Season One of ‘Counterpart’ has come to a close and while the overall quality of the show was top notch, it nevertheless left me feeling strangely unsatisfied. I broached the subject with Seth and Dustin right before part two of the finale and they both gave me the same general sentiment: it’s good, but I’m ready for the season to be over.
That’s not a great sign.
Spoilers begin now. Retreat to higher ground, ‘Counterpart’ virgins, and live in joy another day.
When I pressed them more, mostly in an effort to suss out my own hangups about it, some inconsistencies came to light. Namely: the world. So we have the event and the passage and the two worlds. We have a digression along the way with the pandemic on the other side. I think, for better or worse, of the first side as the ‘home’ side and the ‘other’ side as…y’know…not us, per se. I don’t know if that’s intended or not but that’s how I see it. If you look it up, they call the other world “Prime” and our side “Alpha” so that suggests the opposite. In the vein of Michael Keaton in ‘Multiplicity,’ I really bristle at the idea of being the copy. Or the alternate or whatever.
We understand there’s some dastardly players on both sides and there are some shenanigans afoot. And there’s a UN-related (maybe) building on both sides where everyone is insulated from seeing the whole board by the higher ups.
In that way I sort of left the season feeling like Howard Silk #1 doing mindless busywork in the Interface department. I have the general sense that a lot of cool shit is going on, I’m just not 100% sure what it is. And when that happens, it’s prudent to step back and ask yourself if you’ve become hooked on the opioid of Narcotic TV.
But before we pull at some of those threads, let’s take a second to really appreciate the beauty and skill of ‘Counterpart.’
Created by Justin Marks, a guy who basically wrote one movie (The Jungle Book) prior to this, you had no real sense about what to expect. But let me tell you: this guy is a goddamn professional. It took me all of about three minutes to relax and let the show spirit me away. I never once felt like I wasn’t in good hands. I never had the sense you get with a Nic Pizzolatto type where you think “oh man, the emperor truly has no clothes.” From the get-go, ‘Counterpart’ delivers.
I love the title sequence. I love the ‘Go’ theme.
I love the music and the brutalist architecture and the Kafkaesque aesthetic where you always feel a little uneasy. Like a pair of your grandad’s wingtips, it’s heavy and stodgy and feels like it has mass.
And then you see the cast.
Because, my god. The cast.
A vast percentage of delivering a quality piece of entertainment is getting the cast right, and this show accomplishes that with grandeur.
J.K. Simmons is…a master. Just a straight-up field marshall. I’ve written before about how I don’t typically love one actor playing two roles in the same thing, and Roxana echoes that with a list of her own, but J.K. is so good that he makes you forget. The differences between Howard Silk one and two are breathtaking, really. I watch that performance, or those performances, and I want to slow clap in my living room. The countenance. The differing physicality. The presence. It’s all done with what seems to be an effortless amount of skill. Simmons just becomes the Silks, each as needed, in the way they’re needed, with absolute confidence. He reminds me of a jazz musician playing his instrument, where there’s so much experience that it just becomes part of the musician. And he plays it with grace and power and tenderness and absolute conviction. That’s how it feels to watch J.K. Simmons act these days. He has become and instrument unto himself.
It’s tough to hang with a performance like the one J.K. gives, but several talented actors do. It’s easy to point out Olivia Williams, who is utterly believable and alternately flawed and venomous in her portrayal of Emily Silk.
Nicholas Pinnock keeps pace with her as Ian Shaw. He’s an actor that I absolutely want to see more of.
Harry Lloyd, TV’s Viserys Targaryen, has one of the most difficult roles to pull off. He reminds me of the Pete Campbell character on ‘Mad Men’ a bit. It’s a tall order, because if you lose your suspension of disbelief around that performance, the whole house of cards comes crashing down. He manages to avoid most of the inherent pitfalls of this type of character.
Stephen Rea chews delicious scenery as Alexander Pope. I don’t mind a bit. Mido Hamada makes you notice him for more than just his hunky good looks and Richard Schiff pops in from time to time as if the talent quota wasn’t already high enough.
But I have to admit, the thing that put this show over the top for me was the great supporting performances from Nazanin Boniadi as Clare, and Sara Serraiocco as Baldwin. The former I knew from ‘Homeland,’ though it was impossible to know that she had chops like this. The latter I’d never seen or heard of before. She’s a Spanish actress who absolutely devours the role of Baldwin the assassin. She has these desperate, tragic eyes that are a thousand years old and she masterfully makes you see how every hit takes something precious from her.
Boniadi, as Shadow, brings a sense of calm to the screen that’s nearly terrifying in its stillness. But it’s really when Quayle finds her out and she explains how having a child changed her that you get to see her depth.
So, over the hills and far away, from the Office of Interchange to various park benches to hospitals to symphony halls to schools in the country, ‘Counterpart’ delivers a baseline of acting talent that feels like it’s in a league of its own.
Perhaps that’s why it has 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.
But as we lavish the series with praise, we have to wonder at some of the fuzzier areas of the conceit.
1. Wasn’t it a wee bit pat that the two main characters who knew Quayle was the mole both got deep-sixed in the finale?
Ulrich Thomsen’s Aldrich and Hamada’s Cyrus both end up pushing daisies. And between Baldwin and the ass-kicking Prime Silk, the hit squad Aldrich sets up at the hospital to ambush them all die as well. So there goes anyone who knew about the mole.
2. Where’s the Alpha side Alexander Pope?
You have this serpentine Chancellor Palpatine on the Prime side, orchestrating a voluminous number of ops by sitting next to a baker’s dozen cellphones and uttering the right coded message at the right time into each. Where’s his counterpart on the Alpha side?
3. So the Prime side literally broke the legs of children and launched a huge multi-decade op to…send three people to kill a bunch of people on the other side?
As the one hitman dude who survived pulled himself over the border and Ulrich was like “we can’t touch him now” my Narcotic TV senses started to tingle. It felt like a construct. The three Alpha’s who Baldwin killed to make way for the counterparts were left intentionally for Housekeeping to find. So why the charade about diplomacy? Why the long-table meetings with the fourth floor? Why the pretense about which side was responsible?
4. So is Management brilliant or idiotic?
Management feels like the most Westworld-y part of the series to me. Those dudes with the weird-as-hell camera things, translating from their alien overlords or whatever? Yeahhhhhhh. It feels like Shogun World. A good story needs to grow, but that scene felt like the Dharma Initiative to me. And isn’t the coinkidink compounded by Management making Peter Quayle the new mole-hunter as Aldrich and Cyrus are laying on a cadaver gurney somewhere?
5. Remind me why I give a shit?
This is the hardest question to write because it feels like this world has real limitations. And maybe that’s why we have the Management/Close Encounters of the Fourth Floor Kind element being hinted at. Because there’s the passage. But at the end of the season, Alpha closes its door, holding up their middle fingers with resolve, and that’s kind of it, isn’t it? I mean, they got attacked, they’re like “fuck this” and they close up shop. It’s not like you could invade through the passage. It’s not like you could get a tank through. It has the reek of many coffee-stained hours with Justin Marks and his friends knocking the idea around and settling on a one-person passage without realizing how they’d be hamstringing the rest of the series. That said, the show got picked up and went straight to a 10-episode order overnight, so maybe they didn’t have as much time to workshop that main conceit as they would have liked. It seems to me that, faced with the restrictions inherent in the passage, the smartest way to hurt the other side is to bring over a biological weapon and cause a pandemic. And that’s already been done. So…yeah.
As we go to hiatus, good, doofy Howard is stuck on one side and naughty, effective Howard is stuck on the other. We’re supposed to be invested in good Howard trying to get back to his cheating wife, but I’m not sure how much I truly care about that. There’s no Sarah Bolger daughter on the home side, anyway. Clare promises that this is only the beginning, but beginning of what? More terrorist attacks in office buildings by nervous but highly-drilled teens? Hmmm. I don’t know. At this point, does the show have an option but to start to introduce more parallel universes?
This is how they get you. You think you’re focused on an answer but you end up being captivated by outstanding character-driven writing and acting and you forget that the cave of wonders is closed on one side and the plot has devolved into a thing where aliens are on the fourth floor and other dimensions start to open up. And before you know it, you’re re-watching ‘The Killing’ with your shirt off, wondering where your thirties went.
When ‘Counterpart’ returns, there will be a choice to make. To turn away like a praetorian or to wheeze quietly with moderate self-loathing and know you’re getting played but choose to head back to Berlin anyway. I know which side I’ll be on.
I love Baldwin too much to let her go now.
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