Sunday, February 4, 2018

REVIEW: 'Counterpart' - Emily Prime Investigates What Howard Prime Has Been Up To in 'The Lost Art of Diplomacy'

Starz's Counterpart - Episode 1.03 "The Lost Art of Diplomacy"

Both sides turn to diplomacy to resolve a conflict. Emily obtains a special visa. Howard interrogates a suspect.

"The Lost Art of Diplomacy" opens with the final moments of Emily Silk's life before she was hit by a car while crossing the street. It's an eery note to start on that also hints at some dangerous secrets going on with this woman who has been in a coma for the entire series so far. Over the course of this hour, that is proven to be true in numerous ways. First, it appears that it wasn't an accident after all. Sure, there is still some suspicions about this central action. But it does seem like she is looking for a car to come down this street so that she can be hit by it unexpectedly. It certainly paints Howard's relationship with her in a different light. He adores her completely. Every single night he visits her in the hospital. He is concerned about her safety and health more than anything else. And yet, this action proves that she kept secrets from him. Howard Prime and Emily Prime are both caught up in the spycraft of this world. Howard was completely oblivious to that. But it's possible that Emily was not. And in fact, that's the big twist of this hour. Emily has been working with Howard Prime for a long time now. She is the reason he reached out for this mission now. She was his source on the other side. She apparently uncovered something that had the potential of changing everything between the two worlds. It was enough for her to be targeted multiple times. She is more than just the wife who can be used to get to the man with agency in the story. She has her own motivations even though she's now in a coma. She's safer now. But considering what happens to Emily Prime at the end of this episode, that could very well change in an instant.

This is also the hour that gives Emily Prime more to do. She has a job in the Office of Interchange just like her former husband. She has been disciplined for going after a fellow agent for no reason whatsoever. She got caught up in this conspiracy very quickly. She knows she's being played as a pawn. She's trying to overcome that and fight back against the forces trying to manipulate her. As such, that leads to her first trip to the other side. She goes through the crossing for the first time. It's the audience's first real glimpse at the exchange between worlds. We've seen the start and end points of this journey. But now, we see that it's really just like an underground tunnel. One person enters and makes the full journey before another can cross. The world that the Primes come from is very sensitive about such travel as well. So much of the action has occurred in Howard's world. That's where all the consequences are largely happening. But now, it's seen that simply entering that world can be dangerous for people. The world building of this show is so remarkable. These two worlds are completely different from one another. They have different history and technology. The Prime world has been ravished by pandemics. That makes them very cautious about any potential diseases and outbreaks. That makes them scientifically advanced. It also makes them a little fragile. Emily is curious about this whole other world. But she finds herself confined to a car ride and the embassy only.

It's at the embassy that Emily Prime reunites with Howard Prime. Their last conversation didn't go so well because she tried bringing him in for whatever illegal activities he was up to in the other world. And now, she understands that the conspiracy runs so much deeper than that. She knows that Howard Prime isn't as big a target as he initially seemed. And yet, he's still not being forthcoming with information with her. He still doesn't know if he can trust her. It would be hard to trust the woman who tried to kill him. But their past is also incredibly painful and riddled with betrayals. They both openly lived in this world of parallel realities and spycraft. But that only put more distance in their marriage. She ultimately cheated. They are so distant now. That's what makes it so compelling when Emily Prime asks for a moment alone with Howard Prime and basically only talks about the world of possibilities for their relationship in this new reality. She came to this world for a reason. She was gathering intelligence while being a part of the diplomacy team negotiating for Baldwin's transfer back to her own reality. Instead, she finds herself distracted by Howard Prime. She wants to know what's going on with him. That mostly leads to her bearing her soul about wondering what could have happened with them. It may be an effective strategy to get him to open up to her. It makes him point her in the direction of answers back in their world. She finds the final note that Emily gave Howard Prime. But it's clear that Emily Prime wasn't the only one listening in on this conversation. She was followed and attacked in her apartment. That's a startling final image for this episode. It teases that she's actually dead. Now, that seems doubtful. One Emily has to suffer for a little while longer. But it mostly proves just how far behind this conspiracy the protagonists actually are.

This hour also attempts to spend more time with Peter Quayle. He's one of the agents whom Howard Prime is comfortable working with at the moment. Howard Prime only truly trusts his counterpart because they share so much of a core identity. But he also has to work alongside Quayle and Aldrich. Right now, he's furious with Aldrich for what happened at the theater. Nadia died and Baldwin was arrested. That's only created more problems for everyone involved. It's completely new information for Quayle. He wasn't made aware of the situation until his father-in-law and the Director of Diplomacy, Roland Fancher, was yelling at him about it. It proves that Quayle has a family life that is complicated at the moment. He got this position in the agency because of his family connections. He always seemed young and cocky for this particular job. He's capable too. But now, it makes more sense that it was given to him instead of something that he actually earned. That's a significant talking point throughout this story. Sure, it may just be Fancher trying to discredit and dismiss whatever Quayle is saying because he has his own agenda in this conspiracy. That seems very likely. But it also just proves that Quayle may not be a capable or interesting component of this story. He's simply a guy cheating on his wife and not being able to stall these negotiations when the Howards need him to do exactly that. Or perhaps all of that proves that he's involved with the conspiracy somehow.

All of this is basically just building to the release of Baldwin. Howard and Aldrich are trying to get information out of her before she is sent back to her world. Baldwin will only speak with Howard because he was at the theater and tried to stop the agents from killing Nadia. It's mostly just a case of delaying these talks to ensure she doesn't have to share any information about what's really going on. Right now, the show lives in the ambiguity of its mysterious conspiracy. There's shadowy individuals working behind the scenes for cryptic reasons. The protagonists are paying for that immediately. Emily Prime might be dead. Emily is in a coma offering no signs of waking up. Howard Prime is being called back to his world with a revoked visa. And now, Howard and Aldrich only survive death after their vehicle transporting Baldwin is ambushed because of the conversation that Howard had with Baldwin. He showed humanity to her. He offered up conversation of just how profoundly fucked up this whole reality actually is. It's difficult to be presented with a completely different version of oneself. Both Howard and Baldwin can relate to that. It's that conversation that ultimately spares his life when it's clear that Baldwin's partners just want to kill everyone in this van. It proves that Howard has worth in this world. He sees the humanity and compassion even as everything else is defined by the spycraft and secret keeping. But now, he's being sent off to the other world in order to live in Howard Prime's shoes. That's a compelling premise for the next episode while also ensuring a very dangerous future because the world is just as lethal over there.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Lost Art of Diplomacy" was written by Amy Berg and directed by Jennifer Getzinger.
  • Usually in stories like this, the double agent working against the team while in charge of the big mysterious conspiracy happens to be the biggest name actor. This show has done something incredibly smart in casting a lot of recognizable faces in the supporting ensemble to make it seem possible that the threat is coming from anywhere. Those faces include Stephen Rea, Richard Schiff, Kenneth Choi, Lotte Verbeek and Jamie Bamber.
  • I was so surprised to see Lotte Verbeek's name pop up in the opening credits. She's familiar to Starz audiences from her work on Outlander. But I had no clue that she would also be appearing here. Of course, it immediately comes across as a thankless role. She's nothing more than Fancher's secretary. And yet, her casting is just enough to peak my interest and be incredibly skeptical about this corner of the office.
  • Ambassador Lambert seems like yet another pompous young man who was given a powerful position because of the people that he knows. However, he is able to hold his own against Fancher unlike Quayle. He is able to have cryptic conversations with everyone while also asserting his own power and influence. He may enjoy the delights of this world but he's very skilled when it comes to negotiations.
  • Fancher has a very impressive moment where he talks about the purpose of keeping the crossing open. It would be so easy to just seal it off and allow the two worlds to exist completely independent of one another. There would be no cause for concern with these trivial spy games. But the crossing is kept open because of the differences between the worlds and the many ways they can benefit from one another if the negotiating is done correctly.
  • Emily Prime also suggests to Howard Prime that he can't trust Alexander Pope. He was the one who gave the order to have Howard Prime executed. Of course, that's probably not true because the audience doesn't know the full story just yet. But it's also a damning piece of evidence because his codes were used in order to give that order. He'll have to explain that soon.