It’s a spy drama
At its core, Counterpart is about the operations of a mysterious Berlin-based United Nations organisation known as the Office of Interchange (or OI). In fact, it’s so mysterious that at the start of the series, long-term employee and office drone Howard Silk (JK Simmons) has no real idea what the organisation he works for even does. But all that changes when he’s brought into a room to meet the last person he expects to see: another version of himself.
And that means…
There are parallel worlds
Two of them, to be exact: our world, known as Alpha, and a parallel one known as Prime. It turns out that the OI’s job – on both sides of what’s known as the crossing – is to monitor the comings and goings between the worlds. Which isn’t as simple as it might seem, as over the years the two worlds have gone down very different roads.
There are two of (almost) everybody
While Howard Alpha is a bit of a nobody, Howard Prime is a go-getting super-spy assassin, who’s been sent to the Alpha world to take down a terrorist sent to kill a long list of people, including Howard Alpha’s comatose wife Emily (Olivia Williams).
But why kill her? Has it got anything to do with the fact her other version is alive and well on Prime – a fact Howard Prime keeps from Howard Alpha? And why are there cross-dimensional terrorists anyway? Well…
The two worlds absolutely do not trust each other
The biggest difference between the two worlds is that back in the mid 1990s, the Prime world suffered a flu epidemic that killed off a hefty slice of their population. Many people suspect the Alpha world was somehow responsible. Not everyone there is willing to go as far as the terrorist organisation Indigo, but it’s revealed mid-season that a policy of seeding the Alpha world with infiltrators has been going on for a while now.
At least one main character is not who they seem
As you might expect in a spy drama about parallel worlds, Counterpart’s big gun when it comes to plot twists is revealing that a previously established character is not who they seem. They’ve used it relatively sparingly until now; the reveal that Clare Quayle (Nazanin Boniadi), the wife of OI Alpha’s head of strategy Peter (Harry Lloyd), was an infiltrator was certainly a surprise, but was also a springboard for a deeper look at how the Prime world works and the costs of living someone else’s life. But just knowing it’s a possibility gives the series an edge of paranoia few others can match.
The crossing between worlds is currently closed
By the end of season one, the hostility between the two worlds (stoked by Indigo) has come to a head. One of Indigo’s infiltrators from the Prime world was fatally wounded in a gun battle, but made it to the neutral ground of the crossing before dying. While he lived, he was a vital bargaining chip – so long as the other side claimed him. When he died unclaimed, the Alpha world closed the crossing, stranding those who’d crossed over into Prime. Which means that…
The Two Howards are currently taking each other’s place
This isn’t the first time they’ve pretended to be each other. Back in episode four they swapped places, leading Howard Alpha to discover that Howard Prime has an estranged daughter and that the Prime version of his wife Emily is alive (and no longer with Howard). This time the situation is more serious.
Howard Alpha’s mentor Alexander Pope (Stephen Rea) told him before he died that “if you don’t become him, he will become you”, but there’s not much Howard Alpha can do to act on that warning when he’s locked up in solitary confinement on Prime. Meanwhile, Howard Prime is free to live his double’s life on Alpha – which seemingly includes a second chance with his former wife, as the Alpha world’s Emily emerges from her coma as the season ends.
Both sides seem to be run by the mysterious “Management”
Closing the crossing has in no way dampened the hostilities and intrigue between both worlds. Peter and Clare’s marriage remains on a knife-edge, despite Peter coming up with a way for them to stay together; the wider awareness that the Prime world has been infiltrating Alpha is bound to have serious repercussions. And considering Howard Prime’s earlier frustrations with his Alpha counterpart’s boring desk-bound job, how long is he going to be able to pretend to be his double?
But perhaps the biggest question going into season two is, who’s behind all this? There’s been occasional mentions of “the fourth floor” but seeing how the Management work – they use a strange boxy device (blue in one world, red in the other) to mutter their orders to an underling listening through headphones – suggests a level of strangeness the surface of which the series has barely scratched.
And with James Cromwell announced as playing a mysterious new character in season two, it looks like the spotlight will be shining on the people pulling the strings of both worlds…
Season two of Counterpart airs Thursdays at 10.35pm on SBS.
You can catch up on season one or watch all of season two at SBS On Demand:
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