Counterpart is a new scifi/spy/thriller series from STARZ starring JK Simmons as two very different men who live in two different versions of the same world. The worlds are connected by a secret passage in Berlin that’s heavily guarded and controlled by the two world’s governments. Up until 30 years ago, there was one world, but then scientists caused it to split into two branching realities. The politics of each world spill over into the other world, causing friction and intrigue.
Each person has an “other” in the alternate reality, a duplicate self who may be nothing like themselves. The other self frequently becomes a target of political plots originated on the opposite side. Since the alternate realities have been kept a secret from the general public on both sides, this can cause some confusion.
On one side of this divide, Howard Silk (JK Simmons) is a mild-mannered company man who loves his wife and goes to work at his routine, low-level job every day. He follows the rest of his daily and weekly routine without fail, always dependable, but boring and living a limited life that will never move forward from where he’s been stuck for 30 years. He’s so passive that he has no idea what his company does, or even what his daily tasks mean or accomplish. But he is loving and kindhearted, the kind of guy who remembers the names of the nurses on duty every night at the hospital where his wife Emily (Olivia Williams) is in a coma after a car accident.
The other Howard Silk appears to be his exact opposite. He stands straight and tall, and is in control of every room he walks into. He gives away nothing that he doesn’t have to, whether it’s emotional or information. He’s always calculating, because he’s always in danger. He’s a top level operative, and the other side is in the midst of a major political upheaval. He doesn’t have friends or loved ones, he has a network of informants and advisors, some of whom he trades favors with. Every relationship is transactional for him, which has kept him alive and made him a valuable spy, but means that he has no one to turn to when his own life is on the line.
Which is perhaps the unspoken reason for his insistence on including his other self in his operations in the world that isn’t his own. It makes sense in the pilot, because he needs to briefly impersonate BoringHoward. But after that? All that BoringHoward brings to the table are the innate skills with which they were both born, which are considerable, but which each developed in a different direction.
BoringHoward points this out himself, and SpyHoward pretends that he altruistically wants to improve BoringHoward’s life. That may be part of the truth, but this cold as ice operator wouldn’t risk being dragged down by a bumbling amateur out of charity. He doesn’t trust anyone. If there’s one thing that can be said about BoringHoward, it’s that he’s trustworthy. It would be very attractive to SpyHoward to have someone he could understand like he understands himself, but who took the gentler path that SpyHoward could see and turned away from.
BoringHoward, for his part, is protective, and his comatose wife is in danger. In the pilot, SpyHoward lies to BoringHoward and his handlers, telling them that the Emily from his side died of cancer. In fact, she’s alive and a master spy in her own right, but she and SpyHoward are estranged. SpyHoward lied to protect her from becoming more of a target. In the future, she could become more motivation for Boring Howard to help SpyHoward.
In the first two episodes, each Howard is developed, and we’re introduced to several supporting characters. We spend most of the pilot in BoringHoward’s world. The second episode is split between the two worlds.
BoringHoward’s world is stuck in some Orwellian version of the industrial 50s or 60s, with everyone wearing bland suits, and almost everyone being a white man. The architecture is boxy and imposing, and the society seems oppressive. The gay man of color is buried almost immediately, and as mentioned earlier, BoringHoward’s wife has been fridged before the show even begins.
SpyHoward’s world is more open, with women and people of color in positions of power. The architecture is creative. The city of Berlin, where the series takes place, seems brighter and parklike. The writing and names on the buildings appear more Eastern European. The split happened before the end of the Cold War. Maybe this Berlin sided with Russia instead of Europe.
The show itself covers territory that’s been covered many times before, from Orphan Black to Fringe. Both shows did multiple selves better, and Fringe did multiple universes better. Counterpart feels to me more like a standard spy show with a scifi twist than a true scifi show. It’s similar to STARZ’ Outlander in that sense. Outlander is technically a scifi/time travel show, but in reality spends most of its time being a period romance/adventure. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love Red Jaimie as much as the next middle-aged woman, but it’s not scifi except in the broadest terms.
Counterpart is fine as a spy show, but it’s not my genre. I didn’t feel like I got to know any of the characters other than the Howards, or learned enough about either world or the conflicts between them to judge where the show is going or if I’d want to go with it. The episodes were about the Howards and some frankly meaningless plot devices. The set up for the show is interesting, but they’d have to actually play with it, rather than tease, to keep my interest.
The show has set limits on its own creativity by keeping the separate worlds secret from each other and only having one, heavily guarded portal between worlds. The science behind the split and the portal aren’t understood, so the portal can’t be duplicated. Unless Walter Bishop and his other show up, having been in hiding for 30 years, which I strongly suspect will happen in season 2 or 3.
The first two episodes kept their worlds small and their plots minimal, only revealing essential information, but including many cryptic teases. These are spies after all. This suggests that the show will hang its plot on slowly revealing clues rather than actual storytelling, with editing tricks, action, and snappy dialogue taking the place of a coherent story. It’s currently a popular method, but not my favorite. Too much style, not enough substance.
But my biggest complaint about Counterpart is the glaring misogyny. The pilot barely had any women, other than Emily in her hospital bed, and those few barely spoke 10 lines altogether. The second episode had more women, but in order to make up for forcing people to listen to women speak, the women had to take their clothes off. We had full frontal nudity from one, while having a conversation with another gorgeous young woman. Another had sex, then had a conversation while still naked afterward. Her partner was a black man. It was as if they needed to exploit anyone who wasn’t a white male. The two exposed women were the two women with the biggest roles on the show. No nudity from the male regulars. And I wouldn’t mind seeing Jamie Bamber, who plays Howard’s brother-in-law Eric, take some clothes off. Equal time and exposure, guys.
In the second episode, they clearly tried to improve the gender balance, but the women were still barely allowed to speak, and there were still very few. They were generally portrayed as victims. Even the female assassin spent most of her time avoiding being caught. Both of her selves were portrayed as weak, traumatized and afraid.
There were a few more men of color in small roles in each world in the second episode. But this is a show about and for straight white men who enjoy violence and political intrigue. It’s for straight white men who want to see people like them winning again, controlling all of the power and secrets. Men who want to go back to the Cold War, when America was great because they had all of the jobs, the money and the power, while women and people of color had to hope to be taken care of. Just like BoringHoward’s comatose, voiceless wife in her hospital bed. She’s helpless, but totally lovable and idealized, because she’s not a person.
The show could turn around and rectify this mess over course of the season, but that pilot was one of the most misogynist and racist things I’ve seen in years. I’ll watch a few more episodes to see where they go with it, but this show is an example of why men in the entertainment industry need to wake up and take a good look at how they’re treating characters who aren’t white men.
Episode 3 is cowritten by a woman (Amy Berg is one of three writers on the episode) and directed by Jennifer Getzinger. My experience is that hired hands can’t change the direction of a show, but stranger things have happened.
It would have been a C, but I’ll give the always stellar JK Simmons the plus.
ETA: Professional reviewers, who have generally given this show positive reviews (and who are mostly male and don’t usual notice things like misogyny or racism unless they’re overtly whacking them in the face) were given the first 5 episodes to review. That’s half the season, which is practically unheard of. It makes me wonder if the production knows how bad the first couple of episodes are, and it takes them that long to turn the show around. I don’t just mean the issues with diversity and victimization, but also the issues with moving the show’s story arc too slowly, focussing too much on only one character, and revealing so little about the show’s world that it’s hard to follow or care about the story.
I wanted to slap someone after those conversations with Stephen Rea in the church. I don’t need to waste my life trying to figure out what any more old white men in churches or government institutions are talking about, thanks. Either give me a clue, or get lost.