The best spy stories revolve around characters caught in impossible positions, often as a direct result of the clandestine dealings they are tasked with handling. And as Counterpart brings its first season to an end, the series brilliantly demonstrates ways in which almost all of its characters, not just the two Howard Silks played by J.K. Simmons who’re at the center of the story, find themselves in seemingly impossible positions going forward.
Most of the situations are the kind that season finale’s dream of: the lead character finds himself in the midst of a turning point, one that threatens to see him become something previously thought impossible, simply because of who he is. But the brilliance of Counterpart is, of course, that it has two Howards caught playing the same game, so as they arrive at their unexpected turning points, one in a government black site after killing the man who orchestrated a terrorist attack on another dimension, and the other holding the hand of his other’s wife, while reading poetry to her, it's both a surprise and an inevitability. They are, after all, the same man.
The penultimate episode of season 1 was the first half of the two-part ‘No Man’s Land.’ It featured a young assassin called Angel Eyes, a recruit of Project Indigo, shuffling off to the neutral area between dimensions, where neither side had any diplomatic authority. After committing a terrorist attack, Angel Eyes was left to die in that nebulous space between places, unclaimed by either side. It was a surprising way to wrap up what was the big set piece of the season, but it’s also a beautiful way to articulate where Counterpart has left its two Howards at the end of the season. The shooter’s fate is indicative of the larger circumstances of nearly every character on the series, circumstances defined by their shadowy profession and the compromises they are forced to make in their personal and professional lives. It’s a somber observation, one that lends the series a lyrical quality that might on day be on par with The Americans.
There is so much going on in ‘No Man’s Land - Part Two’ that a large part of the hour’s thrills comes in their execution. The series walks a tightrope on a weekly basis thanks to its sci-fi conceit, and it’s never more apparent than in the season’s final episode. With diplomacy between the two worlds cut off in the wake of the terrorist attack, the two Howards find themselves in untenable positions. Their lives are in danger, Howard’s desperate meeting with Pope (Stephen Rae) is the biggest risk he’s taken since stepping over to the other side. Meanwhile, Howard Prime is on the run from Aldrich and his men, thanks to Quayle’s unwillingness to turn Claire in for being a sleeper agent. But Counterpart has an emotional ace up its sleeve that not only complicates things for the two Howards, Quayle, and Claire, but also the two versions of Emily, now that the other has been roused from the coma Pope’s attempt on her life put her in.
All season long, Counterpart has worked to build its world(s), but it has done so with remarkable restraint. Plenty of important details are known about the two worlds, in particular the flu epidemic that killed so many on Howard Prime’s side and acted as the motivation for the terrorist attacks by Project Indigo, but beyond that the series has kept plenty details in the margins, either waiting for the right time to be revealed or earmarking them as destined to remain a ‘what if?’ the show never fully addresses. That restraint pays off in the final two hours, as the genre elements and all the world building becomes secondary to the characters’ reactions to their rapidly changing circumstances.
That is made most evident in Howard and Howard Prime, both of whom are seen slipping into aspects of their own being that was denied them by virtue of the environment in which they lived. Stranding the Howards in their respective mirror dimensions is a bold move for the series to make, one that forces the two to pivot in unexpected ways, giving Counterpart an exciting opportunity to show the ways in which the Howards remain different despite teasing a possible convergence due to an innate nature neither can ever fully escape.
Howard’s surprising lethality and Howard Prime’s equally shocking tenderness toward the Emily that is not his is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shakeups in the finale. Counterpart shows a remarkable willingness to move away from the status quo and to keep the story moving forward. Regardless if the Howards ever find their way back to their sides, the circumstances of the show are irrevocably changed. Credit to series creator and showrunner Justin Marks and his writers’ room for demonstrating so convincingly how holding onto a secret renders most drama inert, whereas unleashing that secret forces characters into making dramatic choices and opens up a whole new world of storytelling possibilities. Quayle blowing up Howard Prime’s cover to save his (and Claire’s) skin, and Howard’s realization he was falling in love with a family that wasn’t his helps move Counterpart well beyond its conceit. It helps the series become a show defined by its dual genres and wild elevator pitch, but it also frees it from operating solely within the confines of that description.
The series really is in no man’s land now, and that’s exactly where it should be. After a consistently intriguing, astonishingly well-executed first season, there’s no telling where Counterpart is headed, and that makes the promise of its return all the more exciting.
Counterpart will return for season 2 in 2019 on Starz.