Warning: contains major spoilers for season 1 of Counterpart.
Take the core concept of Sliding Doors, reimagine it as a sci fi-tinged Cold War spy thriller set across parallel worlds, and throw in a mesmerising dual performance from J.K. Simmons. Intrigued by Counterpart yet? The Starz series is one of the most compelling and acclaimed shows of the year so far, and with season two on the horizon, there’s never been a better time to get caught up with the first ten episodes on STARZPLAY. Here’s a primer on the key things to know about Counterpart, aka your next binge-watch.
In the 1980s, a secret scientific experiment based in East Berlin resulted in the accidental creation of a parallel Earth, referred to in the show as the Prime world. Everyone who was alive at the time of the experiment has an “other” in the Prime world; a double created in their image. Crossing between the two worlds is generally prohibited, and the bridge connecting them, The Crossing, is guarded by a UN agency called the Office of Interchange (OI). Relations between the two worlds are tense, largely because of a deadly swine flu epidemic that broke out in the Prime world a decade after its creation, wiping out 7% of the population. A popular conspiracy theory in the Prime world is that the Alpha government deliberately caused the epidemic, and as the show picks up, a rogue terrorist faction named Project Indigo is seeking violent revenge against the Alpha world. Indigo has been cultivating sleeper cells of children in the Prime world, training them from birth to eventually replace – and kill – their Alpha world counterparts.
Howard Silk (Simmons) is a meek, low-level OI employee who, despite his decades of work, is not privy to any real information about the other world or the diplomatic relations between the two. That all changes when his double, a hardened spy, crosses over into the Alpha world to try and thwart Project Indigo’s latest plot. An assassin, codenamed Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco) has been sent across with a lengthy kill list that includes Howard’s wife, Emily (Olivia Williams). In order to buy more time, the two Howards switch identities and pose as one another in their respective worlds, prompting the nature vs nurture question of how different the two men really are.
That’s thrown into sharpest relief by their respective domestic lives. In the Prime world, Howard and Emily have been bitterly separated for years, and Howard has almost no relationship with his daughter Anna (Sarah Bolger). In the Alpha world, Emily is in a coma after a recent car accident (which turns out to have been orchestrated by Indigo), and Anna does not exist. As you can imagine, this all prompts a unique kind of domestic drama after the two Howards swap lives; one of the show’s earliest twists is that Emily Alpha has been in contact with Howard Prime for years, and is the one who encouraged his crossing over.
And that’s not even the most fraught marital dynamic in the show. One of the season’s big mysteries is the identity of a mole leaking information from Alpha OI, and although Howard’s boss Peter Quayle (Harry Llloyd) falls under suspicion, the real culprit is his wife Clare (Nazanin Boniadi). To be more specific, it’s Clare’s Indigo-trained double from the Prime world, who has murdered and replaced the original Clare without Quayle’s knowledge. Much like the two Howards in their new worlds, Clare Prime has been changed by the mask she wears, and she has real feelings both for Quayle and for their baby. Though horrified by the truth, Quayle is persuaded not to turn Clare in for the sake of their family, and in the finale makes a deal with Howard Prime to ensure her safety in exchange for that of Emily Alpha.
The finale features a violent turning point for Howard, who kills Alexander Pope (Stephen Rea) – Howard Prime’s treacherous mentor who is in fact the mastermind behind Indigo – in self-defense. “It’s Darwinian,” Pope tells him prophetically, moments earlier. “If you don’t become him, he will become you.” It’s never been clearer that the Howards are bleeding into each other: the finale ends with Howard Prime sitting by Emily’s hospital bed reading poetry to her, while Howard sits in solitary confinement on the other side, now a killer. One of the underlying questions of the whole show is just how different these two men really are – how will season two develop them, now that Howard Prime’s mission in the Alpha world is theoretically complete, but the crossing between the two worlds is closed?
Another intriguing plot thread from the finale is the relationship between Baldwin, who has been shown as deeply lonely and desperate for connection, and Howard Prime, who successfully persuaded her to walk away from her contract and not kill Emily. He did this by offering her money – enough to try to start a real life – but perhaps also by offering her honesty. Baldwin has a lot of trauma relating to her late father, while Howard Prime is estranged from his daughter, so this could be an intriguing dynamic. Will they continue to interact? And will Baldwin be targeted by Indigo now that she’s walked out on her contract? For that matter, what does Indigo even look like with Pope dead?
There’s also the fact that Quayle, who risked everything in the finale to protect his faux-wife and baby, has no idea that Clare Prime murdered the real Clare (as far as he knows, she’s living a new life on the other side). Will he discover the truth? And even if he doesn’t, how is their “marriage” going to function between his role at OI and her involvement with Indigo?
The finale also sets up a major conflict between the two worlds, triggered by the death of a Prime infiltrator, who escaped capture in the Alpha world and died in the “no man’s land” of the crossing. Prime OI refused to claim the infiltrator as one of their own, despite Emily’s warnings that this would go down very poorly with Alpha OI. And there’s still the lingering question of whether Alpha operatives really are responsible for the flu pandemic that decimated the Prime world. Will season two feature an all-out war of the worlds? The wait for answers won’t be long – Counterpart season two will return to STARZPLAY on December 9th.