Sunday, March 4, 2018

REVIEW: 'Counterpart' - Clare's Backstory is Explored While Quayle Suspects His Wife in 'The Sincerest Form of Flattery'

Starz's Counterpart - Episode 1.07 "The Sincerest Form of Flattery"

Clare's past is revealed. Quayle suffers through his own birthday party.

It really was brilliant watching how Counterpart slowly revealed the relationship between Quayle and Clare. It was an important part of Quayle's backstory that he was married to the daughter of a well-regarded diplomat. That was the reason he got promoted to his current position so early in his career. That was important information to have about him. But the show never ventured into his home life. He was mostly just a guy trying to assist in Howard Prime's investigation of a massive conspiracy that threatens to attack this world. But he's also proven to be a reckless guy who thinks it's perfectly fine to be cheating on his wife. That quality of him was gross. And yet, the show wasn't actually depicting his home life. So, there wasn't someone whom the audience could be sympathetic to because of his actions. That's not uncommon in prestige shows like this where the male characters are at the center. And yet, Counterpart has been very deceptive in that regard. Yes, it's still a very male-dominated show. But the female characters have so much complexity to them. They are the ones often thinking so many moves ahead. They are the ones being proactive about their current situations. "The Sincerest Form of Flattery" proves just how well Clare has been playing Quayle for years. He is only now coming to realize that he shouldn't be trusting his wife. He didn't think he was bringing any classified information into that relationship. But he was also completely blind to what she was up to because he didn't care to actually notice. As such, he was the perfect target to be exploited. The show revealed that in such a brutal way at the close of last week's episode. It was such a stunning reveal that confirmed Clare's intelligence and Quayle's stupidity. And now, both of those qualities are once again on full display as they have to deal with the ramifications of the discovery.

This is also the episode that shades in more of Clare's backstory and her connection to this grand conspiracy. The overarching narrative of the season has been murky because the motivations behind the conspiracy weren't abundantly clear. The audience and the characters investigating could certainly speculate on why they are doing what they are doing. But there wasn't any definitive answers. It was just important that this Cold War between the two realities was heating up. One side had been planning their strategy for years and making careful and specific moves. The other has been playing catchup and reacting to whatever big thing is happening in the moment. And now, it is confirmed that the organization that Clare is a part of is mostly doing this as revenge for the other world bringing the flu over that killed millions of people. That's the popular theory of the people in the know over there. Their world was completely changed by this global pandemic. It changed them fundamentally as a society. It's again important to see the differences while understanding the point of diversion as well. Clare's world no longer consumes pork because it allowed the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, she is a part of an organization that has inside information and truly believes this alternate reality to be responsible for so much death. This episode begins with a young Clare having to identify dead bodies as her parents. She suffered a great personal loss. It made her susceptible to join this organization. And yet, it was always inevitable that she would join largely because of what her counterpart was doing in the other reality. She was special and important because of the family connections. As such, Clare would have always been a target for this group.

It's so all-consuming to see what this program actually entailed. It pays homage to the various spy stories where people are devoted to one mission and have to sacrifice everything to be a soldier for it. It's a familiar story that way. But again, the science fiction premise of this show adds a new layer of complications to everything. Clare's handlers are literally comparing her to someone else. She was picked out for a reason. She was designated as a potential spy who could exploit this other world for its secrets. As such, she needed to learn everything about her counterpart. She had to accept that this wasn't her life. Her humanity was stripped of her. She had to accept that this world wasn't just the ideal life she could have had with her parents. Instead, she had to antagonize them as the reason she lost them in the first place. It's cruel and dark but sets her on the path to the present. As such, the spies are constantly coming back with reports of what is going on in the other Clare's life. Clare has to have her legs broken because her counterpart was in a skiing accident. She had to learn everything about school and her interests in the world. She had to have identical penmanship. She had to learn and experience pop culture in the same way. It's fascinating to see how expansive this entire program was. It was for the singular objective of complete destruction of this alternate reality. But it's also a program that can't exist forever because the two worlds are drifting further and further apart with each passing second. Clare as a young girl has many classmates. But when she becomes the teacher, there are just fewer available options for this kind of infiltration. As such, there's a time limit on when they can make this strike.

It's also important to see when the switch happens for Clare. When Howard Prime shows up at Quayle's house, it sends Quayle spinning because he doesn't know if any of this relationship was ever real. He doesn't know if Clare started dating him because of the promotion he would one day get. He doesn't know just how expansive and far-reaching this conspiracy goes. But the audience is afforded clarity here. We see Clare's upbringing. We see her handlers debate when the best time to make the switch is. They have several moments to decide on. They are preparing her for this mission. But when she eventually does make the journey over there, she is suddenly all alone. She becomes a spy in a strange and foreign land. She is once again tasked with infiltrating this woman's life so that she can easily replace her. Clare has the equipment to monitor what her counterpart is doing to ensure that every behavioral pattern is exactly the same. When she and Quayle have sex for the first time, Clare needs to mimic that same activity. But for the counterpart, sex was a passionate thing she wanted to wait for. For Clare, it was very mechanical and derived from the mission. It further establishes the creepy dynamic between Clare and Claude as well. He's always been running her and she's always uncomfortable around him. And yet, he still motivates her into action to keep the wedding between Clare and Quayle moving forward. That's when the switch happens. Quayle fell in love with the real Clare. They got into a fight before the wedding because he cheated on her. Clare had to stage an assault in order to mend the relationship. Ever since then, she's been living this life and providing intelligence on what's actually been going on in this side's department.

All of this is particularly brutal to watch. It's all happening for a reason. Nazanin Boniadi nails every single note of this performance as a woman devoted to her cause and willing to do absolutely anything for it - in addition to the counterpart who is just living a simple and happy life. It all ends in tragedy. But as Howard Prime notes early on, this side has the opportunity to use this information to their advantage. They know that Clare is the mole and can start surveilling her. Quayle just has to play along with that. That proves to be something he's incapable of doing though. It makes him seem incredibly stupid and annoying. This is a massive personal betrayal for him. Of course, it's hard to sympathize with him knowing that he's constantly been cheating on her. This marriage wasn't about love leading up to this point. But knowing all of the context now makes it hit only harder for him. He deals with the pain by drinking throughout the party and trying to get Clare to slip up on details about their past. She has an answer for everything. That only leads to growing frustration though. Quayle ruins everything by confronting Clare. He needs to know what happened to the women he fell in love with - or if she even existed at all. And yet, there's still quite a bit of love here. For Quayle, it's genuine. He allows Clare a way out by killing herself. But for Clare, it's still a little mysterious and unknown. She is caught. She knows that long before she enters the bedroom to face Quayle's wrath. She knows he's acting strange and lying to her. She knows to be careful around him. And then, she concocts a story about falling in love with him over the years because of what this marriage produced. The birth of their daughter changed everything. The show confirms that moment to be one where Clare found her humanity again. She felt the connection back to her innocent and younger self when holding her daughter for the first time. And yet, it also feels like a ploy to convince Quayle that Clare isn't as dangerous as he suspects. Him falling into that trap seems likely while bound to have some major consequences as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Sincerest Form of Flattery" was written by Gianna Sobol and directed by Alik Sakharov.
  • It's surprising that the best episode of the season so far barely features J.K. Simmons at all. The intensity and specificity of this episode gives it some remarkable strength and power. It's fueled by a number of great performances. Simmons has been the highlight of the show through his work playing both Howards. And yet, this episode proves that the show has purpose and meaning beyond that central performance. That's what makes it a great show.
  • In additional ways that Quayle is dumb, he made the combination to his safe the same combination to his phone. For someone in the intelligence profession, that just seems so profoundly stupid. He has no idea how to be covert and secretive with his information. Anyone who breaks that code can get access to everything that he has. As such, Clare really was the best agent her organization could ever hope for.
  • Clare names her daughter after her young crush who was sent away after her teacher thought they were getting too close. It was the kind of personal relationship she couldn't have because of the mission. But it's never confirmed if Spencer actually went to the other side to begin his mission. That was just the answer that Mira gave to Clare in order for her to toughen up. It could have just been a convenient excuse to shape the most important asset.
  • Claire came over to this world all alone. Claude was the only ally she had. But she had to put in all of the work to monitor her counterpart and stage the switch. That happened. And now, she's the one helping other assets make the move into their new lives. She's killing off their counterparts for them to make the transition easily. As such, those three agents are just sitting idly by in the apartment just waiting to be activated.
  • I've raised questions about the timeline previously and how events that have clearly occurred after the split 30 years ago are still exactly the same. Clare explains here that the two worlds were mostly identical until the flu pandemic that struck in 1996. That was the massive change that completely redefined the relationship between the two worlds. As such, the events that happened through the prior decade could still be the same despite the two worlds existing at the same time.