The third episode, “Travelers”, shows the main characters undergoing a transformation as each heads off in a separate direction. While this is slowly helping the characters to develop, the problem in this particular episode may just be the sheer amount of subplots it tries to handle in the space of an hour; jumping from each character’s situation, from Berlin to New York and back to San Francisco, with a renewed if overwhelming sense of gusto.
This is a transitional episode for season 2, and one where the showrunners and writers have started to spin off into narrative avenues away from the central themes of Philip K. Dick’s book that dominated the first year. Whether this will result in a better show is still open to interpretation. For now, the various story elements we’ve seen in the first two episodes are intercut more, often to slightly confusing effect here, and thematically continue to reflect each other.
Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) has flown to Berlin (we get a well-deserved reappearance of the Reich’s fleet of supersonic aircraft at the airport) to be reunited with his estranged father, Reichsminister Martin Heusmann (Sebastian Roche). Heusmann tries to make reparations with Joe, out of guilt for abandoning him and his mother to reap the rewards of the Reich with his skills as an engineer. Incidentally, the Atlantropa project he shows off to Joe, to construct a hydroelectric dam across the Straits of Gibraltar and drain the Mediterranean Sea, is based on an actual scheme cooked up by German architect Herman Sörgel and it was mentioned in Dick’s book.
Despite his obvious ability to get infrastructure projects up and running and his accompanying affluent lifestyle, Joe isn’t taken with his father’s ideas or his egoism when they meet again at a lavish reception. He further distances himself from the higher echelons of the Reich despite being praised for his success working with John Smith. About to leave the party, he meets Nicole Dormer (Bella Heathcote), a blonde femme fatale who may well be working for his father to try and persuade him to reconsider his opinion. So far she has planted a few doubts in his mind but it’s abundantly clear she’ll be exploiting Joe’s obvious attraction to her in episodes to come.
While Joe wrestles with his ‘daddy issues’, over at the Reich embassy in San Francisco Juliana (Alexa Davalos) is put through a rigorous barrage of medical tests to establish her racial purity, to determine how eligible she is to be German, according to the Nazi’s Ayran edict. At first, it appears she will not be granted asylum, not only on medical grounds but also for lying during her interrogation. That’s until Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) steps in and personally grants her temporary immunity. His real intent is to find the Man in the High Castle and he is convinced Juliana can help him after she reveals in her interrogation that she is connected to the films everyone is so keen to get their hands on.
The episode not only reminds us how deeply unpleasant is the whole concept of the Master Race and racial purity, but it also emphasises how Juliana’s desperation to prove her genetic suitability takes her further and further into the Reich’s clutches. She finishes up safe and secure in the bosom of the frighteningly charming Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Chelah Horsdal), living as Julia Mills in an apartment where a portrait of Hitler gazes into her very soul, gives her pause for thought about what exactly she’s done and inspires her to take a pair of scissors to her hair, as you do. Juliana and John Smith finally sharing scenes together are certainly among the best moments in the episode and there’s a terrifically tense car journey where Smith tries to wheedle more information about the Man in the High Castle from her.
Far more successful on that front is Kido (Joel de la Fuente), when he questions Juliana’s mother (Macall Gordon). Fearing for their lives, she and Arnold (Daniel Roebuck) almost willingly reveal to Kido, after showing them evidence Juliana has defected to the Reich, that she has met the occupant of said fortress and that the films she was shown deeply affected her. Although this is the only scene to feature Kido, Fuente is wonderfully compelling and frightening.
For John Smith the idea of racial purity has become a terrible burden at home. As Dr. Adler (Kevin McNulty) reminds him and us, in a plot point introduced last year, Smith’s son is suffering from a degenerative disease. As a father it is Smith’s duty to euthanize his own son as he does not uphold the Aryan ideal and withholding this diagnosis from his family is against state regulations. Adler threatens to blow the whistle on him if he refuses to carry out the order.
One of the episode’s strengths is making you feel empathy for a monstrous human being. Yes, he’s pictured as a loyal servant of the Reich and is often depicted in domestic situations as a good father and husband, but his gender and power are geared to the one purpose of maintaining control over those against the regime.
However, this purpose is severely tested when he takes his son on a fishing trip and he realises that the Reich does not have control over his feelings as a father. During this scene, one wonders how many fathers were ordered to carry out similar terrible acts against their own kin at the height of the Reich’s dominance. Instead, and it’s hammered home in a shot of Smith’s cold gaze held for a long, uncomfortable time, he decides that Adler’s silence is required and the following day murders him. It’s a somewhat predictable outcome, but the moral duality of the monster and the father are unsettlingly captured. His son will live but at what cost when the disease finally manifests itself. Smith’s damned either way.
Meanwhile, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) and Childan (Brennan Brown) set about forging cufflinks worn by Abraham Lincoln at the time of his assassination in order to pay their dues to the Yakuza. A jittery Childan is outraged by Ed’s arrival on the scene to assist Frank, especially when Ed (DJ Qualls) casually leaves his dirty bag on the precious Hepplewhite in his well-appointed study. The Frink-Childan pairing is always a delight and, hopefully, we’ll see more of this. More importantly, Lem (Rick Worthy) and Gary Connell (Callum Keith Rennie) attempt to recruit Frank to the Resistance’s cause.
He rejects them initially but they try and gain his sympathies again when their agent Sarah (Cara Mitskuko) tells him that because Juliana’s escape from Connell caused the deaths of Japanese police officers, the Kempetai are rounding up a dozen innocent citizens to execute in retaliation. His conscience pricked, he witnesses Sarah and Connell’s rescue attempt and saves it from failure by shooting down a Japanese officer. Clearly, his rage about the deaths of his sister and her children is directed toward this act but it looks like the Resistance may have radicalised him against his own will after all.
Finally, Juliana tracks down Joe’s apartment and bumps into Rita (Jessie Fraser) who emphasises that they’re now in the same position having both been fooled by Joe’s adherence to his Nazi sympathies. Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) gets a severe dressing down from General Odoma for daring to change his orders regarding the transportation of the uranium for the Heisenberg device. Feeling there is nothing he can do, Tagomi sinks into a meditative trance clutching a photograph of his wife and disappears from his office. Has he slipped back into the alternative time-line? It certainly seems that way at the end of a compelling if fragmented episode.