Five episodes in, and the central issues with The Man in the High Castle have become readily apparent. As a piece of world building, it’s an incredible achievement. The production design, costumes and general atmosphere gloriously succeed at painting a world that feels simultaneously familiar and alien. Ultimately, it’s the vanilla characters at the center of these environments that have been the weight around the show’s neck for the past few hours.
“Three Monkeys” goes a long way towards fixing this “all sizzle no steak” notion, honing in on the supporting characters and conflicts that have, thus far, given the show its zest. What emerges is an installment that continues to play in its alternative history sandbox, while still providing the proper real estate to sketch out its various players.
The episode’s central storyline involves Nazi officer John Smith—hands down the show’s most intriguing character—inviting Joe Blake—hands down, the show’s dullest character—to a celebration at his house. After five episodes spent depicting John as a cold, calculating figure, seeing him put forth as a loving family man provides some much needed layers to the show’s string of more simplistic characterizations. At the same time, the visit also offers further details of America’s newly mixed cultural makeup. Though John’s son is seen dressed as a Hitler Youth, the family enjoys apple pie and baseball (apparently a frowned-upon sport) just as much as any all-American clan.
This seemingly straightforward gathering grows more complicated after John and Joe travel to the airport, only to find John’s fellow officer/secret subversive Rudolph Wegener waiting around. John invites him back to his house and the two begin reminiscing about old times. It soon becomes increasingly obvious that their run-in was no accident.
Perhaps most notably, this plotline finally has the show addressing the elephant in the room—the Holocaust. As John and Rudolph drink more and more, the pleasantries give way to a repressed anger, with Rudolph questioning how they could possibly justify the things they have done. For his part, John has adopted an out-of-sight-out-of-mind notion. In his head, the atrocities they’ve committed are merely the standard war traumas that bond men together. Rudolph obviously does not share this vision. What’s more, in a brilliant piece of subtle characterization, he references John’s abandoning of his sailing habit as evidence of his eroding humanity. Where at one point, John would take off sailing with a bottle of alcohol as a means of coping with his participation in such genocide, he seemingly no longer requires such rituals. Indeed, the only downside of the two’s powerful, charged exchange is how Joe Blake is shoehorned into these pivotal moments. With each episode, it’s becoming more and more unbelievable that people seem so trusting and taken with such a flat cipher.
Eventually, John reveals to Joe that the dinner party served mostly as a cover whereby he could subtly interrogate Rudolph in the hopes that alcohol and camaraderie would loosen his lips. With nothing to show for his troubles, John has his friend arrested—a decision that weighs heavy on his heart. Just as it looks as though Joe has embedded himself in the inner circle, however, he is caught looking at what seems to be a dossier on The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
The Grasshopper element likewise becomes a pivotal MacGuffin in Juliana’s subplot. As the episode opens, Juliana is awarded a serving position under Trade Minister Tagomi. Naturally, Juliana uses the moments in between refilling water and greeting visitors to dig up any information she can about the films and her contact, Sakura Iwazaru. As it turns out, the name refers to a room where all communication is spied upon and certain key words are flagged. One of those keywords: grasshopper. As Juliana subtly steals some documents, she receives a big shock—her stepfather, Arnold, works in the agency. Having already lost trust with her boyfriend and been expelled from her aikido dojo, the idea of now not being able to trust her own family goes a long way towards developing Juliana’s story into something more than one of simple espionage.
Unfortunately, the show’s more contrived tendencies rear their ugly head with the Frank subplot. It’s a shame because, of all the younger cast members, actor Rupert Evans has been the most successful at crafting someone who actually feels like a character and not just an ideology or plot device given flesh. His story starts plainly enough at first, with Juliana explaining how she’s using her new job as a means of gathering intel about the films. Predictably, Frank berates her for such a dangerous task. Where he really draws the line, however, is when he learns that she traveled with a man during her excursion to the Neutral Zone. Given everything he’s experienced in the past few installment, Franks’ overreaction to this detail feels more motivated by the writers needing to get him to a certain place emotionally than a natural, organic response.
Frank’s day becomes all the worse after local antiques shop owner, Robert Childan finds himself being investigated by the government for selling an illegal firearm and confronts Frank over the weapon he sold him. Frank denies being the assassin but Childan continues to threaten him. How exactly a bookish, small-business owner thinks he can reason with someone who (presumably) shot a world leader, marks yet another bending of logic.
Despite this stumble, however, the creative team manages to conclude Frank’s misadventures in a strong place. Beaten down by his recent string of bad luck, Frank visits the home of a Hebrew acquaintance, who sets up a memorial prayer for Frank’s murdered family. Finally, after several episodes spent walking around in a stunned stupor punctuated by murderous rage, Frank’s sorrows promptly spill out like a dam bursting. It’s an emotional, evocative scene and nearly enough to forgive the missteps that have preceded it.
“Three Monkeys” stands firmly as the show’s best installment to date, providing some much-needed assurance that the series has the capacity to move beyond surface level aesthetics. With the world building more readily set in stone, hopefully the creative team now feels more comfortable diving into the specifics of their characters.