Tuesday 12 March 2019

A Requiem To Counterpart

Three weeks ago with very little fanfare, the finest television show you weren’t watching went off the
J.K. Simmons absolutely crushes it
playing double roles in Counterpart.
(Image via theringer.com)
air for good.

Beautifully filmed, perfectly acted, and tightly written, Counterpart was a weird alternate history spy show that never found its audience — possibly in part because it was hidden away on a channel known more for historical dramas and classic movies. One hopes that like previous gone-too-soon shows like Firefly and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Counterpart will find an afterlife as a cult classic. 

There Are Two Of Everything

The set-up for Counterpart is deceptively simple: 35 years ago, German scientists accidentally opened a doorway to a parallel universe. When they discovered this alternate world, it was exactly the same as our own, but over the subsequent decades the histories of these two worlds have diverged in unexpected and chaotic ways. 

Today, there is a bureaucratic government organization that guards the doorway and regulates the transfer of information and people between the two worlds. Our protagonist, Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) exists as a low-level, mild-mannered functionary for the organization in our universe, while his mirror universe counterpart is a deadly spy. 

Mirror universes are a frequently visited trope in science fiction television, from Star Trek to Doctor Who to Futurama. What is often lacking in these alternates is nuance — Star Trek’s mirror universe is Manichean with evil bad guys and good heroes. Counterpart revels in the grey. 

The wall between worlds allows the show runners to tell a modern-day version of the classic Berlin Wall spy story. And on its surface, this is a first-rate spy thriller that would be comparable to some of Robert Ludlum’s best work. You’ve got secret agents, double-crossings, mole hunts, and moral quandaries, all delivered with a satisfying panache. 

But Counterpart also works in other ways. Beneath the spy surface, it’s a Philip K. Dick-style science fiction story about how fragile our socially constructed understandings of self actually are. Narrative framework is employed to explore how the decisions we make don’t just affect what happens to us, they fundamentally affect who we are. 

Berlin Reflections

Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons gives what may be the finest performance of his career as the twin versions of Howard Silk, making both characters believable, relatable, and distinct from one another. Given no other clues but how Simmons is acting, it’s possible to discern Silk Prime from his mirror universe counterpart. More interestingly, one can discern how the inner workings of these two people serve different motivations. 

Beyond Simmons as Howard Silk, there’s a deep bench of acting talent. Harry Lloyd (Viserys
Emily Silk (Olivia Williams) meets
Emily Howard (Olivia Williams).
(Image via TVLine.Com)
Targaryen on Game of Thrones) plays his conflicted boss, and sells the character’s growing sense of dread. Olivia Williams is impeccable as both Silk’s wife in the regular universe, and his ex-wife in the mirror universe. In the second season, Academy Award-winner James Cromwell joins the cast.

It is also worth noting that the show has a unique — and well executed — sense of visual style. First-episode director and co-producer Morten Tyldum (who was Academy Award-nominated for The Imitation Game) uses the looming brutalist architecture of the city to create the intended sense of place (either claustrophobia or intimacy, depending on scene) while numerous symmetrical shots suggest balance.

Unlike many shows that were cancelled too soon, Counterpart was given the chance to end things properly with a series two finale that wraps up every narrative thread nicely, and to sum up the primary themes and the thesis of the series. While some viewers might find the pay-off episodes slow to materialize, the conclusion is satisfying enough to be worthy of the journey.

Having aired on February 28, 2018, Season 1 Episode 6 "Act Like You've Been Here Before" will be at the top of our Hugo Nominations Ballots this year. It is also almost certain that next year, we will be using our nominating ballots on Season 2 Episode 6, "Twin Cities.”

Having lasted only two seasons of ten episodes each, Counterpart does not take an enormous burden of time, and provides far more intellectual grist than most shows that last ten times as long.

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