens. “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill. Drag on the state.”
He wishes Joe a safe trip and sends him on his way. The ash is falling like snow.
Imagine how many of Officer Friendly’s former friends and neighbors went to the ovens today as drags on the state. It doesn’t seem to bother him any.
When she gets to the bus station, Juliana is nervous and bumps into a guard. Randall, Trudy’s resistance contact, spots her and pulls her aside to question why she has the satchel with the film. Juliana reveals that Trudy was shot by the Kempeitai. She and Randall argue over who should take the film to Canon City. Juliana wins, since the contact will be expecting a woman. Randall tells her to wait for the contact to approach her when she gets there, and to stop asking questions.
As Juliana gets on the bus to the Neutral Zone, a supersonic jet carrying Nazi Colonel Rudolph Wegener lands in San Francisco. Wegener is traveling under the name of Baynes, disguised as a wealthy Swedish businessman who wants to establish trade with the Japanese Pacific States. He expresses his amazement to Tagomi and Kotomichi that he was able to fly from NYC to San Francisco in under 2 hours. (Today it takes about 6 hours.) Tagomi gives the Germans credit for their superior technology, but Wegener replies that technology isn’t the only thing that makes a society great.
Once they’re seated in their car, Tagomi drops the act and asks to check Wegener’s true credentials. Wegener pulls out a fancy cigarette case with his ID cleverly hidden in the lid and hands it to Tagomi. Very James Bond.
Tagomi tells Wegener that the I-Ching has given him a favorable forecast for their plans. The man Wegener is meant to meet with arrives in two days with the crown prince and princess. Wegener tells Tagomi that both Goebbels and Himmler were against the partitioning of the Americas at the end of the war. Whichever one takes over the Reich after Hitler dies won’t hesitate to use the bomb to drive the Japanese out, starting with destroying San Francisco.
As Ed and Frank do metal work at the Americana memorabilia factory where they work, Ed tells Frank that he thinks the German war hero Erwin Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, should come out of retirement and become the Führer when Hitler’s gone. Frank sees their boss and hurries to catch up to ask if he’s looked at the jewelry designs Frank left with him. The boss tells Frank that though his modern jewelry designs are beautiful, the Japanese won’t buy them. They’ll find the designs degenerate. All they want is traditional Americana, like the Colt .45 revolvers they’re making in the factory.
Juliana puts her duffel up in the storage compartment over the seats, then another woman sits down next to her. The woman, Katie Owens, notices that they’re the only two white girls on the bus. Everyone else has an obvious reason to be running either to the Neutral Zone or South America.
Katie tells Juliana that the only lawman in the Neutral Zone is the Marshall, a Nazi agent who hunts down enemies of the Reich and brutally executes them. The women introduce themselves as they drive over the border between the Japanese Pacific States and the Neutral Zone, marked only by a small sign, with no guards. Juliana calls herself Trudy Walker.
The border between the American Reich and the Neutral Zone is heavily guarded, with trained search dogs and a long line of cars. Joe pulls over at a rest stop before the border crossing to make a phone call, but hangs up when no one answers. Then he searches the truck until he finds the item he’s smuggling across- a copy of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that’s in a hidden metal compartment on the underside of the truck.
Once he’s replaced the film, Joe crosses the border. He’s allowed to pass without incident.
Frank arrives home from work to an empty flat and sees Juliana’s necklace hanging on her dresser. He immediately realizes what it means.
Juliana wakes up on the bus and realizes that she’s missed a stop. Plus, Katie has used the stop to steal her duffel bag. Now the bus is pulling out again, while Katie is jumping into a waiting car. The bus driver won’t stop for Juliana to try to get her bag back. When Juliana checks the shelf, she realizes that though she’s lost everything else, the films are still there.
Obergruppenführer Smith and Erich Raeder find Don unconscious and by himself at Riker’s. Smith sends Raeder to find the torturer. When they return, he asks for an explanation as to why the torturer has stopped. The torturer is confused, since an unconscious man can’t answer questions. Smith orders him to resume beating Don and to continue doing so until he’s beaten the man to death.
As Smith and Raeder walk away, Raeder is impressed by Smith’s diabolical technique. He’s figured out that Smith intends to dump the body back where it came from. Don’s friends will see the badly beaten body and assume he died without talking, which is the truth. The resistance will think that the Nazis don’t know where the truck went or what it’s carrying, when in fact, they do.
They didn’t need to capture and question Don at all. This is all part of an elaborate ruse.
Frank gets up the next morning and sees Inspector Kido questioning the neighbors outside. Before long, he and his men push their way into Frank’s apartment. Frank tells Kido that Juliana has gone to the dojo. Kido questions him about Trudy’s treasonous activity, but Frank says that he and Juliana weren’t in contact with her.
The phone rings, but Frank ignores it until Kido tells him to answer it. It’s Juliana, who’s arrived in Canon City, CO. Frank lingers until she hangs up before he answers the phone, so that Kido doesn’t have the satisfaction of listening in on their phone call. Kido warns Frank that they’re investigating a matter of national security and the penalty will be severe if he’s lying.
Juliana goes to the Sunrise Diner, where Trudy was supposed to meet her contact. She orders a plate of food, then has to tell the manager, Lem, that she can’t pay for it. He doesn’t want to let her out of the bill. Joe walks in just in time to buy her breakfast.
Juliana was probably hoping that the contact would pay for it, but no one approached her about the film, so she goes outside to wait. She also scolds Joe for paying, which is a strange way of saying thank you.
After a moment, Joe follows her outside with a couple of orange sodas. Juliana introduces herself as Trudy again. They covertly establish that neither is the contact the other is waiting for. As they chat, Frank is beaten and arrested. Randall is also arrested. Doni watches. It’s not clear if he turned them in or is lurking in Juliana’s neighborhood because he’s hoping to run into her again.
Tagomi consults the I-Ching and is disturbed by what he’s shown.
Joe checks his watch and excuses himself to make a quick phone call from a phone booth. Obergruppenführer Smith answers the phone. He recognizes Joe’s voice and is happy to hear that Joe’s cover is intact. “I’ll tell your father, Joe. I know he’ll be very proud.” They end the call with mutual Heil Hitlers.
Some of the attitudes in The Man in the High Castle that modern viewers are likely to disagree with were widely held views in real life at the time, like the Japanese view of modern art. It may not have been banned, but much of society didn’t see it as real art.
Frank doesn’t want to be held back too much by his fear, but he’s also a pragmatist. Juliana wants him to sell his art, but he knows the Japanese buyers who are the only ones wealthy enough to afford art in their world aren’t interested in his style. She inspires him to have a little hope and to try to live up to her dreams, so he tries anyway, but the situation is what he knew it to be.
He knows that you can’t accomplish anything if you’re dead, and as someone with Jewish ancestry, it would be very easy for him to become dead in this world. Juliana makes noises about being worried for him and their potential children, but she shows that she doesn’t really understand the dangers, even after watching her sister be murdered.
It doesn’t occur to Juliana that she’s putting Frank and her known associates in danger when she leaves, even though Trudy and the other resistance operatives seemed to understand how it worked. Trudy was trying to avoid being seen with Juliana and to get as far from her flat as possible, so that they wouldn’t be connected, other than as relatives who barely saw each other.
But Inspector Kido is ruthless in his investigations, so it probably didn’t matter what measures Trudy or Juliana took. As soon as Trudy was implicated and the film went missing, Juliana became a suspect, which would then pull Frank in.
Images courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.