TV Review: Starz’s “Counterpart” Worth the Price of Admission
I know, I know. Just what you need. Another subscription. But trust me, Counterpart is worth it.
The Starz series was created and produced by Justin Marks, who is best known for his 2016 Jungle Book screenplay. You’ll also catch him in Counterpart cameos as Alexander Pope’s (Stephen Rea) dog walker.
The incomparable J.K. Simmons plays Howard Silk, a low-level employee in Berlin’s Office of Interchange (OI). He’s worked for his department for nearly 30 years, and still isn’t aware of what his office does.
Howard’s wife Emily (Olivia Williams) was struck by a car several weeks earlier and remains in a coma at the hospital. Howard dutifully visits her every evening, bringing her fresh flowers and reading poetry.
Howard is mindlessly moving through life when suddenly his badge doesn’t work, preventing him from entering the OI office. He’s shuffled into a private room where he meets his doppelganger: a man with his face and his name. We learn along with Howard that his “other,” Howard Prime, is from another dimension created during the Cold War. In the last 30 years, the OI has served as a gateway between the parallel universes.
Howard Prime knows of a contract assassin from the other side, known as Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), who has Emily Silk on her kill list. They need Howard Silk (AKA Howard Alpha) to help them catch the assassin.
It’s a sucker punch to be hit with so much information at once, and we’re left floundering along with Howard Alpha.
Patience is a required virtue when watching this series. You have to sit through scenes without knowing what’s happening, and you might not know for several episodes. I found this extremely frustrating, which I realize says a lot more about me than the show itself.
The Howards had identical childhoods, but in the last 30 years, their lives have grown increasingly different. The rugged and cocky Howard Prime has a much higher position at the OI on his side and is outspoken about his disdain for meek Howard Alpha. He helps Howard Alpha get a promotion, in an attempt to fashion him in his image.
In a plot twist that absolutely everyone saw coming, the Howards pull a Freaky Friday and switch places. As a testament to Simmons’s work, it gets harder and harder to tell the Howards apart. Fascinating to watch, it becomes a game to identify which Howard is in the scene. What was so obvious at first shrinks into subtle hints: Howard Alpha is a mouth breather, and takes more time to find his words.
About halfway through the season, several things were falling flat for me. This may be because I watched Counterpart on a computer screen, but I found it too hard to tell the worlds apart at times. Also, it was a casting flaw to have different characters look so similar. For example, I thought Clare (Nazanin Boniadi) and Anna Silk (Sarah Bolger) were the same actress for a minute. There is also a plethora of characters, many without names. And if you’re trying to write an article about said characters, it can get a little frustrating.
Without giving too much away, Counterpart mirrors the board game it features, Go. Go is a strategic game with a goal to surround the most territory on the board.
Similarly, the two worlds are currently in a war of intelligence. The other side suffered from a flu pandemic in the 90s, which wiped out 7 percent of the world’s population. People today wear masks, have sanitizer on street corners, and public places are deserted. The other side blames us for the pandemic, and they have been plotting their revenge ever since.
What makes Counterpart so special is the almost blatant lack of attention it pays to the existence of the portal to another dimension. Instead, the concepts of identity and relationships (marriage, specifically) are picked apart and examined.
As we meet the characters’ others, it is fascinating to uncover their differences and similarities. It could launch a thousand spin-offs.
The characters’ relationships with their others are riddled with complication and complexity. What causes the divergence? Is one counterpart better than the other and why? Some characters are able to kill their counterpart, while others can’t.
The majority of the characters in Counterpart are spies, so they spend their lives pretending to be someone else, yet they crave the comfort of relationships or marriage even if they are a fraudulent copy of the real thing. Is it possible to love someone without knowing who they are? In one scene, Emily Prime eloquently explains her affection for Howard Alpha like a “phantom limb.”
For me, the last two episodes of Counterpart are Marks’s very best work. His attention to detail makes for an exceptional, surprisingly thoughtful show.
Counterpart is clearly setting up for season two, which should be released in early 2019.
Also, if you have some free time, you can test your spy skills and apply for a job at the OI: officeofinterchange.com.