Counterpart Review: The Sci-Fi Spy Series Delivers A Superb Start To Season 2

The Starz sci-fi spy drama Counterpart returns for season 2 with a superb premiere that examines the fallout of the events of season 1.

J.K. Simmons and Harry Lloyd in Counterpart Season 2

That fallout had surprisingly little to do with the fact that there is a dimensional rift beneath a governmental building in Berlin, wherein the people from two mirror worlds crossover and sometimes interact with one another (and their counterparts, naturally). Instead, it focused on a clandestine operation known as Indigo, whose primary function was to infiltrate the other dimension, exert influence over its policies, and, for some, exact a kind of misguided revenge for a flu epidemic that decimated the population. For Indigo to work, that meant replacing people from Dimension One without those with whom they were close being any the wiser. That next-level sleeper cell spy game came to a head with a terrorist attack that resulted in the crossing between the two dimensions closing, leaving those — like both versions of Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) — who were unlucky enough to be in the wrong dimension at the time, trapped on the other side. 

More: The Gifted Fall Finale Review: The Series Delivers A Big Win For Mutankind

The emphasis Counterpart placed on Indigo and its various players gave the series the narrative thrust it needed at the tail end of season 1, and it continues generating intrigue here. But the clandestine conspiracy also allowed series creator Justin Marks and his writer's room — which includes Mad Men alum Erin Levy — to accentuate the questions the series likes to ask about the nature of identity and the enormous ripple effect a single choice can have, not only for the person making it, but for their entire world. Those questions are paramount at the beginning of season 2, as the series finds new and interesting ways to examine the division between its characters, many of whom have been irrevocably changed by their inter-dimensional encounters, all while keeping or moving them closer in proximity to one another. The result, then, has become an engrossing, next-level spy thriller with a sci-fi twist. 

There is a tendency in second seasons to up the ante, as it were, to go bigger and bolder. Usually that means making additions to the cast or expanding the profile of characters who hit big the first go round. That doesn’t always translate to smarter television, but it does in the case of Counterpart. For one, the series expands the role of Olivia Williams as Howard’s wife, Emily. Williams was a major player in season 1, but only in terms of her Dimension Two counterpart. Now, however, Williams is pulling double duty, like her co-star, as Dimension One Emily is out of her coma and faced with a Regarding Henry-like re-evaluation of the person she was before the accident that nearly claimed her life. 

Of course, Emily is unaware (presumably) her husband isn’t the one she’d purposely deceived for 25 years, and kept from being promoted at his job, but rather the colder, more ruthless and pragmatic Howard Prime from the other dimension. It’s the sort of arrangement that can sound like gobbledygook on paper (or when you try to explain it to someone who hasn't seen the show), and yet watching it onscreen, thanks to the nuanced performances of Simmons and Williams, it not only makes sense, but affords the series a level of dramatic weight and elegance that’s can sometimes be a rarity with such high-concept genre fare. 

It’s smart stuff that Counterpart doubles down on, turning the relationship between Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd) and his doppelgänger wife, Clare (Nazanin Boniadi), into a worst-case example of ostensibly the same scenario. Peter and Clare are fully aware who the other is, and that level of truth makes Emily’s ignorance (either as a result of her brain injuries or her husband not being who he says he is) seem almost blissful by comparison. Little details, like the unsettling sound of the massive locks on Quayle’s “safe room,” in the house he shares with the woman who is and is not his wife, underscore the show’s willingness to examine its characters’ fascination with and fear of anyone labeled as “other.”

The weight Counterpart places on such a designation makes the arrival of Betty Gabriel’s FBI agent Naya Temple exciting beyond her potential role in rooting out the truth of Howard Prime’s prolonged visit in Dimension One and, more devastatingly, Quayle being (however unwittingly at first) the mole known as Shadow. Gabriel gives Naya's outsiderness a purposeful sense of authority while also allowing her to be a little overwhelmed by the strange truth she’s only just now learned about the world(s) she’s been thrust into. It’s always a risk introducing a major new character into a series that ticked like a precision timepiece, but Counterpart and Gabriel make the addition look like a smart one. 

Overall, the most remarkable thing about Counterpart season 2 is that it has the confidence to make storytelling decisions and direct its narrative like a series entering its fourth or fifth season. It’s a little more methodical in its approach this time around, devoting whole hours to a smaller group of characters and parceling out Simmons’ outstanding performance of the two Howard Silks by allowing them the opportunity to more fully inhabit their respective spaces without the other’s presence. One of the most appealing aspects about season 1 was watching Simmons act opposite himself, conjuring up two completely different versions of the same man, so it’s a risk not returning to that dynamic immediately. But, as the series demonstrates the deeper it gets into season 2, it’s a calculated risk that most definitely pays off. 

Next: Nightflyers Review: SYFY's Miniseries Gets The Tone Right But The Pacing Wrong

Counterpart continues next Sunday with ‘Outside In’ @8pm on Starz.

Star Wars Mandalorian Obi-Wan Kenobi
Star Wars Theory: Obi-Wan Kenobi Saved The Mandalorian