Counterpart — the must-see show you probably haven’t seen

I’ve written about Counterpart before, but because I am currently subscribed to Starzplay for Station Eleven, I took the opportunity to watch it again. Does it hold up?

It holds up.

Although it was sadly cancelled after two seasons, the show was written with a two season arc. The show’s producers knew they might be cancelled, and deliberately conceived of the show as having discrete “chapters”, so that even if it had been renewed, season 3 would have begun a new chapter, most probably in a completely different location.

Some background: Counterpart was created by Justin Marks and ran over two seasons, from December 2017 to February 2019. It was originally on the Starz network, which manifests in the UK as Starzplay. If you don’t know how to get Starzplay, see the bottom of this post. Counterpart ran for 20 episodes, and starred J K Simmons and Olivia Williams, with a top-notch supporting cast.

Simmons plays Howard Silk, a minor functionary in a place called The Office of Interchange, based in Berlin. Silk’s job appears to be to exchange (coded?) nonsensical messages with his opposite number, another lowly functionary on the other side of a screen. His rank is too low to understand what his job is really about. It’s all very Cold War, and the Berlin setting is meant to put you in mind of that divided city in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

One of the things I love about the show is that it never really does explain Howard’s job. I have an idea what it was all about, but the show leaves its audience to work it out.

As you read on, I will be revealing more and more about this show. Go and watch it! Consider yourself warned about spoilers.

But this is not Cold War Berlin. It’s Berlin after an incident in 1987 created a splinter parallel universe. The two sides started identical and gradually diverged, a process that accelerated rapidly when a flu epidemic affected one side and decimated its population. So one side has advanced medical treatments and lots of half-empty office buildings. The other has advanced technology like smartphones.

One day, the Howard Silk from the other side walks over the Crossing, and mild-mannered Howard discovers both the true nature of his job and that his, ahem, counterpart is a bad-ass espionage agent who doesn’t take any shit from anybody. Why are they so different? What happened to make them diverge? Writ small, this is the larger theme of the show.

Howard’s wife is in a coma. Silk, in between beating people up, says his wife is dead.

(She’s not.)

Silk reveals that there is some kind of nefarious plot, not authorised by Management, and that agents are being sent across the Crossing under diplomatic cover in order to commit murder (and more). In time, it is revealed that a full programme of indoctrinating children and then replacing their counterparts on the other side has been running for years.

Who are Management? They are never seen. They speak through elaborate devices and have a floor of the office to themselves, which nobody visits. It turns out they haven’t even been there for years. In Season 2, we learn that Management are the original research team brought in after the universe splintered – the whole team made up of paired counterparts. In other words, Management is the same people on both sides. Meet the new boss…

What is Counterpart about? Oh, man. Everything. Identity, obviously, nature/nurture, decisions, change, destiny, loyalty, love, jealousy, politics, obedience, truth and lies.

One incredible example: towards the end of Season 2, the entirety of Management is murdered. But because they always set policy via remote devices, nobody appears to notice, and people carry on following instructions, which are being given, now, by the assassin — even though these instructions seem to be catastrophic. Is that not a brilliant metaphor for the way in which people blindly follow orders, and invest trust in those who don’t deserve it?

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you’ve now got some idea of what this excellent show is about, and I still feel like I haven’t really spoiled it, because its in the execution that it shines. It may only be two seasons, but it is surely the best show that very few people have watched of the past 10 years.

Starzplay: it’s a channel you can access via either Amazon Prime or Apple TV. You have to be a subscriber to one of those two. And then you can buy a subscription within your subscription for an extra £4.99 on top of what you’re already paying for Apple or Amazon. It’s worth it for Counterpart but also Station Eleven and some other stuff.

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