Starz's Counterpart Premiere: Grade It

Counterpart Recap Episode 1

Having previously dabbled in time travel with Outlander, Starz this Sunday got into the alternate universe business. Was the spy-fi drama Counterpart compelling enough to make you do a… double take?

Counterpart stars J.K. Simmons (you say Whiplash, I’ll say The Closer) as Howard Silk, a low-level cog at a Berlin-based U.N. agency dubbed The Office of Interchange, where he for decades has diligently toiled as an Interface. Howard’s day is routine in every way, starting with a game of Go at the park with his friend Andrei, after which he reports to work, where he locks away all personal effects before changing into a suit identical to those worn by colleagues. He then enters a booth, where he slits open the briefcase handed to him and engages in a brief bit of coded call-and-response with a person seated on the other side of the glass.

But Howard has had enough of this, and bucks for a promotion to Strategy. Alas, his bid is all but laughed off by director Peter Quayle. (Though Howard’s record is exemplary, Quayle singles out an incident from that morning, where Howard had a “non-approved exchange” inside the booth, pointing out a food stain on the other agent’s tie.)

Howard’s typical day is capped by a visit to his wife Emily, who for six weeks has been hospitalized, comatose after being hit by a car. Emily’s brother Eric arrives to compel Howard to sign papers that will allow Emily to be moved to their mother’s in England, but Howard is hesitant.

And then… Howard’s routine changed. Forever.

Arriving for work the next day, he gets flagged by security, then led to a remote room. There, Adlrich, the Director of Counterintelligence/”housekeeping,” and Quayle alert Howard to a “situation” involving a “defection” from “the Other Side” — words that mean nothing to the meager Interfacer. The aforementioned asset is brought in, and with the removal of his hood, we and Howard meet… Howard’s doppelganger, identical in looks but trained in spycraft and thus possessing far greater swagger. OtherHoward* is there to make a deal with our side, offering intel on an assassin who has crossed over and has a “kill list.”

* At TCA press tour, it was said that on-set, the Howards are referred to as Alpha and Prime. But for this recap at least, I’m using OtherHoward.

After OtherHoward heads back to his side (“crossover” visas have time limits), Quayle gives our Howard the Reader’s Digest version of the incredible truth he has been exposed to — that 30 years ago, during the Cold War, an experiment/accident at this location, since dubbed “The Crossing,” opened up a tunnel to a parallel universe. And although events up until that juncture were identical, paths “branched off” once the door was opened. Ergo, OtherHoward rose up the espionage ladder, while ours… didn’t. Aldrich interrupts the crash course to share the one name OtherHoward offered from the kill list — our Howard’s wife Emily.

When OtherHoward returns the next day on a 12-hour visa, he meets up with the others at Howard’s apartment, where they learn that Marcel, who was recently promoted from Interface to Strategy, was killed the night before by the Other Side’s assassin, “Baldwin.” OtherHoward, who hails from the heretofore thought-mythical “Section 2” division, explains that things have been bad on his side for a while, due to “infighting” among leadership and threats of a takeover by a faction who doesn’t care for diplomacy. When Howard asks why his Emily is on the kill list versus the Other Side’s, his counterpart claims that the other Emily is dead.

Aldrich and Quayle leave the Howards to get acquainted, and ours is full of questions and wonderment about their divergent paths. He wishes to relive funnel cake-based childhood memories, only to learn that his counterpart suffers from high cholesterol. But the men do share the same favorite tie, which OtherHoward puts on to prepare for his visit to the hospital, in Howard’s place. OtherHoward’s only question as to the “different paths” of it all, is: What held Howard back from getting out of Interace? “Life, I guess,” he shrugs, disappointing his doppelganger.

Howard preps his counterpart for the hospital visit, but quite remarkably fails to share one part of his routine that even we have noticed — that he singles out a flower from the bouquet he brings to drop in a vase at the nurses’ station. Ugh. OtherHoward otherwise slips up to Emily’s room fine enough, though a curveball is thrown when Eric shows up looking for the signed papers. While Aldrich and Quayle urge him over comms to just sign the thing, OtherHoward instead gives that “real f–king asshole” a piece of his mind, warning that if Emily gets taken away, there will be “nothing left to say” between them — “and the last thing you want is me with nothing left to say.” The tense moment is interrupted by reports that Baldwin has arrived, at which point OtherHoward whips out his gun and orders Eric to STFU. This is where Baldwin clocks the empty vase, then begins stealthy backtracking. OtherHoward emerges form a doorway and gunplay erupts, with Aldrich and other agents joining in. Baldwin escapes by leaping out a window, gunning down two agents, then dropping onto the roof of the car below, where our Howard is cuffed to the front seat. She spies and is about to pop Howard when his doppelgänger wings her, prompting the assassin to flee.

Driving home in the aftermath, Howard acknowledges to Quayle, “You need me now,” so he better just figure out the nixed promotion. OtherHoward meanwhile returns to his side (no zeppelins?!), where at a bar he meets up with… a very much alive Emily! She coolly refuses to take his offered hand, but instead asks: “What on Earth have you been doing over there?” To which he says, “You don’t want to know.”

What did you think of Counterpart? Did it fill a corner of the Fringe-shaped hole in your heart?