Sunday, February 18, 2018

REVIEW: 'Counterpart' - Howard and Emily Prime Work Together to Better Understand Each Other in 'Shaking the Tree'

Starz's Counterpart - Episode 1.05 "Shaking the Tree"

Howard discovers another side of Emily. Howard and Emily search for answers about a mysterious drop site. Aldrich and Quayle seek intel from an old friend.

The world of Counterpart continues to expand with each passing episode. World building has proven to be one of the show's greatest strengths. It exists in two different worlds. They mirror each other but specific actions have made them completely different as well. And now, more and more characters are being introduced who will surely complicate this delicate spy game. It's clear that one side is much more dangerous and organized at the spycraft than the other side. Howard, Quayle and Aldrich are largely playing catch up to the long con that the other side has been playing. It's a conspiracy that risks becoming too overly complicated. Right now, the most effective aspect of the show is seeing the relationship between Howard and Emily in all of its various forms. These are two individuals who have multiple relationships with one another because of this reality. The entire story is personal for them. They are at the center of all of it trying to get a grasp on what is actually going on. Meanwhile, everyone else is just shrouded in secrecy and playing into the traditional spy conventions. It's been very effectively told so far. But it's also abundantly clear that the show is still just in the rising action stage of things. It is still introducing new plot and new characters. It's still adding up the complications that the protagonists will need to deal with shortly. It's surely creating a complex world where any outcome could be imaginable. But the show is also taking its time to properly set up this conflict. It's something the show has the luxury of doing because it was picked up for two seasons of twenty episodes total at Starz. As such, it's not rushing through story. That could be effective in the end. But right now, it mostly makes it so that these reviews are simply mentioning the various ways this conflict is growing and becoming more difficult for the main characters.

And then, there is just the reality that Quayle and Aldrich learning about a new aspect of this conspiracy just isn't as interesting as Howard or his Prime counterpart doing the same exact thing. Quayle and Aldrich really aren't entertaining characters whom the audience should care about at this point. They appear to be on the side of good. Of course, Howard Prime has looked at them suspiciously in the past. It wouldn't be surprising in the slightest for the show to eventually reveal one of them as the mole within this side's Office of Interchange. They are both keeping secrets for unknown reasons. This week Aldrich reveals a defector from the other side who actually has significant information about the way things are run over there. She came to this world knowing that the people in charge of her side were actually conspiring to send secret undercover agents to infiltrate the organization. She knew that the system was becoming compromised. And now, it takes Quayle mentioning that for Aldrich to think it's a good idea to visit this woman again. That makes him seem a little shady because he didn't think to consult her with her opinion on all of this before this moment. He is still presenting himself as an ally. He carries the task of finding the mole within the operation to stop leaks from getting to the other side. But he can only be effective in that mission if he isn't the mole. He hasn't been ruled out yet though. Neither has Quayle who has previously proven that he's self-motivated more than acting for an overall cause. But he's mostly too confused by everything going on to seem all that smart or perceptive here.

Meanwhile, the audience is made privy to what the conspirators are planning next. "Shaking the Tree" opens with three agents from the other side going through the crossing. It's a tense sequence which proves that this trio worry about being stopped. They can't allow anything to take them away from this mission. They kill the man who found an apartment for them to hide out in for a couple of days to ensure he wouldn't remain a complication. It's a tense sequence that additionally unnerves the audience because one of the agents is played by Lotte Verbeek. She was previously seen as the assistant to the director of diplomacy, Roland Fancher. And now, it seems pretty clear that these agents are coming over to this side to kill their counterparts and assume their identities within the Office of Interchange. They are planting themselves as the moles within the organization. It's a smart strategy. It also establishes that Clare is revered in this community. They are apparently a part of a program called The School - in which children were raised for this precise mission. This is something the other side has been planning for quite awhile. It's all in retaliation for the flu epidemic in the early 1990s. Everything seems to revolve around that. But there are still some mysteries at play as well. Alexander Pope seems to be a major component of this conspiracy. But whenever he appears, it's through cryptic conversations in the other side. He's not really doing much so far. Plus, the leader of The School is apparently a woman as context from Clare's conversation with these new agents would suggest. So, there are still big reveals coming this season.

But again, the most empowering aspect of this show comes from the relationship between Howard and Emily. Over on the other side, Howard is teaming up with Emily Prime. He's doing so because he immediately trusts this familiar face. But he is also drawn into this familial world desperately clinging on to the life that could have been. Yes, it's tragic that Emily is no longer his wife over here. But their daughter survived. Anna was saved both in childbirth and during the flu epidemic. She's a fighter and a survivor. Howard is desperate to have that connection in his life. And yet, it's not his connection to have. He isn't her father. His Prime counterpart is. He's been very negligent as well. She does not have a high opinion of him. She thinks he must be dying if he's reaching out now and taking an interest in her life. But Howard is just a man who wishes to understand this woman who is also a part of him. To him, Anna is his daughter. He wants to know how her life turned out. That's the biggest concern of his in this new world. It's the most personal and really resonants in that final moment. But there's also so much potential for this ruse that Howard Prime concocted to go wrong. Howard isn't really blending into this world at all. Emily Prime could spot him out immediately. And now, Alexander Pope knows the truth too. Everyone apparently does and is completely willing to allow him free range in this new world that he doesn't understand. Pope doesn't see Howard as a threat because he doesn't understand spy craft in the slightest. But Howard still has a few tricks up his sleeve as well because he still carries the face of a notorious spy in this world.

And then, there is the realization that the Howards and Emilys may not be so different after all. They've had different life experiences. But it's also abundantly clear that the feelings and desires of one also exist within the other. And so, the marriage of Howard Prime and Emily Prime failed for a reason. They are both devoted to their work but Howard Prime was so secretive and distant. That forced Emily Prime to cheat. She has now found love and happiness with Ian - even though she has a much stronger connection to Howard. Meanwhile, Howard and Emily are still married. Howard absolutely adores her. She is his entire world. He is completely happy just being with her. He has no ambition beyond that. But now, it's becoming clear that she has been dissatisfied for so long. She has kept so much from him. She was a source for Howard Prime. She was working for him for years. And now, it's revealed that she too was having an affair. That's how Emily Prime and Ian's relationship started. And that's how Emily and Howard's marriage has begun to fall apart. Of course, she's still in a coma and can't actually do anything about this information getting out there. Howard Prime just thinks it's strange that Andrei wishes to see Emily. He learns that that relationship was actually quite intimate and real. Emily loved him. It was more than her simply working a source. So, it's still clear that Howard and Emily do things with much more passion. They still empathize and connect with people. Their Prime counterparts are more cold and distant. They are focused on the singular objective. But now, they are seeing just how destructive these choices could have been for their lives. It just stings because Howard has the most to lose after believing his life to be so happy for so long.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Shaking the Tree" was written by Zak Schwartz and directed by Stephen Williams.
  • Howard and Emily Prime are pursuing a lead that confirms the embassy has been compromised. It's already been confirmed that Claude Lambert is a member of this conspiracy. But now, these two are trying to figure out how far-reaching that connection extends to this world. All they do is intimidate the carrier of the information. It points them in the direction of a house. But that's just about it for now - which is another example of the show really taking its time with its story.
  • Of course, Howard also sees just how intimidating and scary Emily Prime can be. She can get the information out of this man much more easily than he could. He just bluntly asked for it and didn't realize when the man went running away afterwards. Emily Prime has been playing this game for awhile longer. She knows the signs to look out for. She's much more aggressive. And yet, Howard is still drawn to her because she's his wife.
  • Clare visits Heinrich to ask him what he told Howard Prime last week. So even this side is aware that the Howards have switched and aren't who they say they are. So again, that ruse wasn't the actual premise of the show for very long. That's to be expected. But now, it also suggests that Clare kills this man for what he revealed about their plans even though that's not actually seen onscreen.
  • It's also noted that Clare is the star student from The School. She's the graduate whom the person in charge still raves about. Her reputation is enough for her to demand respect upon meeting these new agents for the first time. And yet, Clare still has her blindspots as well. Baldwin is still a wildcard in all of this. She spends her time flirting with waitresses while also being aware of where Clare is going at the moment.
  • Aldrich's defector also lives with her counterpart. It's surprising to see that when the other version walks into the room. It also confirms how some people are exactly the same in their mannerisms and behavior. These two women are identical and enjoy living together. It may make it more tricky once they eventually become a target for these conspirators. But that's what will make it exciting too.