Sunday, January 21, 2018

REVIEW: 'Counterpart' - Howard is Put in Immediate Danger After Learning What His Workplace Actually Does in 'The Crossing'

Starz's Counterpart - Episode 1.01 "The Crossing"

Howard Silk discovers the truth about where he works. The Office of Interchange searches for an assassin.

"The Crossing" is a very strong and atmospheric premiere. It presents a confident world that the creative team and actors are already having a lot of fun in creating. It's imaginative with its own version of a parallel reality. It sets up the particulars of Howard Silk's average, every day life in this world. And then, it completely flips the world around to reveal that everything is even more mysterious and ambitious. It's also compelling to see the point of differentiation between the two worlds. Howard works for an agency that is tasked with controlling the border. An accident only 30 years ago created this new reality. It was only from that point onward that the two worlds split from one another. So, they share a similar past. That's such a compelling and interesting creative decision. It proves that even though the two counterparts can be similar they can have completely different personalities in the present day. The production design makes the audience believe that this is a spy thriller from the 1980s. The technology certainly makes it have a classic feel to it. But it's a Cold War between the two realities and not between two distinct countries. The world highlights the similarities between the two worlds in this premiere. But it's also important to note just how strong the differences can be as well. Howard Silk was already an adult when this split occurred. He has spent his life working for the organizations that control both sides of the border. And yet, the two versions of Howard Silk are completely different from one another. As such, this show is actually a character study that aims to reflect on what really forms a person - his inherent personality or the choices he makes along the way because of a physical set of circumstances.

The Howard from our take of the world is simply a low-level employee at this company. He has had the same job for almost 30 years. He's probably worked at this company since its conception. And yet, he has no awareness of what they actually do. His entire time working here has been defined by him changing into identical outfits with a group of other men only to walk into a solitary room and recite prepared lines of dialogue to someone from the other side. It seems trivial and without any kind of rational explanation. It would seem repetitive to do this job for many years. And yet, that's the reality that Howard has always known. He has the mind for strategy and wants to be promoted. But he lacks the ambition and drive to march into his boss' office and demand for additional responsibilities. When he does that, his boss, Quayle, just casually dismisses him. He's operating on a different level than Howard is. To him, it's not worth the time to encourage him. He simply states that a promotion would have happened before now if it was ever going to happen. That marks the sad tragedy of Howard's life. He has devoted his life to this company. And yet, he has no awareness of what he actually does nor does he have the personal connections for his co-workers to have sympathy for the accident that happened to his wife, Emily.

This premiere highlights the repetition of Howard's life. No, it doesn't spend more than one day with him at the office. The audience only sees into that world once. He goes into work, tries for a promotion only to lose out to a younger co-worker. But that job isn't important. What is important is the repetition in his personal life. Those are the actions that come to define who the Howard of this world is. He's a man who simply visits Emily in the hospital every night. She was in a hit-and-run accident. She is now in a coma without any indication of if she'll ever wake up. Every night Howard visits her and brings her flowers. He says hello to the nurses and gifts them with some of his flowers. Then, he gives the rest to Emily and reads poetry to her. It's a sweet exchange. But again, it's defined through the sadness of the situation. Howard is a nice man. But he also finds himself unable to speak up for himself. He needs that extra push in order to be motivated into action. That push presents itself in the discovery of this parallel world where his counterpart is a trained and confident assassin. He is simply going to work just like every other day. He is pulled aside to a special room where his counterpart is also sent. Howard is completely confused and has no idea what's going on. And yet, he finds himself in a dangerous situation because of this new reality that has emerged.

The counterpart only appears for a brief period of time right off. He just emerges with a warning that an assassin, Baldwin, has come through the crossing with an intention of igniting a further war between the two sides. He doesn't know her full motivations. But he does know that he is a target and that it's unclear who he can trust on this side. That's why Howard is brought in to this mission. He needs to be brought up to speed immediately. Even then, Quayle and head of operations Aldrich aren't completely forthcoming. The most meaningful conversation happens when the two Howards are actually sitting in the same room together. They are simply preparing for the trap they must set to catch and eliminate Baldwin. Emily is the target she is going after. That makes this personal for Howard. His wife is defenseless in a hospital bed. She may die no matter what. But right now, this new threat has emerged from a world he didn't even know existed. He has so many questions. His counterpart has just enough time to reveal how things are either similar or completely different between them. Again, it's such a fascinating idea to have a parallel world that has only existed for thirty years. It gives the concept just enough time for differentiations. The two worlds are pulling further and further apart because there is less and less that connects the two together through history with each passing day. The two Howards have the exact same childhood. It wasn't until this accident occurred that their lives started to change. Their actions have made them different people. Howard is just a milquetoast follower. His counterpart is an assertive badass. Any possible decision could be the one that led to such remarkably different lives. They may never know what happened that made them this way. Right now, they can just see the differences so plainly while also needing to rely on each other.

And of course, it's the one thing that gets lost in translation that keeps Howard's counterpart from being successful in his mission to kill Baldwin. It's inevitable that the two have to swap positions in order to catch Baldwin off-guard. She has entered into this world on a mission with everyone else just playing catch-up. Howard's counterpart believes he has a way of killing her while protecting the state of the Cold War. He goes to the hospital to see Emily just like Howard has. But he's not compassionate and nice to the nurses. All of this is a little predictable because when Howard is telling his counterpart about what he needs to do to step into his life he just keeps forgetting about the flowers. Yes, he does eventually stop and pick some up. But he completely forgets to tell his counterpart about giving some to the nurse at the station. That's a minor detail that the audience and Baldwin pick up immediately because we've seen the repetition of this world. Howard's counterpart doesn't understand the nuance of that. Nor does Howard think it's a big deal. It just represents something major that sends this mission flying off the rails. Baldwin can recognize the trap and can prepare for it. She manages to escape from this dangerous situation. Meanwhile, Howard is handcuffed inside a car. He doesn't get hurt because his counterpart arrives in time to shoot at Baldwin. But it's still abundantly clear that Howard finds himself in this strange new world that will have lethal consequences to it. That's the action that finally motivates him to step up and take his life more seriously. His counterpart largely handled the situation with Eric, his brother-in-law. But Howard stepped in to finish it effectively. And later on, Howard asks Quayle for that promotion because he is now in the know whether he likes it or not. That's wonderfully exciting. It proves that Howard is still just reacting to the world around him. But he is growing and changing now too. Meanwhile, his counterpart proves himself to be even more secretive than he let on. He said that his Emily died from cancer. But in reality, she is still alive wondering what he's been up to. That's a precarious ending that leaves just enough intrigue for the audience to get hooked.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Crossing" was written by Justin Marks and directed by Morten Tyldum.
  • The big Emily twist in the end wasn't as surprising as it was designed largely because the show wouldn't hire an actress of Olivia Williams' caliber just to have her play a comatose patient. Either Howard's counterpart was lying about what happened to his Emily. Or Howard's Emily would eventually wake up from her coma and help him cope with his new reality. That seemed inevitable but it's still a pretty solid twist.
  • The family drama going on with Eric seems a little too melodramatic and non-essential compared to everything else. Basically, Emily's family has always hated Howard. Both versions of this couple got married - but Howard had a big wedding while his counterpart simply eloped. Those are intriguing differences. But it also just makes Eric too annoying and lame in the context of this story.
  • The show does a nice job in subverting expectations in the very first scene as well. In the parallel world, police show up in a hotel room where everyone has been killed except for a woman hiding in the shower. It's only after she is taken by agents working for the Office of Interchange that she reveals herself as the killer. That's surprising and is a very effective introduction to Baldwin.
  • On the other hand, the show doesn't do a great job at subverting expectations when it comes to killing off its gay character moments after revealing him to be gay. That's lame and cliche. Marcel wasn't an important character. He existed simply to be killed off and increase the stakes in the main story as the Howards try to trap Baldwin. It's just unfortunate that he happens to be killed at a gay club after Baldwin sets a trap for him. It just wasn't necessary and is a horrible visual.
  • The two agencies that control the crossing don't actually work together. They just control their own individual sides. As such, they are sometimes competing for information. Quayle and Aldrich only had heard rumors about the department that Howard's counterpart had started. And yet, that information is enough to trust him completely once he makes the transition to inform them of what's going on.