Television Tuesday: Counterpart, Season Two

The second season of the STARZ original show Counterpart is off to a solid start. This portal fantasy (because that’s basically what it is) works best when it’s drawing on its spy story roots, or raising philosophical questions about identity and existence. With five new episodes under its belt, the story is getting deeper into the existential, and more suspenseful with each hour. Good work!

Before I discuss what I’m liking this season and what concerns me this season, I’ll lightly recap. Counterpart takes takes place in (supposedly) present day Berlin, at a UN office with a super-secret purpose. Back in 1986 a physics experiment in what was then East Berlin created a split — a separate, identical universe. Since 1986, the two worlds have grown farther and farther apart. Nobody except a handful of people on either side know about each others’ mirror-world. There is one passage between these worlds, under the UN’s building.

(One of the best parts of Counterpart is this passage, which does not rely on special FX, CGI, flashing lights or anything. It’s just a mundane basement tunnel. You may have walked through one from your hotel to a convention center, for instance. Yes, this is borrowing heavily if not stealing from China Mieville’s The City and the City, but it’s well done.)

For purposes of clarity, “our” world is called Alpha and the mirror world is called Prime. Season One focused on a conspiracy against Alpha world by highly placed operatives from Prime. They call themselves Indigo. Their scheme included sleeper cells and a Body-Snatchers-style plot that involved replacing Alpha world people with their Prime doubles, who were agents.

The second season has focused more on the aspects of Emily, the complicated wife of Howard Silk. Alpha Howard is a Decent Guy. Prime Howard is a Shriveled-Souled Badass. In Season one, the Howards changed places, presumably temporarily, and now Decent Guy Howard is not only trapped in Prime world, he’s been imprisoned.

In Alpha world, Emily was a battle-hardened field operative who hid that fact from her husband. She was in a coma through 80% of Season One, the result of an assassination attempt on her. Prime Emily is a battle-hardened field operative whose husband was well aware of her work, with an adult daughter and a pill habit, which may or may not be behind her. In Season Two, Alpha Emily, out of her coma, struggles with an injured brain and attempts to make sense of her life, most specifically why she doesn’t quite trust the man who seems to be her husband. In Prime world, field operative Emily follows the trail of breadcrumbs of Alpha Emily, who secretly came to Prime world more than once. The plot is deeply convoluted and morally ambiguous.

The Indigo conspiracy was inspired largely by a belief among the residents of Prime world that an influenza virus which killed 7% of their world’s population came from the Alpha side, and was perhaps planted deliberately. In Season One, a few highly placed people on the Alpha side indignantly denied this. Now, in Season Two, it seems as if Alpha Emily found some evidence that the virus did come from the Alpha side.

Much of Season Two’s time, though, is spent wondering what it would be like to meet yourself, a different self. The show has done a gorgeous job of giving us two Howards and letting us see the “other” in each of them. The same with the Emilys — and there is far less distance between the Emilys. A new Prime character, Yakov, insists that it is “natural” to hate your other; that it should be “war” between two people who are the same person, but whose life took different turns. The show then comes up with ways to refute this. There are the Alices, who live quite happily in a menage a trois with the man they both love. While he is an awful character, Lambert – or rather, the Lamberts — are another example; a shallow, hedonistic, self-centered man who finds, with another him, that “the more’s the merrier” when it comes to sex, drugs and booze, which after himself are his favorite things in either world.

Alpha Peter Quayle, Howard Silk’s boss, is a mess. Prime Peter Quayle is a mess, too.

These are the things I’m liking about the show, along with the lovely, moody cinematography and the full use of Berlin, the perfect city for this story. There are a few things that worry me.

Because the show has resorted to cliche plot points time after time in subplots, I was seriously worried that the “twin worlds” were going to be revealed at the end to be some kind of virtual reality; probably not as hokey as “we’re trapped in a video game,” but something similar. The intentional weird creepiness of Management, never seen or heard directly, fed this fear. Now I don’t think it’s going to be that, exactly, but I fear that we will discover that there is only one group called Management, not two as we’ve been encouraged to believe, and that, even if the worlds are “real,” Management is conducting experiments (for example, releasing the influenza virus). If that’s what transpires, I will be disappointed.

When I think of a show or book that Counterpart is like, I’m split between The City and the City (although those cities are nothing alike) and a TV show called Fringe. I’d go so far as to say that if you liked Fringe, you should check out Counterpart.

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