TV: Counterpart (Season 2)

The first season of Counterpart wowed me with its high-concept, genre-fusing premise and polished, immersive execution. It also raised unanswered questions and left room for elaboration, so I was anxious to revisit its two worlds. The resulting ten-episode season is a worthy send-off for the short-lived series, which—despite nods toward potential future narrative—is probably better for having ended when it did.

Counterpart tells the tale of an interdimensional cold war between two parallel worlds. In Berlin, the Office of Interchange sits on a portal between the worlds, and there—on both sides—intelligence services and diplomats exchange information and negotiate trades between universes while regulating passage through the crossing. In the first season, one of the office’s lowly peons, Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), awakens to the truth of his work when confronted by his “other,” who arrives from the neighboring universe. Howard’s other, as it happens, is the kind of character J.K. Simmons might play: a foul-mouthed, badass agent in the Office’s higher echelons. At some point, the two Howards’ paths diverged drastically. They don’t like each other much, but they find themselves working together to combat a threat to the interdimensional peace.

Season two follows in the wake of a terrorist event, which results in a break in diplomatic talks between the worlds, and the sealing of the portal. This happens, however, with each Howard trapped on the wrong side. Modest Howard Prime is a prisoner in his mirror world, exiled to a secret bunker full of “others” who are being mined for information about their lives pre-divergence—an intelligence-gathering farm for operations against Howard’s home world. Meanwhile, Howard’s other is back in the “Prime” world, living with Howard Prime’s wife Emily (Olivia Williams), who has awakened from a coma with a fragmented memory. Emily is an important agent of the Office of Interchange, and Howard’s other is masquerading as Howard Prime in an effort to wring secrets out of her.

Even in separate worlds, however, the Howards’ fates are intertwined. The contentious rivalry between the worlds—a slowly escalating cycle of offense and retribution—is only heating up again. A mysterious, unseen Office of Interchange group known as “Management” is attempting to steer the situation, but the Howards—not to mention the Emilys, and many other counterparts— are inexorably entangled in the fate of the portal, which a radical group is working to close forever.

Counterpart’s nicely clocked first season mixes classic espionage with Twilight Zone-like surreality to great effect, getting terrific mileage out of Simmons’ deft performance as alternately meek and gruff characters, sometimes head-to-head. But even at its best, it was more successful for its genre ambience and thematic depth than its world-building logistics. The same can be said for season two, which opens unforgivingly with a tangle of opaque narrative that gradually start to come together into something more comprehensible and urgent. It’s these early episodes of the season that diminish its rating, really; they’re dense and sluggish, and it’s easy to lose sight of the greater stakes in the churn of scattered intrigue. But the pace picks up as the season moves along, and really starts to gel once the origin mystery of the Office of Interchange is finally revealed, in the crucial sixth episode, “Twin Cities.” This episode sharpens the themes of the first season, the ethical dilemmas the counterparts face when seeing their other selves and how they have fared based on their decidedly different decisions. In the end, this is the angle of the show that most interests its writers; the spycraft and the subtle alternate-worlds dualities are tantalizing window-dressing, but the show’s heart is with the thematic exploration of its characters—especially Howard and Emily, but also Howard’s boss Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd) and Peter’s wife Clare (Nazanin Boniadi), whose fraught inter-world marriage is really put through the wringer when the truth comes to light.

In the end, despite the early lull in momentum in the second season, I really enjoyed Counterpart overall. It’s a slick, memorable, and attractive show that uses its neat cross-genre trappings to tell interesting human stories about ethics, choices, and fate. I’m sad to see it go, even as I think its short run brought it to a genuinely satisfying destination.

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