This Counterpart review contains spoilers.
Counterpart Season 1 Episode 1
The series premiere of Counterpart has a daunting duty, as does any pilot episode; it must introduce a complex world, create excitement about a conflict, and make us care about the characters, all in a single hour. “The Crossing” chooses to touch lightly on each of these while trusting the audience to stick around for further developments. As a result, the beginning of the tale of a secret government organization bridging parallel Earths is deliberately paced, some might even say slow. But the enticing details are just enough to draw in those who don’t need a full explanation of everything up front.
That’s why beginning with an action sequence in a cloak and dagger style was a good choice. Right away, the audience is put off balance when confronted with some sort of clandestine deal gone wrong, and the Berlin setting with people speaking both English and German is far from the usual. Plenty of viewers likely dismissed the female assassin (Sara Serraiocco) hiding in the shower stall along with the police, but the Nikita-style infiltration set exactly the right tone for the story to come.
If the episode had not begun that way, the introduction of J.K. Simmons as Howard Silk would have been too drab, although that’s sort of the point. Howard’s mundane optimism is encapsulated nicely by his game of Go in the park, where he assures his opponent, “Even a game lost is a game well played.” His job in the Interface department of the United Nations-like organization intrigues viewers with its code phrases and identical outfits, but it’s clearly repetitive and meaningless to someone who has been at it for 30 years with no idea of what it all means.
The success of this episode, in fact, lies in its exploration of the contrast between the two Howards once they meet and the relevance of Baldwin’s mission starts to take shape, however purposefully vague that shape may be. The conversation between the two as they prepare to protect Howard’s comatose wife is the thematic key to the whole series: the question of whether genetics and childhood are meaningless when subjected to even the smallest change in experience. Are we simply the sum of what we go through in life, or are we all simply who we are regardless of our choices?
The focus on the differences between frumpy pushover Howard and assertive kick-ass Howard does have a cost. Many of the other characters become inescapably vague and under-developed, at least in this opening episode. Quayle (Harry Lloyd) is evidently an arrogant young boss, and Aldrich (Ulrich Thomsen) of “Housekeeping” is without a doubt menacing in his own quiet way, but neither co-conspirator pops off the screen as anything other than a foil for Howard Prime, as the interloper is called in press materials.
Small errors on Howard Prime’s part were troublesome for character development, but they acted as fun twists for the narrative. For example, he was so careful to ask Howard about his routine at the hospital, and yet his failure to adhere to that routine is what alerted Baldwin to his presence. Yes, Howard should have told Prime about putting the single flower in the vase, but he did tell him twice about chatting up the nurses, a detail that was ignored. That was sloppy, but it also upped our estimation of La Femme Baldwin as an assassin to be reckoned with.
And, of course, the ending provided the surprise designed to raise the eyebrow of the viewer, perhaps hooking them into becoming regular fans. Howard Prime displays hidden vulnerability when it comes to his wife Emily (Olivia Williams); otherwise he wouldn’t have lied to his counterpart about her having died of cancer. Would he have sent Emily’s brother (Jamie Bamber) packing if he didn’t care about his doppelgänger’s fate? But Emily Prime’s evident estrangement in his home reality piques our interest, however subtly.
Subtlety, in fact, is the name of the game in the Counterpart premiere, and it fits the spy-vs-spy atmosphere, keeping secrets under wraps until there’s a need to know for both the characters and the audience. With Quayle giving Howard a cursory explanation of how the parallel worlds came to be, the viewers are kept in the dark as well — for now. But this is an “in for a penny, in for a pound” scenario, so there’s no sitting on the sidelines. Ready to break on through to the other side?