Leave it to The Man in the High Castle to make bad guys that aren’t necessarily bad people, as the episode “Three Monkeys” is the one where Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) ceases to be a one-note character. Despite everything that’s going on in the plot with this episode, Smith is the one that leaves a lasting impression by the end.
Smith is a strange character. Strange in the sense that he represents “the wrong side” yet never becomes the monster you expect him to be. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everybody associated with Nazi Germany are evil and that is understandable. The facts of history attribute atrocities to this regime during a war that impacted nearly every nation and that makes them easy on-screen villains. It’s also easy to assume that the people within that regime are monolithic in their beliefs. Yet, even within a society as rigid as Nazi Germany there is room for doubt amongst its staunchest advocates.
Smith is a villain, but he definitely isn’t a “bad guy” in the traditional sense. In fact, the show goes so far as to paint a much more nuanced picture of him in this episode. He still is a man that will shoot an enemy of the state in cold blood and torture an insurgent for information, but this Smith is also a family man that lives in a nice neighborhood with a wife that cooks and a young son. His life outside of his job is perfectly normal and, for the most part, never do the two mix.
The show continually plays upon that dissonance between what we’ve seen Obergruppenführer Smith do and how he lives outside of his job continuously. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) is invited to Smith’s house to celebrate VA day and even he appears weirded out by the pastoral scene. It’s iconic imagery: the tree lined streets, the massive home with a lush green lawn and the perfect family (including the dog.) Smith is no longer the terrifying Nazi agent, but a family man and this transformation is abrupt and jarring given how we’ve seen him before.
Blake of course has his own motives for being there, but most of the scenes in Smith’s home are a temporary reprieve from the tension everywhere else in this episode. He plays catch with Smith’s son, who is a stand-up citizen of the Reich that is part of the Hitler youth and whose goals include travelling the world. We get some insight into Blake’s character as somewhat of a misfit that was kicked out of the Hitler Youth and worked in a factory.
Things get complicated when Blake accompanies Smith to the airport in order to pick up one of his wife’s relatives. In an unbelievable coincidence, Smith runs into his old friend Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) who is fresh off his secret mission in the Pacific States. Turns out they were war buddies and Wegener ends up joining Smith and his family for lunch to celebrate VA day. Their conversations together once again play upon the dissonance between perception and reality as we discover what bonded these two men.
Both served at one of the extermination camps during World War 2 and performed their duties, but not without personal cost. Smith questioned his loyalty to the Nazi regime during that time and for a period he was a lost man before returning to duty. Where he and Wegener differ however is about the necessity of more war and conflict. It’s Smith who believes violence is necessary to preserve the values of Nazi Germany whereas Wegener believes in avoiding it at all costs.
The episode takes an even darker turn as Smith admits to Blake that he knows Wegener is a spy. For the first time we see him conflicted — torn between turning in his friend and seething that Wegener was lying the whole time. His admission of not being totally objective and unable to separate his duty from feelings is a shocking one for a character that appears to have unwavering loyalty.
While Smith steals this episode, there is a great deal of tension everywhere else. There is immense pressure on both Juliana and Frank for vastly different reasons. It’s clear the Kempeitai and Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) are getting ever closer to finding Frank (Rupert Evans) and he gets more and more nervous during every scene. Juliana’s (Alexa Davalos) search for The Man in the High Castle leads her to the Nippon Building and an unlikely position serving Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The pair develop an unlikely friendship despite their positions and it becomes clear they are now unlikely allies.
The mounting number of secrets between Frank and Juliana puts a great strain on their relationship and it explodes during a dinner scene between the two of them. Their relationship is clearly at the breaking point and there is lingering doubt about how long it’s going to last.
“Three Monkeys” is possibly one of the best episodes of the series at this point just for how it’s portrayed Obergruppenführer Smith. He’s more than a one-note villain, a caricature of a Nazi, and the entire series is much better for it. Smith is one of those characters you hate, yet have to begrudgingly admit at least a modicum of understanding for them and that makes him all the more compelling to follow.