Counterpart is the best sci-fi drama you never saw. OK, maybe a few of you saw it. Truthfully, even I missed it, at least the first season. There I was, perusing a list of the best shows of 2019 so far and there was this entry for a show called Counterpart that was in the midst of its second season. I’d never heard of it, so I looked it up: some sort of espionage series with a sci-fi twist. Hmm. Could be good, and if it was, I wasn’t too far behind to get caught up. I decided to give it a try.
I’m not alone in saying that this is a great series. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 100% critics rating for both season 1 and 2. The audience rating is a little lower at 86%, which I’d attribute to the complexity of the plot. Counterpart is a true water-cooler show. Each episode puts a new twist in the plot. You need that weekly space to absorb what happened, maybe even give you a chance to re-watch some bits.
Rather than try to come up with my own synopsis, let me lean on the IMDB description, which is actually pretty good: “A hapless UN employee discovers the agency he works for is hiding a gateway to a parallel dimension that’s in a Cold War with our own, and where his other self is a top spy.”
That’s the surface level plot, but the premise allows for amazing depths to be explored at the character level. In an interview for the 7 Days A Geek podcast, writer and show runner Justin Marks described it like this:
It’s a show about identity. And it’s a show that sort of is an espionage show, but an espionage show in a very different theater, in parallel dimensions instead of east and west…Because at the end of the day it’s about identity more than anything else. It’s like an existential character play, more than it is about the guns and the chases.
In 2015, the show’s star J.K. Simmons was just coming off his Oscar-winning performance in the 2014 movie Whiplash. (Though yes, you might know him better as the elder insurance guy showing his young recruits around the “Hall of Claims” in the Farmers Insurance commercials.) He was a hot commodity and, like many award-winning movie actors, he wanted to take a turn at doing television. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum was likewise coming off a 2015 Oscar nomination for the movie The Imitation Game.
When the Starz network greenlit the project, both Simmons and Tyldum had other projects they were working on and could not coordinate their schedules to begin production right away. So the writers had time—like a year and a half—to really dig in to the worldbuilding for Counterpart. Marks told the 4 Quadrant podcast that they had seven whiteboards in the writers’ room, charting out the history and diverging timelines of both the “Alpha” (ours) and the “Prime” worlds. They turned that information into a show bible that was photocopied and handed out to everyone on the cast and crew.
With all this setup, it would have been easy for the story to get lost in all the “gee whiz” of the sci-fi elements of the show, having characters drone on in endless exposition to explain all the cool stuff the writers thought up. But that’s not at all what happens. Marks uses the metaphor of a room: they built and fully furnished the room in full light, then they turned out the lights and handed the audience a flashlight. Whatever questions arise as you watch, you can trust that they have answers. But the show is not about the answers, it’s about the characters.
The First Scene
That said, the first scene of Counterpart is pure espionage thriller with a twist. Cops arrive on the scene of some sort of meeting gone bad. Everyone is dead except a call girl cowering in fear in the bathroom. Two agents dismiss the police and take charge of the scene, which was a trap set for an assassin named Baldwin. They take the woman and a duffel bag full of bait out to their car, hoping to at least get a description of Baldwin out of this mess. While one agent reports in, the other agent works on packing the woman into the car. She stumbles, and as the agent moves to help her, she pulls a knife and slits his throat. Taking his gun, she shoots the other agent as he turns around, stunned, realizing too late that this is the assassin Baldwin.
There’s only one tiny element that gives away that there is something unusual about the setting of this scene. The cell phone that the agent uses is a flip phone, but it also appears to be made of some sort of back-lit Plexiglass material—both old tech and new tech in one. The bait in the bag is also revealed to be visa, credentials, and currency from the “Other Side.”
Hold on to your flashlights.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about the theme song and opening credit montage. The composer, Jeff Russo, is also an award winner, having three Emmy nominations for his work on the television series Fargo (and finally winning in 2017). He has also composed for Legion, Altered Carbon, and The Umbrella Academy, among many others. The theme uses a lot of strings to give it a melancholy feel. Justin Marks wanted voices in the score for the show, but Russo instead chose to use a lot of cello, because the instrument lives in the same register as the human voice (which is an interesting tidbit I’ll never forget).
Similarly, before meeting with the folks at Imaginary Forces who did the credits, Marks already had an idea of using the game Go as a metaphor for the show. The moves in Go are simpler and more constrained than, say, chess, but as a result, there are many more possible permutations—so many that it is said that no two games of Go are ever the same. In a similar manner, within the show a simple choice can wildly change the outcome of the characters’ lives between the two parallel dimensions.
So, the opening credits start with the image of a single black Go stone that splits in two. From there, it goes on to roll through diverging animated Go boards, images of the Cold War era tech and architecture taken directly from the set, and 3-D images of two stark figures moving through abstract Berlin landscapes, seeking each other out. All of this led to the show’s Emmy award win for Outstanding Main Title Design in 2018. Criminally, this was the one and only Emmy nomination for the show.
We now get our first glimpse of Howard Silk, a Willy Loman-esque character who we quickly find out is a man of routines. He starts out his day with a game of Go against his younger friend who apparently always beats him. Though his friend wonders aloud if Howard might not be letting him win, hinting immediately at a superior ability that Howard may or may not possess behind his humble exterior.
Next, we are introduced to the routine of Howard’s work. He passes through multiple checkpoints, which are guarded by men with guns, to receive a sealed briefcase and enter one of a dozen or so “Interface” rooms. The room is divided by a glass partition, like a prison visitation room. On the other side is his Interface counterpart with a similar briefcase. They read a series of nonsense call out/response code phrases to each other, and then pack it up to leave. As they do so, Howard calls to the other man to point out that he has a bit of food on his tie. Because, after all, Howard is a nice guy.
In the locker room (the Interface men all have to remove any identifying watches, rings, etc.), we find out that Howard is breaking his routine today. He is going “upstairs” to interview for a position in “Strategy.” It’s also notable that Howard is the oldest of the Interface men by quite a bit, surrounded by young men in their 20s and 30s. Interface is clearly an entry-level position, but Howard has been stuck here for quite some time.
At the interview, we find out that there has been another break in Howard’s routine that may have precipitated his sudden ambition. His wife, Emily, is in the hospital in a coma (a victim of a hit and run six weeks prior, we later learn). She also works for the agency, although apparently at a higher level than Howard.
The Strategy chief, Mr. Quail, notes that Howard has served in Interface “for quite some time now” and is “one of the best,” but the post has been filled. Quail also reviewed the tapes of Howard’s interface from that morning and admonishes him for the “non-approved exchange” when Howard pointed out the bit of food on the other man’s tie. With that, he shuts down any hopes Howard has for promotion, telling him that “it’s been 30 years, if it was gonna happen, it would have happened.”
He returns to the locker room to find out that one of his young coworkers got the job and the guys are going out to celebrate. Howard waves off joining them, instead visiting Emily at the hospital as he does every night. He brings fresh flowers for her, stopping to deposit one in the vase at the nurses’ station.
Howard’s return to the comfortable safety of routine is interrupted by a second visitor, his brother-in-law Eric. He has been sent by Emily’s mother to get Howard to sign papers authorizing a transfer. Emily’s mother is apparently a woman of some prominence and/or power, and she wants Emily “at home” and “surrounded by family.” Howard replies, with a hint of defeat, “I’m her family.” Eric leaves the papers and Howard settles in to read a book to Emily until visiting hours are over.
A Bit of a Situation
The next morning, Howard’s routine is irrevocably broken. His badge is rejected at the security checkpoint and he is brought to a room where Aldrich from “Housekeeping” and Mr. Quail are waiting for him. Someone has walked in from the “Other Side” and is only willing to speak to Howard. This person is brought in with a bag over their head, sat down at the table, and then the big reveal: it’s Howard.
He looks exactly like Howard, but he is nothing like Howard. This version is tough, hardened, and openly sarcastic. He scoffs at Howard Alpha only being an Interface man. He’s there because a kill order has come out from his side targeting people on their side. He implies their “4th Floor” might be compromised and their intelligence is “kind of a shit show” right now. His time is limited, so he moves to leave, with plans to return on a 12-hour visa the next day.
Outside, Quail gives Howard an abbreviated brief about what is going on:
30 years ago, during the Cold War, there was an experiment, an accident, in this building. Eastern scientists…something went wrong. They opened up a passage directly beneath us. When you go through this door, you come out the other side, you’re in another world, identical to ours…Same events, same experiences. So, where this building stands, where we are now—this is called the Crossing…So, when this door opened, our paths began to branch off. More and more, over time.
Aldrich returns and says that Howard Prime gave them a name of someone on the list: Emily Silk, Howard’s wife. They send Howard away, assuring him that they’ll handle it.
That evening, Howard goes to visit Emily again while Baldwin tracks down the first of her marks: the young coworker of Howard’s who snagged the Strategy job from him. In the morning, Howard has his usual game of Go. Still obviously disturbed by his encounter with his counterpart the day before, he asks his opponent if he thinks “life is just a sum of our choices.” His friend espouses the view that there is no such thing as choice: “You are who you are. I am what I am. And the game only ends one way.”
Howard Prime comes through the Crossing and is whisked away by Quail and Aldrich to Howard’s apartment. Howard is reduced to playing host while the other three talk. Howard Prime explains that there has been infighting on his side and that a hard-line ideological faction may be trying to take over. He doesn’t know why this faction is now targeting people on the other side, but it isn’t random.
Howard asks why his Emily is on the hit list and Howard Prime supposes that they are trying to send him a message. “Why not target his Emily?” Howard asks. “Because she’s dead,” Howard Prime replies. Cancer. Howard explains that Emily is in the hospital, hit crossing the street six weeks ago by a kid not paying attention. Howard Prime jumps at the chance to use her as bait. He will switch places with Howard and kill Baldwin himself when she shows up. Quail and Aldrich leave the two Howards alone to “get acquainted” while they make arrangements.
The next scene is probably the highlight of the pilot, and possibly the entire season. It is also a remarkable feat of acting and editing. Five solid minutes of only J.K. Simmons on screen, playing the dual roles of Howard Alpha and Howard Prime. Even though they are now dressed nearly identical, you never have a problem discerning the one from the other. Simmons embodies the entire history of each character: the placid defeat of Howard Alpha, the relentless loneliness of Howard Prime. As Marks puts it so well, “This isn’t a fake mustache parallel dimension.”
Howard Prime comes out of the bedroom, having changed into one of Howard Alpha’s suits. He marvels at the tie, his favorite which he had lost years ago. Howard Alpha tells him to keep it because he hasn’t worn it in years. This first interaction sums up everything about them: the same, yet different.
Nonetheless, Howard Alpha is giddy with excitement at the opportunity to discuss memories and feelings he’s had his whole life that only belonged to him. He tries to get Howard Prime to try a dessert from the bakery downstairs because it reminds him of his childhood—now their childhood. Prime waves it off, though, because he has high cholesterol. Doesn’t Alpha? “I…I…I don’t think so,” he answers. “Okay,” Prime deadpans.
For his part, Howard Prime only wants to know one thing: how come Howard Alpha never got out of Interface? What held him back? Alpha replies, “Just, uh, life, I guess.” Prime is just baffled that Alpha appears not to regret where he’s ended up in his life.
Howard Prime: “See, this is what’s so fucked up. Genetics, childhood. Doesn’t matter. We’re helpless to our experience. Difference between you and me could be a single moment, one little thing gone wrong.
Howard Alpha: “Or right.”
They exchange some details about Howard’s routine at the hospital, critically leaving out the flowers. This eventually leads them to talking about Emily. In the end, the one thing they agree upon is that they both have some regrets. Aldrich returns and brings their exchange to a close with one of the funniest lines of the pilot:
Aldrich: “Which one are you?”
Howard Prime: “Fuck off.”
Aldrich: “It’s time.”
On the way to the hospital, Howard Alpha remembers the flowers and has them pull over to buy some. Howard Prime goes up to the hospital room, but does not stop to drop off one in the vase at the nurses’ station. Aldrich asks Howard Alpha what they talked about and he replies, “cholesterol.”
A visitor arrives at the hospital, but it’s not the assassin; it’s Emily’s brother, Eric. Howard Prime quickly brings his counterpart up to speed on the situation. Quail urges him to just sign the paperwork and get rid of Eric. Eric warns that his mother will sue Howard until he submits. Alpha thinks about it for a few seconds and then calmly says “no.” He has the reins of Alpha’s life and he takes charge. He tells Eric off and makes his own implied threat that they don’t want him, “with nothing left to say.” After all, he is the Howard of action, not the Howard of words.
Just then another visitor is spotted—a woman. It’s Baldwin. Howard Prime pulls his gun and tells Eric to stay put and shut up. He hides in a janitor’s closet just before Emily’s room. Baldwin strolls confidently past the nurses’ station but pauses when she notices the empty vase. She moves to backtrack her way out when a helpful nurse asks if she can help her. Howard bursts out and Baldwin turns to run; they exchange gun fire and a nurse is shot. Quail and Aldrich rush in, leaving Howard Alpha handcuffed in the car.
A chase ensues as the Strategy men close in on Baldwin within the hospital. She leaps out a window and ends up toppling down on top of the car Howard Alpha is sitting in. As she closes her eyes and catches her breath, Howard Alpha and his wife’s would-be assassin are face-to-face for a moment. When she opens her eyes and sees Howard, she moves to shoot him, but Howard Prime hits her from afar. However, he is out of bullets, and Baldwin flees the scene. Aldrich removes Howard’s handcuffs and he races up to check on his wife.
So What Happens Next?
Later, back at the agency, Quail asks Howard Prime what happens next. Howard states matter-of-factly that Baldwin will try again. He’ll work on getting another visa, but they’re going to need his counterpart again. Quail says he’ll talk to him.
After Prime leaves, Quail drives Alpha home. On the way, he tells Howard:
You know, I remember when I first found out. It doesn’t normally happen like this, you know. There’s…there’s people you have to talk to. There’s, like, doctors and psychiatrists. You’re read in. There’s this whole process. And you…you…[he chuckles].
Here again is the implication of Howard’s secret inner strength. This is the kind of thing that could break a man mentally—has, in fact, according to Howard Prime earlier—and he had no preparation whatsoever.
Quail asks if they can count on him to continue to help and Howard just turns to walk away. Quail stops him and asks what he wants. Howard finds a little of his counterpart’s boldness within him. He tells Quail that he wants the promotion he should have had three days ago, with real access and real knowledge of what’s going on. They need him now, so Quail will need to figure it out.
The pilot concludes following Howard Prime through the Crossing. He exits on his side, and walks to a nearby bar. He wades through the crowd to a table towards the back and sits down. Across from him…is Emily Silk. His Emily—Emily Prime—is apparently very much alive. She asks, “What on earth have you been doing over there?”
The pilot serves as the perfect introduction to this rich and well thought out universe—or rather, universes. Howard is just the first of many characters who meet and interact with their counterpart, but J.K. Simmons sets a high bar with his initial performance. There are characters who cooperate with their other, who work against their other, and who even kill their other. At this point, our flashlights have barely illuminated a sliver of what the writers have to offer. Each subsequent episode shows us a bit more and leaves us with a new twist in the story. Eventually, in Season 2, we even get a very satisfying flashback episode that tells the origin story of the Crossing and the scientists responsible for it.
We now know that Counterpart will forever be limited to the two seasons that aired on Starz. As one user on the r/counterpart Reddit commented: “Starz is to TV shows what Fox was in the 90s. Can’t stay out of their own way, underpromoting all of their shows to the point where no one seems to know they are even airing and then cancelling them once fans get hooked.” While the writers had plans for the show that would have needed five seasons minimum, the intent was always that the first two seasons were the “Berlin chapter” of the story. So in that way, what we have is a perfect series that itself has two identities: one that is complete and another that will be forever open-ended.