In Season 1 of Counterpart, creator Justin Marks created one hell of a sandbox to play in. At some point in this alternate universe, our world split into two and parallel worlds formed, photocopying the planet and the people on it (and who really knows how far things were duplicated, really). Only the highest up of the highest up in each world knew of the existence of the other, and after a flu epidemic took out a whole mess of people in the “other” or “prime” world, suspicions grew that “our” or the “alpha” world was responsible for it.
That set up a cold war thriller where spies may be hunting down their others, or sleeper agents are inserted into the lives of their counterparts on the other side to go deep undercover. It’s a multiverse espionage drama that took ideas that sprung from Fringe and clandestine operations we’ve seen in The Americans, and smashed them together for one of the best shows of 2018. It also didn’t hurt that J.K. Simmons was its star, playing two different versions of the same man who are both caught in the middle of everything.
Season 2 doesn’t stray from the path forged by Season 1, excelling at tightening the nooses around its characters’ necks, and Marks is happy to bring in the rest of his toys to take full advantage of the universe he’s playing in. And for someone who couldn’t get enough of Season 1, it’s exactly what I hoped for.
This review comes with a caveat: I’ve only seen three episodes of the 10 that are expected, as that’s all Starz sent out, so it’s hard to say whether Season 2 will stick the landing. But from the three I’ve seen, the first two of which are largely a combo of catching us up on where things stand now and setting up what’s to come (the third, which pushed things forward considerably, was my favorite of the three), there’s plenty of story to tell, lots of dual-universe fun to be had and a plethora of twists — both essential and non-essential, but still a blast — that feel like they’ve been planned long before the first season was ever written.
Yet for all the story that there is to tell, Counterpart remains mum on several bigger questions. That’s going to be frustrating for some. I still don’t quite understand how Management (the unseen overlords of both sides) works, and I don’t know the true intentions of those involved with the splinter terrorist group Indigo other than to stoke political discord between the worlds. But then again, neither do the characters. You can look at this as purposefully withholding details to make things more confusing — and things are confusing as ever in Season 2 — or you can see them as goals for the show to explore for hopefully the many seasons this show runs. I choose the second, because what I really love about Counterpart are the existential questions it asks.
What made the two Howards so different? How would it feel to kill your other? Can you love your spouse’s counterpart? Is it OK to love your spouse’s counterpart? Marks has always said Counterpart is about identity, and that’s certainly still the case in Season 2. More counterparts are introduced, and each is like a new case study to fuel more philosophical discussions about existence and the tricky sense of self. Some counterparts are the same as each other, some are obviously the same but in such different situations that you have to peel back their circumstances to see it, and some are just as different as the Howards. Alpha Emily (Olivia Williams), who woke from her coma at the end of Season 1, adds another wrinkle where memory is concerned. Can she be the person she was if she doesn’t know who she was? There are now three Emilys, in a sense (and Williams, who looks like the star of Season 2, is brilliant at all of them). I could talk about this stuff all day and never get bored.
But of course, the best question of identity comes from the Howards, and the biggest issue in Season 2 I’m expecting is the use of Simmons and his characters. As you know from the end of Season 1, Howard Alpha was sent to a very bad place for not cooperating with other side authorities who wanted him to spy on his Emily. They follow through with their threat, leaving Howard mostly isolated from the rest of the story, in the early episodes, at least. If that continues, it’s going to deprive us of any J.K.-on-J.K. scenes, which were among the many highlights of Season 1.
More than just depriving us of an acting clinic, it keeps us away from directly confronting the show’s biggest themes. The meeting between the two Howards at the interface booth in the eighth episode of Season 1 was one of TV’s best scenes in 2018. It was a character coming face to face with himself, with truths, with lies he told himself to keep going. We wondered if Howard Alpha was weak, or if he was actually stronger than Howard Prime for knowing the truth about Emily but choosing love and forgiveness over hate. We wondered whether Howard Prime had any of that compassion inside of him, and began to see it with how he treated Emily.
Those questions begin a long journey toward solutions now that the two Howards are separated, but it doesn’t mean we won’t get answers sooner than later. There are hints that the two Howards will not only converge, but swap personalities entirely. Howard Prime takes over a second chance at a marriage he screwed up, and his treatment of Emily Alpha doesn’t appear to be just to maintain his cover. Meanwhile, Howard Alpha is getting the crap kicked out of him because he refuses to be an asshole. At what point does Prime begin to love again, and at what point does Alpha see that he can’t survive in the other world without becoming more like Prime? These are the strengths of Counterpart, and they’re still here in Season 2.
There was a little worry that the element of surprise would be gone in Season 2 with all the world-building of Season 1, but there’s plenty of twisty fun and even more paranoia to be had. Counterpart has grown beyond its premise and is still one of the best shows on television, even if we don’t get the Howards in the same room together.
Counterpart returns for Season 2 on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 9/8c on Starz.