Spoilers ahead, needless to say. How could a post with a title like this not have spoilers?
I want to talk about the show, but really all I want to know is that I’ve correctly understood the direction the show has taken. I’m questioning myself because typically, when you suspend your disbelief as a viewer, that suspension follows certain logical rules. For instance, in “The Walking Dead,” you suspend your disbelief up front and accept that a worldwide zombie outbreak is in progress, but everything that happens from that point happens according to the laws of basic reality. It’s a realistic universe with an unrealistic premise. Rick Grimes fights the zombies with guns and knives; if he were to suddenly develop the ability to breathe fire, well, that would be weird because suddenly the TWD universe itself, not just the premise, would be unrealistic. By the same token, imagine an alternate-history series in which the Confederacy wins the Civil War. Now imagine that, two seasons in, one of the Confederates sprouts wings and learns how to fly. Same problem. It’s fine to pull outlandish surprises like that in a fantasy series that’s otherworldly root, stem, and branch, like “Game of Thrones,” but when you’re playing by earthly rules and then suddenly you’re not, hoo boy.
So then, to the present matter. It seems that when he meditates, Mr Tagomi isn’t just escaping into a pleasant fantasy of what the world would look like if his side had lost the war. He’s actually transporting himself to that reality, moseying across the astral plane into a San Francisco where the good guys won. Not only that, but he’s not the only character who’s learned that trick. His deputy, Kotomichi, has too. And not only that, Tagomi is actually able to bring objects back with him from the good reality to the bad one, like one of the kids in “Nightmare on Elm Street” grabbing the hat off Freddy’s head in a dream and then waking up to find it next to him on his pillow. I spent nine and a half hours watching a Nazi coup metastasize into a plot to exterminate the Japanese with nuclear weapons, and the deus ex machina that averts it at the last second is … Freddy’s hat, i.e. a film of the U.S. Bikini Atoll nuclear test brought back by Tagomi into the bad reality, where it fools the Nazis into believing that the Japanese have the bomb. (Because, of course, in the bad reality, Bikini Atoll is a Japanese possession.) Nine and a half hours of intricate cloak-and-dagger plotting amid a highly detailed alternate reality of America circa 1962 and the Nazis end up being foiled by what’s essentially a magic wand. W-w-w-what?
Even weirder, it’s not actually the Bikini Atoll film that halts the war. Heusmann is prepared to push the button even after seeing the footage; he’s that much of a lunatic that he intends to launch even though he has every reason to believe that the Japanese might retaliate with H-bombs. What stops him is Smith revealing to Himmler in the nick of time that Heusmann and Heydrich had plotted against Hitler, a much more satisfying and realistic way to thwart him. (Here’s where we pause for a moment at the thought that Heinrich Himmler is, kinda sorta, a force for peace in this reality. All part of the dark fun of this show.) In the end, the Bikini Atoll film was irrelevant. In which case, why the hell would the writers take the show in this bizarre direction in which Tagomi is bringing back souvenirs from the good reality like some sort of supernatural tourist? The subplot with the Bikini Atoll film completely pulls you out of the realistic alternate reality that the writers have carefully built and tosses you into an unrealistic one where interdimensional travel is, apparently, just something some people do when they really want to escape the life they’re stuck in. Tagomi might as well have sprouted wings and destroyed Heusmann by breathing fire on him.
But here’s the catch: I enjoyed season two so much that I found myself not much caring about how weird that twist was. If the writers had sprung the subplot with the Bikini Atoll film sooner, say in episode six or seven, I would have rolled my eyes at the sheer silliness of this very convenient supernatural plot development and ended up disengaging from the show to some degree. But because they saved it for the last half-hour or so of the finale — eh. What’s the harm? The season’s already almost over. Just go with it. Besides, it’s not fair to say that Tagomi’s strange powers of interdimensional travel are completely unexpected within the logical reality of the show. The films collected by the Man in the High Castle had to have come from somewhere, right? Since the beginning of the series, when Juliana Crain watched that highlight reel of the Allies’ victory, we’ve had a huge question hanging over us of how footage from the good timeline has ended up in the bad one. My best guess early on was that they were propaganda fakes created by the Resistance, but that never made much sense. What good would fake footage of an Allied victory do them? There was always a supernatural component to the show. Now that the mechanics of it have been revealed, it’s … kind of lame, really, but it’s not like “time travel via meditation” has never been done in sci fi before (“Time and Again” by Jack Finney is worth the investment. So is the flick “Somewhere in Time.”)
I think the new angle, in which characters hop between timelines, has lots of potential too. Presumably that’s how Juliana’s sister Trudy has suddenly turned up alive and well in the bad timeline. That’s her from the good timeline, having somehow made the journey. I’m hoping John Smith gets clued in to the reality of the good timeline; it’s ambiguous, from what I remember of episode ten, whether he understands that the Bikini Atoll film comes from an alternate reality or whether he really does believe it’s footage of a secret Japanese H-bomb test. Imagine Nazi John Smith confronting U.S. Army Col. John Smith. The writers are clearly searching for ways to make Smith more of a heroic figure, and a more prominent role next season for the good-timeline version of himself is an obvious possibility. (The show gave us a glimpse of him as a U.S. military officer this season for a reason, no?) Good Smith may well be the man who finally ends up taking out Nazi Smith, to try to atone for his treachery in the bad timeline. Or maybe Nazi Smith will cross over into the good timeline and see that his son Thomas is alive and well cared for there, which will turn him against the Reich in the bad timeline. Imagine further how the Nazi high command might try to influence the direction of the world in the good timeline once they discover that the Reich has been wiped out there and the world is dominated by America and the Soviet Union. All of which is to say, I think the show’s now destined to shift from historical fiction set in an alternate reality to more proper sci fi. The writers did well enough in season two that I’m excited to see what they come up with.