Sunday, February 11, 2018

REVIEW: 'Counterpart' - The Howards Attempt to Blend Into Each Other's Lives in 'Both Sides Now'

Starz's Counterpart - Episode 1.04 "Both Sides Now"

Both Howards deepen their investigation of the conspiracy. Quayle meets one of Howard's sources. Clare must decide what to do about Baldwin.

In shows where one actor plays multiple roles, it's expected that sooner or later the characters have to impersonate each other in their regular lives. It provides yet another showcase for the actor at the center of the story. The previous episodes showed how great J.K. Simmons was at playing Howard and Howard Prime. The story highlighted the differences between them while also showing how they came from the same place. The choices they made as individuals after the worlds split apart have shaped the people that they are today. And yet, it's still so powerful to see the shared experiences between them. They share an upbringing. But even their lives in the immediate aftermath of the split mirror each other. That's fascinating. Both Howards and Emilys got married and pregnant. But their paths went their separate ways the longer the alternate realities split from each other. That is the nature of this reality. They come from the same place. But trying to go undercover in each other's lives proves more startling than either could realize. Prime played his counterpart in the premiere. He only had to do so briefly to fool Baldwin while she targeted Emily. He did so with the audience believing that Emily was just an innocent bystander in all of this drama. The episodes since have proven that's not the case at all. In fact, she's been working as a source for Howard Prime for a long time now. Her accident may not be as innocuous as it first seemed. But now, Howard and Prime have to fully delve into the other's lives. They have to live as each other. They have to become a part of the other's worlds. They can see the differences and similarities between each other with striking clarity when in the same room. But isolating the two of them once more while being confronted with the truth about their realities is a smart thing to do to get them to realize just how profound these differences actually are.

And so, Howard goes over to the other side while Howard Prime stays in this life as Howard. The night before the switch is defined by Howard explaining his life to his counterpart. It's a life that Prime has around seen. He knows about Howard's backstory of not being promoted from interface until a few days ago because of these new events. He knows how blindly devoted Howard is to Emily. He understands the patterns of his life and knows how to live them. And yet, it's still Howard talking about his life while Prime remains very cryptic. Prime doesn't want to reveal more information than he has to. He knows that he is expected to return to his world soon. There's still much to uncover with this conspiracy. He needs to stay here. But he also runs the risk of Howard discovering too much about his life in this new reality. And so, he sends a message over to the other side. That sequence proves just how delicate and intricate this spy network actually is. It's compelling to see all of these covert handoffs of information. It's a system that works for Prime. He's very careful and can set things up perfectly for Howard to be picked up at the crossing and locked up in Prime's apartment. That's the arrangement that Prime wants. He believes living in each other's lives will only need to happen for a week. Of course, he's fooling himself into believing that. The audience should know better than that. The drama is only compelling if Howard finds a way out of this apartment to explore the other side. He's witnessing a completely new world for the first time all while people are looking at him expecting him to be someone else.

Howard isn't locked up in Howard Prime's apartment for very long either. It's enough for him to be annoyed by the deception. But the hour doesn't spend too much time on that. It locks him in there only for the next scene to be hours later with him escaping because of a knock at the door. His escape is tied to the failed drug overdose of Emily Prime. The fact that she survives that brutal attack from unknown assailants at the end of the previous episode proves that they probably didn't want to kill her. They wanted the information that she had gathered and to ruin her reputation. Apparently, this isn't the first time she has had a drug overdose. That's a crucial clue in revealing her flaws in this world. Howard always lifted Emily up as a saint even though he was oblivious to what was actually going on with her. Emily Prime has worn her emotions on her sleeve. She's taken action and not all of it has been good. It's been destructive in several instances - the drug overdose, cheating on her husband with Shaw, etc. But they were choices made because she didn't have that compassion at home. As such, she is able to see through the Howard charade pretty quickly. She is completely aware of the world and all its complexities. She knows that it's strange that Howard Prime wants to spend so much time with her. And thus, she has a potential new ally in trying to figure out what's actually going on in this world. Howard is disobeying his orders. But he has a renewed sense of purpose because Emily has returned to him. It's not his Emily just like he is not Emily Prime's Howard. But there is still a familial understanding between them. One that can forge a new relationship in the hopes of sharing beneficial information. Sure, Emily Prime is still keeping secrets from Howard while the tense family reunion with their daughter, Anna, will create more complications. But this is a fun pairing as well.

Meanwhile, Howard Prime is finding it very difficult to blend into Howard's life. He has spent a lifetime of doing whatever he wants. He built a whole division out of the Office of Interchange. He's headed a department for several decades. He's been in charge of covert operations. He understands the unique balance between the worlds. He has friends in surprising places who are always willing to help him. He doesn't want to live in the banality of Howard's life. He doesn't want to just go to the office to do data entry. He demanded a job in the strategy department. Quayle gave him one but it wasn't desirable in the slightest. He immediately walks out of the building. That's out of character for Howard. Prime can't blend into this world. And so, he just continues his investigation of this conspiracy. It's an investigation that takes him to meet an old friend. That friend mostly just drops a bunch of exposition that sets up this corner of the story for the foreseeable future. Early on, Quayle asks Aldrich if there could be a leak in their office. Howard Prime came over demanding the circle of information for this investigation be extremely tight. But details about it still leaked out. Quayle is right to be suspicious. And now, there is confirmation that there is a mole on the fourth floor. As such, everyone now needs to be looked at as a suspect. They already were for the savvy viewers who understand how stories like this work. But it should be interesting to see who turns out to be the mole and why. Howard Prime looks at Quayle with suspicion. But he also opens up to him in saying that he will actually have to live as Howard in his plain, boring life for awhile despite how much he dislikes it. That could be a lot of fun too.

Elsewhere, the show finally gives a character a gay moment without immediately killing them afterwards. That was such a destructive and horrible pattern the show followed in its opening episodes. Of course, there's only minimal progress made here. Baldwin and Clare kiss and fall into bed together. It's a very sexy and intimate scene. It's Baldwin being intimate and vulnerable \ with her handler believing her to be the only person in the world who genuinely cares about her. She understands the world she lives in. She knows that her days are number if her employers don't think she can finish this job. She believes she has a potential ally in Clare. Clare positions herself as such even though it's later confirmed she just did this to get Baldwin to drop her guard. Clare is surprised when the kiss first happens. But she allows it to continue in order to build a closer bond with Baldwin. For Baldwin, it's genuine. For Clare, it's manipulative. Clare slinks out in the middle of the night to steal the gun just as the assassin comes to kill Baldwin. And thus, it's only small progress with the "bury your gays" trope. Baldwin doesn't die. She is able to kill this assassin before he kills her even without her gun. She stabs him with his own knife. That's impressive while also being very lethal. It also further isolates her and makes her a dangerous complication that Clare and her partners will need to deal with. Baldwin can no longer trust Clare but she's trapped all alone in this foreign world. It's a compelling story for the future. It again highlights just how high the stakes of this spy drama are. But it would also be nice to see a moment of hopefulness in a gay storyline here. The show has teased enough of them to know that the creative team is interested in telling non-heteronormative stories. All of the romantic relationships on this show are complicated. But it should be compelling to see if this is something the show will eventually build on or just casually refer to every now and again.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Both Sides Now" was written by Erin Levy and directed by Alik Sakharov.
  • The Anna reveal gives this episode its connective tissue for the Howard stories. They are in such different lives at the moment. But they are also reflecting on the past and this one very crucial detail. Howard and Emily lost their child but their Prime counterparts did not. Did Emily know that? Did she ever meet Anna? Or is it just something that burdens both versions of Howard as they reflect on the choices they've made and the impact it's had?
  • It's a little unsettling to see how no one is taking Emily Prime's suicide attempt all that seriously. Anna certainly is. She has a routine for when this happens and can't let anyone distract her from telling her mother that she needs help. Emily Prime tells Shaw what really happened. But Howard is just so casual about all of it because he's seeing Emily again despite believing her to be dead on this side.
  • Of course, it's also weird how Shaw just completely disappears as this story goes on. He was established as Emily Prime's new lover. He is just as important at the office. But his connection with her isn't as personal as it is with Howard Prime. She trusts him with information. But there is never that moment where Howard is allowed to be alone with Emily Prime. He is with her for a long time. But that comes after Shaw exerted his dominance. So why did he leave exactly?
  • Quayle is just so creepy and gross with how casual he is about looking at other women despite being married. Howard Prime sees him as a man promoted to this position because he married into the right family. But Quayle sees that marriage as a way to continue flirting and having sex with other women. He justifies it by saying he would have gotten this promotion no matter what. This is his way of proving it which is so despicable.
  • There is also confirmation that Ambassador Lambert is in on this conspiracy. He's the one who gives Clare the order to kill Baldwin and wrap up that loose end. He's pretty casually despicable as well. He arranges for these meetings while he goes to a massage parlor. He's just perfectly fine flaunting his naked body around her. That's cruel and menacing even though Clare is just as cold and ruthless later on.