Spy dramas and twists go together like James Bond and martinis. But even for a spy series, Counterpart is packed with the kind of developments you won’t see coming. So consider these just a taste; this is a series with more twists and turns than a bent corkscrew.
There Are Two JK Simmons (episode one)
Howard Silk is a deeply average man working a menial office job for a vaguely sinister United Nations organisation known as the Office of Interchange (OI). The most interesting thing about him is that his wife’s in a coma, the most interesting thing about his job is that it’s in Berlin, and after thirty years it seems pretty clear that this is about as interesting as his life is going to get.
Then another version of him with a very different life arrives through a gateway from a parallel world.
For just about any show this would be a big development. But both Howards are played by J.K. Simmons, which makes it pretty much the best twist ever. Simmons is one of the most entertaining actors around (he remains Spider-Man’s definitive J Jonah Jameson), and having two of him – one a worn down, deeply-average office guy, the other a sharp-edged super-spy – makes Counterpart a must-see.
Emily Is Awake - But Only In One World (episode one)
The rest of episode one is largely devoted to a cat-and-mouse game of espionage as Howard Prime (people from the parallel “Prime” world are dubbed Prime; people from the regular world are dubbed Alpha) takes Howard Alpha’s place to help catch interdimensional killer Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco). Surprisingly, her hitlist includes Howard Alpha’s comatose wife Emily (Olivia Williams); Howard Prime says the version of Emily in his world died of cancer.
But the episode ends with us discovering that’s not remotely true, as Howard Prime meets his version of Emily on the Prime side in a bar. There was no real reason for him to lie, so why would he show so much concern for the feelings of someone who might be “him” but is also in a very real sense a stranger? It’s the moment that Counterpart goes from a twisty spy drama to something with real human stakes – and it reveals that both versions of Howard have something deeper going on under the surface that might unite them.
The Howards Swap Places (episode four)
We all knew this was coming right from the start, but Counterpart - and J.K. Simmons – really step up to make it something special. In episode three, Howard Prime is about to lose his crossing privileges, leaving him stuck in his own world where there’s already been one attempt on his life. His solution: swap places with Howard Alpha and figure out what’s really going on. Alpha agrees – and that’s where the fun begins.
While this episode is packed with twists and plot developments, what makes it stand out is the masterful acting from Simmons, who here is not only playing two very different characters, but playing those characters pretending to be each other. And it works. He doesn’t simply swap places: you can actually tell he’s playing one character trying to act like the other. It’s a phenomenal acting performance that never feels like one.
Clare Is Not What She Seems (episode seven)
Up until now, Clare (Nazanin Boniadi) had been your usual sinister bad guy working for the Prime side. She was the one giving orders to Baldwin; when Baldwin slipped up, Clare was the one who tried to have her killed. But then during the hunt for a mole inside the Alpha side of OI, their director of strategy starts to suspect his own wife – who, we discover at the end of episode six, is Clare.
It’s a solid twist, opening up the idea that the Prime side has been seeding deep cover infiltrators on the Alpha side for years. But it’s the episode that follows that really makes it work. In what is basically a stand-alone episode, we go back to Clare’s childhood, see her suffer through the plague that killed billions in the Prime world (a plague some there suspect was sent their deliberately by the Alpha side), and then, after her parents are killed by the plague, she’s ruthlessly trained and moulded to be an exact copy of her otherworld twin. Who she then kills and replaces to ensure “Clare” keeps her relationship going. Does that mean she can’t be trusted? Like just about everyone in Counterpart, that depends.
The Crossing Is Closed (episode ten)
With all the crossing (and double-crossing) going on, it’s no real surprise that the final episode of season one ends with the crossing between world being closed. What is surprising is where it leaves the two Howards. The formerly mild-mannered Howard Alpha is now a killer, and is locked up in solitary confinement in the Prime world for his troubles. Howard Prime has a better deal, running free in the Alpha world and able to hide out in his twin’s life, using his knowledge of Clare’s real identity to secure his own safety. Then, just as he’s starting to settle in (does anyone really think the all-action Prime is going to be able to tolerate Alpha’s boring job?), the formerly comatose Emily wakes up. Is he going to be able to fool her? And if he can, for how long?
Counterpart season one is leaving SBS On Demand on 1 April. Watch it now before you watch season two: