ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

‘Counterpart’: The Sci-fi Espionage Thriller Blessing TV With Double J.K. Simmons

J.K. Simmons dazzles in Starz’s must-see, genre-bending new thriller.

Nicole Wilder

If you just happened to stumble upon Counterpart, you’d be forgiven for thinking it to be a lesser-known John le Carré adaptation or some other Cold War drama. But nothing about the show is quite so simple.

Counterpart, now airing on Starz, is likely the closest we’ll ever get to a revisionist Cold War drama. Where revisionist Westerns are dealing with a genre that traditionally painted in black and white, Counterpart is following in the footsteps of works that have, by nature, been more morally grey. In accordance, the show is almost impossible to pigeonhole, with espionage going hand-in-hand with science fiction and romance, and questions of how we deal with what we perceive to be “other” settled uncomfortably underneath. How do you deal with other-ness, after all, when that other is you?

Three decades ago, the series posits, a mysterious incident opened a passage into a mirror universe. Our world and that one were the same until, as individual decisions began to branch us apart, they weren’t. The only point of contact between the two is a hallway in Berlin, and its existence is kept a secret from almost everyone.

Early on, one of the characters notes that everyone who does know of the parallel universe has always wondered what their parallel universe counterpart might be like. It’s impossible not to ponder, even without knowing that such a dimension exists. What would our lives be like if we had made just a few different decisions? Other shows have played around with similar questions—Star Trek: Discovery has just begun exploring a mirrorverse, and The Man in the High Castle is entirely predicated on the existence of an alternate history—but Counterpart comes closest to reaching, and then surpassing, the bar that Fringe set when it was revealed (complete with altered intro sequences) that the show’s plot spanned two different universes.

There are two keys to Counterpart’s success. The first is a general refusal to pander when it comes to exposition. The instigating incident is what it is; the emotional stakes and interior motives of what is presently happening are more important. The second is J.K. Simmons.

Simmons plays mild-mannered civil servant Howard Silk. He also plays ruthless espionage agent Howard Silk. Whatever happened in the 30 years since one world became two, the ripples spread widely enough that, here and now, the two Silks are tremendously different men. It’s all down to Simmons’ performance(s) that you aren’t taken out of the narrative in order to watch him act or try to differentiate the tics between the two men. He so fully inhabits both roles that it genuinely does feel like watching two different actors play against each other, and the two Silks are immediately distinguishable even when they’re seen apart. (“He has kind eyes,” a character says, of the “original” Silk. The same can’t be said of the other.)

It’s a feat that becomes even more impressive—and begs the question of how he hasn’t had more roles as a leading man—as the story progresses. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show about questioning everything you know about the world you live in, almost every episode of Counterpart introduces a new twist to the narrative. Never once does it feel cheap or contrived—they’re natural progressions, instead, wallpaper peeled back to reveal what’s underneath. That attention to detail extends to the production design, which is gorgeous across the board and indicative of the ambition behind the series. The alternate universes are just as distinguishable as the two Howards, and suspend the viewer in a space that almost seems to be out of time, as the devices seen on screen range from Black Mirror­-esque panes of glass to computers that still display green text on a black background.

Trying to describe what Counterpart becomes would come off as describing an entirely different show, but it’s simply a matter of becoming able to see the forest despite all of the trees: This is a show with a broader vision. For instance, Counterpart is one of the only dystopias that I can think of in which race, gender identity, and sexual orientation are not still somehow used as arbiters of what is normal and what is not, or otherwise erased. People are as they are (and though it’s depressing to think of this presentation as refreshing, it’s to the series creator Justin Marks’s credit); the only thing that sets them apart is which universe they hail from, and what they’re willing to do to survive, or protect the people they care for. That is, of course, the question at the center of the entire show: Are we the products of choice, or nature? The answer varies depending on which character is asked, and the show is too even-handed to dive too fully into one or the other. Some things just can’t be explained. Counterpart embraces that mystery.

Whether or not the series will be able to sustain that caliber of work or buckle under the pressure of wrapping up the story, it’s difficult to say, but it’s off to a running start. The premise is a familiar one inspected by an entirely new crop of questions, and, supported by a stellar cast (including Olivia Williams as Howard’s wife, Stephen Rea as a mysterious puppetmaster, and Sara Serraioco as an assassin in crisis), makes Counterpart a force to be reckoned with.