[Guest review by Nadine West (@andiekarenina)]
If you can measure how gripping a new TV show is by how quickly you google “will there be a season 2?” after your binge-watch of Season 1, then Starz Network’s Counterpart has to be counted as a roaring success. The end credits had barely started to roll before I was urgently searching for reassurance that I would get to spend more time in the compelling parallel universes that creator Justin Marks has so skilfully brought to life.
Counterpart centres around the main character of Howard Silk (Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons), who we are introduced to as a low-level clerk working in a humdrum government department in Berlin: he is mild, cowed, a little defeated, shuffling between his workplace, where he exchanges impenetrable coded messages with other grey men in sinister booths, and the hospital where his wife lies in a coma. The work he does involves espionage of some kind but at such a faceless, bureaucratic level that he knows little about its function. He longs for promotion, but is repeatedly passed over due to his age and passive temperament. Of course, in short order, it is revealed that nothing here is as it seems. A crisis sees Howard thrown headlong into the secret that lies at the heart of this shadowy organisation: the Berlin he lives in is also the gateway to an alternate universe, which split from his own thirty years ago, and is the crossing-point for spies, diplomats and assassins from this parallel dimension. When Howard’s counterpart – his other self from the parallel world – arrives to investigate a high-level conspiracy, he, everyone around him, and the security of his world as he knows it, are plunged into danger.
The plot of Counterpart is taut and twisting, and plays deftly with tropes of the thriller and cold-war espionage genres: the highest levels of security have been compromised, two worlds in uneasy co-existence are tumbling towards open warfare, and no one can be trusted. Its storytelling is always engaging, with cliffhangers and sudden betrayals used to great effect. But the true genius of this series lies in the dual roles played by the central cast: everyone has another self in the parallel word – their counterpart – and these identical-seeming others are often very, very different. J.K. Simmons, playing both Howards, is simply masterful here: Howard from the other world is a high-status bully, an alpha male who arrives with a swagger of authority, in stark contrast to “our” Howard, and the scenes of conflict between the two Howards are virtuoso masterclasses of the actor’s abilities. In early episodes, you can tell which Howard you are looking at from the first second he appears on screen through Simmons’s chameleonic performance alone.
One of the fascinating details of writing here, however, and one of the series’ key themes, is whether small choices we make truly shape who we are, and whether nature, or 30 years of nurture and experience, really defines us. Are the counterparts really as different as they seem? Olivia Williams and Sara Serraiocco also excel here, Williams as Emily Silk, wife to Howard in both worlds, and Serraiocco as Nadia/Baldwin, a troubled concert violinist in “our” world and an equally troubled assassin in the other, who is assigned to kill her own counterpart. The series raises the question of what defines an individual over and over again: Emily from the other world is a high-level spy, amoral and hard-nosed; is Emily in “our” world the simple, devoted wife we believe her to be? Baldwin and Nadia have very different lives, but can either of them shake the years of brutal abuse that defined their shared childhoods before the worlds diverged? And, most centrally, is one Howard a brute and bully, and the other a weak and lonely pushover, or do they share more than we might think?
Counterpart wears its Sci-Fi lightly, avoiding clumsy exposition and allowing our understanding of the nature of the two worlds to unfold organically as the plot develops. It looks stunning, with clever cinematography and set design which occasionally reminds the viewer of Andrew Nichol’s Gattaca in its hearking back to a cold war aesthetic which is both evocative and unsettling. Small differences between the worlds are placed judiciously – the use of divergent technology is particularly effective – and questions about the origin of the worlds’ divergence are allowed to remain shrouded in secrecy. It doesn’t over-explain, and as such retains a real grasp on the viewer, as we discover the darker aspects of this dystopia for ourselves. The climax of series 1 is full of tension, shattering in execution, and reminds us that realpolitik between nations can be a cruel, cold thing, and that any one of us is capable of both shocking violence and dreadful compromise in the name of those we love.
The good news is that Season 2 begins in December 2018, and that we do not have long to wait before we can step back across the border between these two worlds. Counterpart has a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which even I think is over-egging it just a little, but it’s certainly a 9.5 out of 10 from me.