Counterpart is Smart, Understated Espionage Sci-Fi

I was late to Starz’s two season series Counterpart, which began back in 2017. The show’s premise itself isn’t exceptional, but a lot of exceptional work is built off it. In the series, a second reality is created or discovered through a physics experiment in Berlin circa 1989. In the present, a hangdog worker bee for a United Nations agency (played masterfully by J.K. Simmons) in Berlin is brought in by his superiors at the request of… his ‘other’ from the other reality (played by Simmons again obviously). The instigating action for this development is that an assassin from one side has come to the other side to kill the agency’s spies. I won’t give much else of the plot away because there are some outstanding twists and twists in this complicated but not excessively convoluted thriller.

One of the reasons I wanted to write specifically about this show is that writing about acting can be troublesome. As my NYU professor Emmanuel Levy once noted, we don’t have quite the same specific technical phrasing for acting that we do for, say, editing or cinematography. Simmons’ acting on this program as well as the acting of his costar Olivia Williams (who plays the hero’s wife as well as his other’s wife) is noteworthy because of the versatility required in doing so. Our hero, Howard Silk, is a gentle and kind pushover in this world, but a mean and assertive bully in the other world. Simmons portrays this bi-polarity believably. Williams also succeeds in playing one version of Emily Silk as being cold and sharp while playing her other version as regretful and just out of a coma. Both leads are supported by a fine cast that also includes James Cromwell, a very strong Betty Gabriel, and Ulrich Thomsen.

The show’s geography is also relevant. It was with the fall of the Berlin Wall that any political alternatives to capitalism ended, as the late Mark Fisher noted in his Capitalist Realism and Philip E. Wegner argued in The Life Between Two Deaths. The show unsurprisingly often feels like John Le Carre with a postmodern sci-fi twist. Its conspiracy premise as well as a scene filmed at the postmodern ‘Ren Cen’ building in Detroit certainly point to Fredric Jameon’s notion of cognitive mapping- our difficulty of placing ourselves within the network of global capitalism. Maybe by offering us another world Counterpart also offers us hope of something different and better. Though it’s worth noting that in one of the show’s worlds, seven percent of the population has been decimated by a deadly man-made flu. So maybe hold off on watching this one if you’re freaking out about the current global situation.

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