Sunday, January 28, 2018

REVIEW: 'Counterpart' - Howard and Prime Team Up as Baldwin Explores Her Past in 'Birds of a Feather'

Starz's Counterpart - Episode 1.02 "Birds of a Feather"

Howard must work together with his counterpart. Baldwin comes face to face with her past. From the other side, Emily tries to make sense of her orders.

Across two episodes, Counterpart has killed two gay characters. That's not great. They've been deaths in order to prove that this spy drama delves in life-or-death stakes. In the premiere, the gay character was killed seconds after being revealed as gay. He didn't really exist before that moment. It was just a moment that showed how lethal Baldwin was as an assassin. This week it's Baldwin's counterpart, Nadia, who is ultimately killed. Her being a lesbian is just one small aspect of the character. It's never abundantly stated in the dialogue or in the specific actions of the characters either. But it's definitely something the show articulates in order to paint a bigger and broader picture of these characters' lives. The show is delving into personal identity. With that comes the natural question of sexual identity being determined at birth. When Nadia first looks at Baldwin, she sees the best possible version of herself. It's her fantasy identity finally come to life. It's the version of herself that she always aspired to be but never could. In this reality, Nadia still had a successful career and was in love with a woman. But she still felt trapped by societal standards and could never embrace her true identity even though she's very clearly the woman running the show at the orchestra. That's a fascinating story that doesn't really get talked about a whole lot throughout "Birds of a Feather." It's up for the audience to catch all of that subtext and understand it. It's up to the audience to build that connection and see Nadia and Baldwin as sympathetic characters who don't deserve what ultimately happens. But that is also challenging because Baldwin was the antagonist of the premiere. So, everything remains complicated but it's not as nuanced as it could potentially be.

Of course, it's extremely beneficial to the show to just build up the support for its female characters in this hour. In the premiere, it was a very male-dominated show. That's not inherently bad or surprising. This has always been billed as a J.K. Simmons starring vehicle. He's an Oscar winner playing a dual role on a premium cable show. But the show can't just be about the two Howards - even though Simmons is fantastic at playing both of them. And so, this hour takes the same basic premise of the premiere but uses that to focus on two other identical characters. The premiere was all about Howard learning about this parallel universe and being thrown into harm's way because of what his counterpart is up to. And now, the second episode is all about the Office of Interchange hunting down Baldwin the assassin to ensure that she doesn't do any more harm in this world. It's a world that sends the protagonists on a mission exploring her past. Sure, it creates some weird logistical errors in trying to figure out just how old Baldwin is. The two realities split thirty years ago. Nadia and Baldwin share the same traumatic event of killing their father when she was roughly 10 years old. And yet, Sara Serraiocco - who is such a marvel to watch here in both versions of the same woman - is only 27 years old and looks that young onscreen. So, these are weird and noticeable details that do ultimately distract from what the show is ultimately trying to do.

But it's still a tragedy. It's a tragedy because everyone has shifty motivations and never really knows what's going on with everyone else. That could be a frustrating detail after awhile. It's still not all that clear what Howard Prime is up to in this reality. He is just crossing over with frequency for mysterious reasons while getting close to his counterpart. Right now, it's just important that everyone is hunting Baldwin. She's the assassin who doesn't belong in this world. She's broken protocol for whatever reason. She's targeting the individuals at the center of this story. And now, they are trying to understand her in this life as Nadia to figure out a way to trap Baldwin. It again builds a powerful connection through a shared past between these characters. Nadia and Baldwin made completely different choices in their lives. Both of them had the same upbringing of a strict but drunk father who made them practice the violin. That story builds and builds over the course of this hour to reveal that they allowed him to die when he drunkenly fell off the train platform. It was after that moment that their lives split. Nadia chose to continue to pursue the violin. She became famous but still attempted suicide multiple times. Meanwhile, Baldwin chose to leave the past completely behind in order to forge a new identity of who she truly was and not who her father was molding her into.

And now, Baldwin is tasked with killing Nadia. Her co-conspirator in whatever this mystery is tells her she needs to do so. She tells her that while they are at the family house that Nadia has conveniently refused to sell since her father's death. Baldwin has the conviction to do so. But killing Nadia is like killing herself. That's such an uncomfortable and complex situation to be put in. Nadia is so completely different. But she's the same woman as well. They share the same essence. They had the same upbringing. Their paths diverged but at their core they are the same woman. And now, they can plainly see that. Baldwin knows the truth of what's going on. She was sent to this other world in order to kill herself. It's important to the mission that the Howards can't use anything from her past in order to get to her now. It's just really tough for her to do so. She makes the situation more difficult for herself. She brings the police to the bar as she is kidnapping Nadia. She can't bear to kill her either. She carries her around for quite awhile. Meanwhile, Nadia has no idea what's going on. When Baldwin finally removes her mask, Nadia just thinks she is imagining things. She believes her life is coming to an end as she sees the woman she was always meant to be. That certainly idolizes this alternate reality as the best possible version of the characters in this one. But that's completely subjective as well. The choices are clear and distinct. But the humanity underneath is exactly the same. Baldwin can't kill Nadia. But Nadia ultimately dies because Cyrus, an agent working under Aldrich, can't tell which one it is.

All of this is essentially building to that moment where the two Howards only really trust each other. Howard doesn't understand why Prime always requests for him to be involved with his missions. It was clear for the first one because Emily was put in harm's way. But now, it seems Prime keeps reaching out because it may be easier to manipulate Howard into becoming a spy. He's not being covert in that endeavor. He's speaking openly and frankly. He can put on a disguise and give a performance. Prime essentially views Howard's entire life as a performance where he appreciates the beauty of the world. Prime doesn't have time for that because he has a mission to complete. He only has 36 hours in this world. He needs to make good use of every minute. Right now, it means trusting his counterpart because the agents running the Office of Interchange on this side really aren't that reliable. He sees that Quayle and Aldrich are going to be continuing problems for him. They are presented as agents intrigued by what the other side is doing but show no concern for the casual loss of life on display here. Howard is really affected by it. He almost gets caught by the police because he runs into the building trying to do something. He doesn't have the skills to make much of a difference. But he still runs into the danger. Prime understands the situation for what it really is. So, he knows that the mission didn't need to end this way. It did because of how dangerous the agents from this world are. And so, he's forming a bond with Howard. It's a relationship that continues to reveal new sides to both characters. They are talking about things and seeing the similarities. But that also points out the stark differences. Howard just wants to be with his sick wife right now. He doesn't want to be a spy. He knows more than he has ever known before. But it's also clear that that knowledge is what ultimately doomed Prime and his marriage to Emily. So, it's fascinating to see these differences and appreciate them even when the characters cannot.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Birds of a Feather" was written by Justin Marks and directed by Stephen Williams.
  • The premiere spent the majority of its running time in Howard's reality. It didn't really cross over to the Prime world a whole lot. It's important that the show does that though. It's still just casually teasing information. But more scenes are actually set there. They reveal that things are fundamentally the same but different. The cityscape has more buildings. As such, it's intriguing to see how these changes came to be.
  • The premiere ended with the reveal that Emily Prime was still alive. She's just divorced from Howard Prime. She's having sex with another agent. But she's also the woman in charge of bringing Prime in after receiving an order that he's been up to no good. Of course, there's no record of that order being sent out. So, it's clear that the people in charge of this conspiracy are using her as a pawn.
  • Prime's handler is introduced as well. He is played by Stephen Rea. He's the man capable of getting Prime the papers he needs to go over to the other world with as much frequency as he has. It's a dangerous mission as the two of them lay out after Emily tries to arrest him. But it's also compelling to see Emily and Pope meet which reveals that Emily knows more about Prime than anyone realizes at this point.
  • In additional series regular casting, Kenneth Choi (The People v. O.J. Simpson) pops up as Emily's supervisor who is questioning her actions from the previous night and Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland) appears as Baldwin's mysterious handler. Both should be fascinating additions to the season who will complicate things.
  • There are many physical things done to highlight the differences between Baldwin and Nadia. Baldwin has short hair and a nasty cut on her face while Nadia has long hair. Both women are selfishly controlling though. They do things according to their own schedule. It highlights the emotion of the writing and the performance that the show gets the audience to care about this woman who is a killer and will remain deadly throughout the season.