Counterpart is about finding your true self. Some things can hold you back and keep you from becoming that version of yourself you’re meant to be. But what if there were another you out there, one that may not be the perfect version, but entirely different based on life splitting and different choices made? The Starz series, here in its first season, does just that, offering this personal portrait with spy thriller excitement, impeccable performances, and an emotional thread that makes the show become something truly special.
For the matter of simplicity, any in the originating world (the one that started the series), will be named normally. Their double, from the other side, will be aptly called, Other (Name), like Other Howard.
Howard Silk (J. K. Simmons) is an Interface man, a lower-level government employee who goes into a room, says some rather intriguing things to a person across from him, and then moves on with his day. He doesn’t know what it means and doesn’t seem to care. His wife is in a coma in the hospital, and that’s all that matters to him beyond his failed promotion. The next day at work, he is brought to a bunker-like interrogation room. A man with a bag over his head is placed across from him, and when lifted off… it’s himself.
This begins a wonderful introduction into a science fiction spy game which only gets better as it goes. An incident a few decades before split worlds apart, and now they are connected by a place called The Crossing, an underground tunnel that one can cross from one side to the other. This could easily go off the rails under less careful hands, but here, under creator Justin Marks and showrunner Amy Berg, the series digs deep into its characters and the dilemmas they find themselves in.
Part of the fun is, of course, the two worlds colliding as this spy game occurs. They are different in various ways, as shown throughout the season, but close enough where it isn’t completely sci-fi. There’s an infiltration game, spies coming over for an unknown reason to both assassinate certain targets and smuggle others across. This is the main story piece, uncovering what is at play.
The major differences come in characterization; this is where the show shines brightest. Simmons plays the two Howard Silks brilliantly, the main Howard meek and quiet, the Other Howard brash and dangerous and angry. The way Other Howard treats Howard once together is with disdain and disappointment, that his double could be so soft and weak. But what’s interesting about this is that he is mistaking softness for weakness, when it is just a completely different personality than his own. Kindness is something he doesn’t understand. If he ever does show it, it’s because he needs something, or out of necessity. The show plays with their differences in really brilliant ways, throwing them into situations where slowly, but surely, their other versions start to shine through one another.
The show uses simple techniques to transition from one side to the other, with fading a street view to show the difference in the city skyline. But most of the time, it’s simply told by the color of the character’s clothing and what characters are interacting, and knowing that Howard and Other Howard share such opposite mannerisms and personalities that it’s easy to differentiate between the two.
Olivia Williams is given a double role of Emily Silk, Howard’s wife (the one in a coma) and the other side as his ex-wife, a higher-up in intelligence. She has difficulties based on the job she faces, and justifiably so. Her role on the other side is excellently played, and her understated and subtext-ridden scenes with Simmons lead to some really great moments between both as the season plays out.
Harry Lloyd as Peter Quayle is at first a difficult character to like, as he is someone who lucked into his job and does not seem to quite care for anyone beyond himself. He professes he knows this, too, in one of his many alcohol-infused honesty sessions. But as he develops, he becomes wonderfully unstuck from his easy life, and watching his character slowly cling to anything he can as the walls crumble gives Lloyd a lot to work with, and he pulls it off perfectly.
Ulrich Thomsen, who was great in Cinemax’s Banshee, plays Aldrich, the man in charge of Housekeeping: essentially the black ops and clean-up crew for the intelligence agency. He is a quiet character, more an observer in any scene he is in. But when he does speak, his words are with care and usually with meaning past their initial statement. Thomsen is always an interesting actor, seeming to have something bubbling under the surface kept just at bay.
The more interesting character apart from Simmons’ dual role is that of Nazanin Boniadi, who plays Clare. Without spoilers, the care and attention given to her backstory and the natural progression explaining her life were fascinating. Nazanin’s performance shines as her story lends her a great amount of range later in the season, bringing forward a character I was always happy to see more of.
That brings up the thing Counterpart does so well: it gives each character the attention they deserve. None of the main and recurring cast are shortchanged, even if it takes some time to get there. When that becomes two characters in two worlds, that can certainly prove a task, but the show handles it effortlessly, the story’s main goal to serve the characters. You understand them, you can see the reasons they are the way they are. Everything keeps moving while maintaining these characters at the forefront of the spycraft.
The show is slow and methodical with its unfolding but never boring, giving you something fascinating in the way it presents information and philosophical ideas of self and pushing characters well out of their comfort zones. Its science fiction bent is minimal, at least initially, and provides an effective way to propel two worlds, having become different over time, that are weary of one another and hold a shaky balance that is secretly ready to collapse. These ten episodes are smartly written and directed, allowing for the characters and their actions to have consequences as they hunt down the conspiracy which could prove this collapse.
But at its heart is Simmons continuing to be unstoppable in his acting chops. Episode eight, “Love the Lie”, has Simmons at his most powerful, a performance that for eight minutes is otherworldly in its layers and feeling like a ticking clock finally ready to ring. It’s one of the major highlights of the season, and more proof Simmons is one of the great actors of his generation.
Counterpart is, at first glance, a spy thriller made up of infiltration and shadow work. But dig a little deeper, like any good science fiction tale, and it’s the story of humanity, what makes you you, and about different lives lived. It tears back the curtain and shows characters split at a moment in time, and converging due to movements beyond their control. Adding that back into the spy thriller leads to some incredible television, and something that caught me completely by surprise and became something far more than I was expecting. Come for double Simmons, stay for something brilliant.