Counterpart is something special. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen shows and films that clearly influence Counterpart, but the way it’s put together, with a mishmash of Fringe and elements of Three Days of the Condor (amongst others) that combine science fiction and spy thrillers, creates something entirely new and exciting. Justin Marks has written a wonderful pilot that opens up a world with endless possibilities. The two worlds of Counterpart are filled with intriguing characters and mysteries that enrich the story tapestry woven in the first episode. There’s also a metaphysical element to the story, making characters come face to face with alternative paths their lives could have taken, and other versions of themselves.
The opening sequence of Counterpart shows glass tinkling on the pavement in slow motion. It’s a moment of beauty interrupted by a man’s slamming into the sidewalk. From an open window above, the sounds of gunshots and violence mix with fireworks off in the distance. When police arrive on the scene, everyone is dead except for a mysterious woman crying in the bathroom. It appears a heist has gone wrong. Two of the detectives know more than they should about what happened. A bag of money and travel visas were left behind, but there’s something off about the way they talk about these things. They refer to them as being from “the other side.” The technology they use is more advanced than in our world. They believe the woman may have seen the face of the killer, so they take her down to their police van. She soon takes both of them out in a methodical and trained way. She is the killer, but who is she and what does she intend to do with the contents of the bag?
The credit sequence for Counterpart is one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen, and it plays with the duality of both the game Go, as well as the parallel worlds in conflict on the show. It’s as if each move between the sides is an elaborate game. Though each side spies on the other for an advantage, they still must follow the rules of the game, but it’s a game with deadly consequences. Through the game of Go, the sequence shows how choices made alter outcomes. There are also mirrored versions of a character navigating the game, mixed with the heavy influence of espionage in the show. It reminds me of some of the more interesting credit sequences I’ve seen, such as Rubicon and Manhattan, though I hope Counterpart has a much longer staying power than either of those shows.
Counterpart takes place in a world of Cold War intrigue, only the Cold War has ended. It’s set in Germany, and Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) is a man whose life hasn’t necessarily gone the way he’d hoped it would. He’s a lowly bureaucrat working in a spy agency, and has a life of predictability and drudgery. Each day he shows up to work, lines up in a hallway with other agents, and enters an individual booth with a partition and monitoring equipment where he meets a counterpart from another bureaucracy. They read bizarre code words to each other and are quickly done, though Howard has no idea what it is they’re actually doing, or why they’re doing it. After thirty years with the firm he finally interviews for a job promotion with Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd), the director of the agency, only to have his hopes dashed with a flippant, “Howard, it’s been thirty years. If it was going to happen, it would have happened.”
Howard’s wife Emily (Olivia Williams) is in a coma. Each night Howard visits her in the hospital, brings flowers, one of which he gives to the nurses, and then reads Emily her favorite books. Several weeks ago she was struck by a car while crossing the street, and though Howard has hope she’ll pull through, her family pushes him to send her back to England so she can die surrounded by family. Howard is a sad, predictable, and possibly too kind man, who borders on being a push over. When he finally does ask for what he wants, it seems he’s waited too long. Could he have gotten the job if he’d taken the initiative a lot sooner? It’s hard to say how drastically a life could be different based on the choices made. There are billions of choices we make in our lifetimes and any one of these choices could drastically change the course of our lives. What if we could see how a different choice may have altered things without the use of time travel?
The next day when Howard goes to work, his access code seems invalid, and he’s taken out of line and brought to a seperate room. Peter Quayle, the agency director is there, and so is Aldrich, the director of operations. Something drastic has taken place, and they need Howard’s help. A man with a hood over his head is brought in to sit across from Howard, and when the bag is taken off, Howard looks at an identical version of himself. The other Howard is more vocal, harsh, and intimidating than Howard. Coming face to face with another version of himself blows his mind, and he grasps for how this is possible. During the Cold War an experiment by the East Germans took place, which opened a portal to a parallel version of our world. When this occurred, the two realities split, and the only doorway between the worlds is under the building Howard works at. The man he exchanges code words with every day is a bureaucrat much like himself. Both sides monitor each other, share information, and are extremely careful about their interactions. There’s another version of each person on the other side, slightly different than here, as can be seen immediately when the two Howard’s meet. Not many people know about the other side, and the only reason Howard learns about it is because an assassin named Baldwin has snuck over to this side with a kill list, and the other Howard knows how to stop her.
There is political chaos on the other side, with a new faction rising to overthrow the status quo. No one from the other side knows the other Howard has come over, or that he’s attempting to work with this side to stop Baldwin. On his side, the other Howard says his wife Emily has died of cancer. He believes Baldwin is going to kill Emily on this side, to prove a point to him, so he wants to pretend he’s the real Howard in order to stop the killer. Quayle and Aldrich need Howard’s permission and help for the other Howard to impersonate him and stake out Emily’s room. He agrees. The two Howard’s spend a small amount of time together before the operation, and they couldn’t be more unalike. The other Howard is surprised and shocked Howard has never been anything other than a low level employee at the spy agency, while he has been upper level and actually set up a spy ring on this side of the divide. The other Howard is forceful and determined, whereas this Howard is timid, shy, and unable to ask for or take what he wants. Will their interaction change the way Howard conducts his life going forward? Will certain traits he’s always wanted that the other Howard has rub off on him?
Howard tells the other Howard his routine at the hospital, but forgets the part about the flower he gives the nurse everyday. This small detail changes the outcome at the hospital when Baldwin arrives. Instead of getting the drop on her, the lack of a flower tips her off that something is wrong. Baldwin makes a run for it, and the other Howard gives chase. She escapes by jumping through a window, and lands next to the car Howard waits. She’s about to shoot Howard, when the other Howard shoots her first, saving Howard’s life. She escapes, but has murdered one of Howard’s coworkers, and attempted to murder his wife. The other Howard’s visa expires and he needs to head back to the other side without raising suspicion, but he’s going to need to come back, and he’s also going to need Howard’s help. Howard uses this to his advantage, demanding the job promotion from Quayle and access to what’s really going on at work. Howard would never have been so forceful if he hadn’t met an alternate version of himself. Will his interaction with the other Howard change how Howard lives? Is the other Howard using Howard? Does he have a hidden agenda? When he goes back to his side, we find out the other Emily isn’t dead at all. She’s alive and well, so what’s the other Howard’s angle?
Counterpart is so full of possibilities that it’s hard not to get excited about where this show may go in the future. The look and feel of the show, the gritty cold war feeling and the muted colors, is beautiful to look at. Visually it reminds me a lot of David Fincher’s work on Zodiac, House of Cards, and Mindhunter. Starz should be pleased with themselves for taking a chance on this show, because this is the role J.K. Simmons has been born to play. He’s an underused gem of an actor, and Counterpart is finally his turn to shine.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Counterpart airs Sundays at 10PM on Starz
For six months out of the year Jeff is holed up in his home with nothing to do but shovel snow, watch television, write, and dream of warmer climates.
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Jeff Iblings | Contributor