November is here, and the anticipated return of Amazon’s award winning adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man in the High Castle grows tantalizingly closer. As one of the most well written and portrayed series available, fans are clamoring to find out where the show is heading after the amazing conclusion of Season 2 last December. To be sure viewers can expect more of the show’s signature multidimensional construction, meticulous attention to detail, character development, and its depiction of the sheer humanity of evil. Therefore let’s take a blow-by-blow character review of what we know so far and what we expect to see when Season 3 debuts in early 2018.
Oberst-Gruppenführer John Smith
Newly promoted Oberst-Gruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) is perhaps the most complicated and deeply conflicted antagonist on the show. So much so that many viewers are not even sure he is in fact a villain as he is seen to possess many contradictory stripes. More to the point, Rufus Sewell has truly stolen the show thus far, which is no small statement given his fellow headliners. So, who is this friend/enemy/criminal-against-humanity/loving father and husband?
John Smith is, in many regards, an every man type that emerges during a foreign totalitarian occupation and subjugation similar to those which occurred in Europe during the Second World War. He, like the vast majority of those who came before him – as well as those he shares the screen with – has made some level of accommodation to the brutal foreign rule of a satanic enemy.
Yet Smith’s personal level of accommodation is clearly greater than most every other in The Man in the High Castle universe: he is a collaborator. As a former US Army Signals officer (See: Sigint), Smith made the leap to collaborate with the Nazi occupiers at some unknown juncture following their invasion. Both to fulfill his own ends – namely the protection of his family – and to be used as an agent to achieve the darkest ends of the Nazi regime. His feelings about his previous allegiance to the US haunt him deeply and influenced his current choices.
When one looks back to season one, recall the conversation Helen Smith has with Joe Blake during V-A Day, revealing for the first time part of the Smith’s backstory. John in particular was raised in a family of considerable means, prior to the onset of the Great Depression. After the economic collapse, Helen describes their life with the words, “We had nothing, we had less than nothing.” Smith is clearly a man who remembers the economic inequity of the Depression in the defunct United States, and his fallen position within it.
Additionally Smith’s US Army experience, to the extent that we know of it, was a near crippling experience. As shown in the Season 2 episode, “Duck and Cover,” Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido asks why he displays a medal from his US military service during the Solomon Islands campaign. Smith remarks that it is a reminder of “the consequences of the failure of command.” A clear indication that the US military of their timeline was not nearly as effective and successful as our own, and fatally so.
Hardly the least of Oberst-Gruppenführer Smith’s soul crushing experiences was viewing, with Helen at a considerable distance, the atomic bombing of Washington D.C. on December 11th, 1945 by Nazi Germany (Note: This is the four year anniversary historically of Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the United States).
When looking into the nature of Smith’s collaboration with the Reich, upon deeper inspection, Smith is a man who has no shortage of blood on his hands in his personal complicity. In addition to being an SS Oberst-Gruppenführer in his everyday work to keep enemies of the Reich at bay, he has also been involved in mass-murder, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
The multiple, however subtle, references to a Cincinnati concentration camp critically allude to this fact. From the Neutral Zone escapee book store owner found and killed in Season 1 by the Marshal (Burn Gorman). As well as Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) speaking about their deeds together in Cincinnati “spilling blood,” and Wegeners observation that afterward Smith no longer entertains his passion for sailing – alluding to an intense personal guilt harbored by Smith. In total, John Smith has blood up to his elbows.
If viewed within the scope of historic post-World War II indictments and prosecution, a man fitting the profile of John Smith most certainly would have stood in the dock alongside figures such as Göering or Ribbontrop at Nuremberg, facing charges for crimes against humanity, waging wars of abject aggression, and genocide for their respective roles in perpetrating the Holocaust. There is no doubt Smith would have also shared their ultimate fate, death by hanging following a guilty verdict.
Or perhaps just as likely is seeing an end similar to that of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. “Il Duce” was the recipient of mob justice, resulting in a summary execution by firing squad from local Italian partisans in April 1945. Events that culminated with Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci’s corpses being spat upon at a petrol station in Milan.
They took his soul, and now they have taken his only son
Through Season 1 and 2, we also see Smith subverting the state to hide his sons diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. So aggressive to protect his own family, Smith murders their family doctor and longtime friend who diagnosed Thomas so that the secret remains as such.
John Smith’s older brother, whom he apparently worshiped, also suffered from the same disease as does John’s son, Thomas. Clearly Smith is unable to reconcile his personal compassion and understanding with the malformed draconian racial policies of the Third Reich. Smith has been both complicit with its heinous crimes, and also seeks to undermine it for his own son’s benefit. Smith’s plan ultimately fails however, as Thomas in his very honest nature submits himself to the authorities to be euthanized.
With a newly released trailer by Amazon, we see a recently promoted Oberst-Gruppenführer Smith – an SS rank historically only held by Reinhard Heydrich (Ray Proscia) – and subordinate only to Heinrich Himmler (Kenneth Tigar), with a presumable alternate version of the dreaded Nazi criminal doctor, Josef Mengele (John Hans Tester). In the scene, it is made clear that Nazi research and development knows of certain individuals’ ability to travel between universes. It is hardly a giant leap of a prediction to know what Smith is thinking during this presentation, as it could be a way to have his son back – at least a version of his son that is healthy and originates from a very similar time line.
John Smith Protecting His Country and People?
When last we left the occupied United States, the continent was in chaos due to uprisings triggered by the news of Hitler’s death. John Smith as the highest ranking official in the American Reich was tasked to manage it. When reinforcements arrive from Berlin to help aid the invasion of the Pacific States and put down the various civil rebellions, Smith clearly eschews the SD Gruppenfurher’s idea to raze Savannah, Georgia to make an example for the populace as to the consequences of further civil unrest.
When Smith and his lieutenant walk out the door, Smith says, “We won’t destroy one of our own cities.” This line, however quick, is crucial. He clearly sees himself in a caretaker role within a brutal system. Helping ease a situation that he believes would have been far worse without his involvement. A common and often inaccurate claim made by most collaborators in Smith’s situation, better known by some as “Petainism.” In short, a very clear and eloquent line of self-justifying bull shit.
Yet to this point his loyalty to Empire is a matter of great consternation. At the end of Season 2, he is the apparent hero who foiled the major assassination and coup attempt, whilst halting a world war with Japan.
The reward for his act of exceptional gallantry? The sacrifice of his only beloved son, to the demands of the state he so diligently serves.
Yet what is more agonizing, is having to experience this very tragedy because of raising his son to hold Nazi values so dear that Thomas comes forward of his own accord, voluntarily giving his life to the demands of the collective, as if enacting a divine mandate. No doubt the cost of his penance, should any truly be possible following Smith’s actions, are staggering. Yet given where the audience last see’s Smith, he appears on the verge of considerable revelations regarding his knowledge of The Man in the High Castle universe.
What we do know of Smith, when last we saw him, was his being ushered into the vault of films collected by Hitler – and presumably being granted carte blanche to watch them as he sees fit. With a man as perceptive as Smith, undoubtedly he will learn a great deal about their role and value. How this information will change him personally is genuinely unpredictable.
To put Smith and his beloved family into their rightful context, one need only to remember the words of Juliana Crain when reporting back to George Dixon, “You can almost forget they’re Nazi’s.” The viewers fall into the same trap, yet must never allow themselves to remain within it. The Smiths have as much blood and complicity as any other characters in the series. Though most damning is that they’re the greatest collaborators with the Nazi occupiers, and no deed may ever redeem them of all the destruction they have directly wrought against their own people.