Culture

Film & Television

Duals duel in ‘Counterpart’

By Craig Mathieson
J.K. Simmons goes through the looking glass in this science-fiction espionage series

Two worlds don’t collide, they diverge with cruel ramifications that go unseen until it’s too late in Counterpart, a knotty and sleekly compelling American science-fiction series that puts a new, and deceptively poignant, spin on the concept of parallel dimensions. The premise is explained, in a hurry, both to the audience and our nonplussed guide, Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), like this: in 1987 an experiment by East German scientists went wrong, creating two worlds physically linked through the basement wreckage of their Berlin lab.

Howard, a minor career bureaucrat at an organisation so vast and secretive that he doesn’t even know that its purpose is to control the crossing between the two worlds and all that entails, learns this when he’s hustled into a conference room and introduced to the other Howard Silk. In the 30 years of separation, the second Howard has become a very different person. Put together to stop a covert plot, the doppelgangers size each other up on the fly. The visiting Howard tells his double not to dwell on the mechanics of their parallel lives: “You can drive yourself crazy trying to check it out,” he coolly notes.

Created by Justin Marks, Counterpart doesn’t just run with this ingenious storyline, it digs down into the deep psychological unease it presents. The show’s first season (available on SBS On Demand, with weekly episodes to be broadcast on SBS from Wednesday, August 8) is remarkable for how it marries the dictates of the espionage genre with fundamental personal conflict. Subterfuge takes on a whole new significance when you’re literally lying to yourself, and any Jungian would appreciate the possibilities that duality provides under such conditions.

The Howard we first meet lives in a world that is essentially ours circa 2017. This is Alpha. The other Howard is much quicker to bare his teeth, and his world is Prime. If that sounds confusing to read, it’s neatly coherent when you’re watching. The two men and the two worlds have become increasingly divergent, though they both maintain similar suspicious hierarchies that keep the other dimension a secret.

This new cold war, occurring in the city whose two halves epitomised the original undeclared conflict, is both vivid and tragic. There are embassy pouches, checkpoints, moles, and even assassins – one of whom, Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), has crossed over from Prime to kill Alpha Emily (Olivia Williams), Alpha Howard’s wife who has been in a coma for six weeks. This contract killing is the impetus for Prime Howard’s arrival, although it also raises the question of what happened to Prime Emily, as the pair were already married before the 1987 fissure.

But the le Carré-like dead drops and silenced pistols are never merely professional. Part of Baldwin’s mission is to kill Nadia Fierro, a leading classical violist and the assassin’s Alpha counterpart. The reasoning is coldly efficient: the easiest way for Alpha counterintelligence agents to corner Baldwin is to study Nadia. But when the moment comes, the cold-blooded killer is unsure. “You’re just a creature sent here to punish me,” says a disbelieving Nadia, and there’s a similar metaphysical friction – unnerving and unfamiliar – whenever an inhabitant of one world meets their very significant other in this through-the-looking-glass war.

This is fertile, if technically demanding, ground for the cast of American and European character actors, with Simmons leading the way. Even as the two Howards are inextricably linked, they are nonetheless different, and in a series that will delight nature-versus-nurture academics, the veteran actor delineates the two characters with contrasting physical presences and opposing emotional drivers. You could say Alpha Howard is Simmons’ caring suburban dad from 2007’s Juno, and that Prime Howard is his vicious jazz instructor from 2014’s Whiplash, but that doesn’t fully do justice to the level of nuance. When Alpha Howard becomes angry, the default of his Prime counterpart, Simmons manages to make it distinct.

The idea of what could have been has a potent physicality here, with the storylines over the 10 episodes twisting the theoretical into practical situations. There are mocking anecdotes, as when a spy catcher recounts how he played chess by coded correspondence with his counterpart and every game ended in stalemate, but there are also encounters that bring past misdeeds into solemn focus. What does a parent say to the estranged adult child they’re meeting for the very first time?

As with the excellent Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, which is set in an America that lost World War Two to occupying Axis superpowers, the worldbuilding has a tangy, mind-bending reach. An early episode uses a screen wash to go from one Berlin skyline to another, and little clues from Prime – a focus on public health laws, quiet streets, and churches repurposed as memorials – eventually add up to the realisation that over four years in the 1990s a virulent new influenza strain has killed 7 per cent of Prime’s global population.

This calamity has helped push the two dimensions apart. It’s not just that Prime has focused on medical research (some of which Alpha has traded its own breakthroughs for), it’s that some of Prime’s overseers believe it was an Alpha plot. Counterpart acknowledges our receptiveness to extremism. Even two worlds that began as mirror copies of one other have evolved to take adversarial stances, so that when a Prime infiltrator ventures onto a busy Alpha Berlin street one night, he quickly retreats to a safe house. “I just wanted to see it,” he spits to his fellow agents, his voice full of destructive zealotry.

Counterpart ties all this together with a perceptive momentum, giving form to internal debates: imagine the voice inside your head, which questions your motives, sitting opposite, fully formed. Characters are reconfigured by the unfolding revelations, witnessing what they previously refused to even acknowledge; one pompous insider has his life wrenched apart so that by season’s end he’s despairingly trapped. Genre works are good delivery vehicles for commentary, but this show is masterful in how story and theme are spliced together. A defector from one world hiding in the other sums up the loss perpetrated by this damned doubling: “There are no sides here. We all go to the same hell.”

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

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