Sunday, February 25, 2018

REVIEW: 'Counterpart' - Howard Prime, Aldrich and Quayle Learn More About the Mole in 'Act Like You've Been Here Before'

Starz's Counterpart - Episode 1.06 "Act Like You've Been Here Before"

Aldrich questions a not-too recent death in the office. Emily, Howard and Shaw follow a lead.

Puzzle box mystery shows typically spend a lot of time carefully setting up their mysteries and their characters. The payoffs don't happen all that quickly. And yet, the success of the show depends entirely on if all of the setup is rewarded once the big twists happening. Counterpart is halfway through its first season. It's been a very fun and deliberate spy show so far. It's been very careful in establishing its two unique worlds and the differences between the various counterparts. The personal relationships between the characters is where this show truly shines. But it has always had the overarching conspiracy plot going on as well. At times, it's been held at a distant. It was unclear what exactly was going on and why the audience should care about any of it. It has always been most successful when it was framed through the personal stakes of the Howards. Whenever they are directly being impacted by the conspiracy, that story comes into sharp focus. But now, the two of them are in separate worlds. They each have their own investigation going on to see what's actually happening. It's again a smart creative decision. The fallout of these reveals needs to have an impact on both worlds. It can't just be a case of "us versus them." It has always presented itself as more nuanced than that. There's always the uncertainty of who is in on the conspiracy and who isn't. It's hard to really trust anyone outside of Howard and Emily at the moment. But there are plenty of characters with nuance who are engaging to watch as well. That's what has made this show compelling to watch so far. And now, the show begins paying off some of the mysteries it has set up. Sure, it's another case of misdirection with Howard Prime and Aldrich believing they know who the mole is in the fourth floor of the Office of Interchange. They don't know the full scope of the story just yet. But the show itself has the confidence to reveal enough to the audience so that we can understand what is going on and have an appreciation for that. And that is very rewarding.

The show has been playfully teasing Clare's importance ever since she debuted. She was introduced as Baldwin's handler. She was then established as a crucial element of this conspiracy storyline. She was more than the person simply handing the orders over to Baldwin and needing to tie up that loose end when things went awry. She has a voice in this endeavor. She's not the one actively making the overall decisions about the future of this plot. But she has enough importance for the others involved to listen and respect her. And now, she's revealed as the first welcoming face for the new spies who have come over to this world. Those three mysterious individuals are still just stuck in that apartment. One of them explores the world a little bit. He sees just how populated and technologically advanced this world is in comparison. And yet, it doesn't deter him from the mission at all. All he does is say that he's ready to watch it all die. That's an ominous note that starts the episode on a high. He doesn't even have to interact with Clare for the stakes to be serious and lethal. Last week teased that she was a spy just like these three newcomers. And now, that is confirmed to be true. She's the mole that Howard, Quayle and Aldrich have been looking for. She's been stealing information from Quayle's office at home because she's actually his wife. That's the stunning twist of this episode's final moments. It's an effective surprise that lets the audience in on what she's doing and who she is before revealing her connection to this part of the universe.

However, Howard Prime and Aldrich are now accusing Quayle of being the mole. That always seemed like a distinct possibility. He was one of the few people in the inner circle whom the Howards can trust in this secret mission. They kept that circle small and information was still leaking out. Howard Prime is now seeing the consequences to being two steps behind this conspiracy. Last week, the audience saw Clare sit down with Heinrich. We knew that his days on the show were numbered. But his fate isn't confirmed until now with his fingers and teeth being removed so he can't be identified in this world. That's a horrifying reveal that shows Howard Prime's well-crafted network is in serious danger at the moment. Quayle is the only other person who knew about Heinrich too. So, Howard Prime is right to assume that Quayle is his biggest problem. He may not accuse him of being the spy. But it's enough for him to confront him about being too loose with his secrets. Meanwhile, Aldrich is in his own completely separate plot where he visits the ex-lover of the man who used to hold Quayle's position. Apparently, he died from a heart attack at age 49. It wasn't labeled a suspicious death. So, no one really looked into it as a murder. But now, Aldrich sees that he needs to investigate every action that motivated the correct structure of the department. That means believing Quayle killed this man in order to take over the role as head of the department. That's a serious accusation that the audience knows isn't true. But it also proves just how effective the other side is playing this game. They have the tools to manipulate and kill without ever being noticed or receiving any of the blame. That's been very effective so far.

Of course, it could also be seen as a stalling technique for Howard Prime and Aldrich to be going after Quayle as the mole when they should be focusing on the people who have access to his files. That's what Quayle will be doing. He gets the confirmation as well that his files are the ones that have been compromised. He may not suspect his wife at the moment of this kind of betrayal. But that's bound to happen sooner rather than later. He'll need to clear his name so that he can continue working with Howard Prime and Aldrich. That seems to be what the show wants and is simply complicating it right now to give the narrative time to set up whatever is coming next. The same could also be said of what is currently going on between Howard and Ian Shaw. Last week Howard and Emily Prime got the information of where the courier was taking the packages from the embassy. But they didn't move quickly to find out what was happening in that building. Of course, they have good reasons for that. Emily Prime wanted to know if it was a property owned by the agency or by someone involved with the conspiracy. She wants to know how far this corruption actually goes. She is hoping for freedom in that regard by asking her boss for some personal time off. Both Howard and Emily Prime still have to go through the motions of their regular lives. That's not something that Howard Prime is concerned about at all. But Howard spends almost the entire episode being grilled by Shaw while hooked up to a lie detector test. Of course, he manages to pass by just claiming that he doesn't know anything. That doesn't arouse much suspicion at all. But it's the perfect kind of distraction necessary for the people at the mysterious building to get a warning that agents are coming. It still sets up the ominous ending of Howard being given a gun to storm this building with Shaw and Emily Prime. But it takes a long time to actually get to that moment.

And again, the spycraft of this show is interesting but not as engaging as the character stories. It's much more intriguing to see how prolonged time in the other world changes the various people. Emily Prime and Anna enjoy a meal where Anna talks about her father surprising her with how much he wants to know about her life. Emily Prime knows exactly what that is happening. Howard is the father that Anna deserved but didn't get. He is so caring and loving. Emily Prime knows that it's just a temporary living arrangement though. That's heartbreaking to her because she can see Anna showing an interest in her father again after years of just writing him off as the neglectful parent he is. Meanwhile, Baldwin is still devoted to her mission and wants to be get the money she deserves from Clare. But she also feels the pull to attend Nadia's funeral and listen in on how no one ever truly knew her. That's heartbreaking too because Baldwin can relate to that. She's much more open about living her true self. She's the ideal version that Nadia aspired to be. And yet, she still suffers from insecurities. She is willing to form this new relationship with Greta, the photographer from the coffee shop. She introduces Baldwin to a whole new world. But it's still strange and foreign to her. She doesn't care for dancing. But she does want intimacy. It's just a struggle for her to feel that without also fearing that anyone could arrive to kill her at a moment's notice. She is desperate to move on from this job and start a new life in this world. But the narrative keeps pulling her back in. She is still an effective killer but it's painful to see just how complex a character she is and how she's changing as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Act Like You've Been Here Before" was written by Justin Britt-Gibson and directed by Jennifer Getzinger.
  • The big reveal with Clare also isn't surprising because of that moment earlier in the hour where Baldwin contacts her while she's living her cover identity. Baldwin doesn't care about any of that mystery and pretending to be other people. But Clare knows that everything could fall apart if she is ever seen talking to the wrong people. As such, she caves to Baldwin's demands very quickly.
  • Quayle knows that the files being taken from the department are the ones from his personal office. So, someone obviously knows the combination to his safe. Clare presents herself as the only possibility. But it also seems incredibly likely that time will be spent with Quayle looking into the various women he has also been sleeping with this season. That could be a long list too.
  • It's a lot of fun seeing Howard trying to blend into Howard Prime's life. He doesn't have to fall into that identity with Emily Prime. She is the only one who knows the truth that he trusts. Shaw is completely in the dark - which doesn't paint a great portrait of the current state of his relationship with Emily Prime. And yet, Howard is still prone to mistakes. He wants to see Shaw as just as incapable of compassion and empathy as Howard Prime. But Shaw can easily counter by saying how much he has actually been present for Emily Prime lately.
  • There are many well-regarded people running the Office of Interchange on the other side. Howard Prime, Emily Prime and Alexander Pope all get that distinction. They are legacy players in this game. No one is presented in that same way in Howard's world where everyone seems gasping at straws - except for perhaps Roland Fancher. And yet, that respect and admiration is one thing. Seeing how skilled Howard Prime, Emily Prime and Pope are at this game is completely different.
  • The show always presents the idyllic hope that seeing an alternate reality will force the person witnessing it to change and see the world they come from with a new perspective. And yet, it's also aware that not everyone will have a profound experience like that. Howard is but Howard Prime hasn't. The same is also true of the three newcomers who are staying on track for their cryptic mission of chaos and destruction.