In case you missed the news, Starz has chosen to not renew Counterpart for another season. This is, of course, horrible news; Counterpart is one of TV’s smartest and most compelling dramas. While there’s still hope that the series could find a home elsewhere, we have to assume (for now) that this is the series finale, which is how Starz’s is billing it. For what it’s worth, “Better Angels” could easily serve as a satisfying series finale, although it also set up some tantalizing threads for a further exploration of this world.
The show’s final hour served, in some ways, as a counterpart (…!) to the season’s stand-out episode, “Twin Cities.” There, we learned about the origin of the Split and the Crossing, as well as the identity of Management — all of which became very important in how the rest of the season played out — and how this time around things might be different.
At its core, Counterpart has always been a rich character study that examines how our choices shape us. In meeting his Other, Howard Alpha saw a path he could have taken: one that would have left him hardened and bitter like Howard Prime is, and that would have led to the disillusion of his marriage. Season 2 delved even further into this by having Prime and Alpha swap worlds and lives, and focusing even more on the Emilys and their relationships with the two Howards. Running in tandem with that, we also saw the complications of the lives of those who killed their others, like Yanek and Clare. And yet, because of the actors’ deft handling of the material, things were never as confusing as they could have been.
Yanek killing his Other in “Twin Cities” served as a kind of Original Sin for the series. It led to the creation of Management, because of the growing paranoia between the worlds. As Mira mentions in this final episode, perhaps it’s better to never see the life you could have had, because it will forever define you (as we have seen with Clare in the past). Yanek’s act, more of a Cain and Abel moment than Adam and Eve, left him banished, and created the chain reaction of Mira and Indigo and the flu and more.
You could say that Counterpart, as a series, has all been a reaction to the moment when Yanek killed his Other. Like Yanek, Howard Alpha meets another version of himself who seems better — he’s higher up in his organization at work, he has incredible skills, his daughter survived, and his wife is alive (even though they are estranged). Like with Yanek, there is an opportunity here for Howard Alpha to covet Prime’s life and want to take it from him. Instead, circumstances throw him into it, with Prime taking over Alpha’s seemingly sad-sack existence. But one of the most quietly fascinating parts of the show was seeing how being in each other’s environment shaped the Howards. Alpha became braver, and Prime softened. They are, after all, ultimately the same person.
“Better Angels” essentially had two endings that addressed that idea. In the first, we see Emily Alpha understanding that she needed to put her old ways behind and listen to her true self; to choose, in effect, her better nature. It’s what she coaxes Edith to do in giving up the location of her walking-flu-virus friends, and it’s how Clare gets Spencer to give up the location of Mira’s cabin. In earlier episodes, it’s also how Clare decided to choose her daughter and Peter over her childhood indoctrination. She no longer wanted to live someone else’s life, but one that reflected her own choices. Ian Shaw also chose to give up living in between his old life and his new one by giving Emily the information needed to end things for Mira.
But the true reversal of Yanek’s decision came after Emily Alpha’s death, as Howard Alpha confronted Howard Prime with a gun. It was an important moment; like with Yanek Alpha, Howard had lost someone whereas his Prime did not. And like Yanek with the cassette tape experiment, he blamed the decisions Prime made for her death. And yet, Howard also knows (as the show makes clear time and time again) that it’s never just one decision that changes everything about who you are. It’s a process, and a pattern of decisions. As Howard Prime accepts his fate and admits honestly that he would pull the trigger “if I were you” (a very winky phrase given that they are, in fact, the same), Alpha knows in that moment that he must be like Emily and choose his better self. He is the better of the two Howards, and his decision confirms that. His act spares Prime and allows him to kill the human weapons Mira deployed in time to save millions of lives, making Emily’s sacrifice one of a hero. The Cain and Abel moment happened again, but this time, Cain chose his better nature and both men survived.
The second ending to “Better Angels,” though, showed that there is no 1:1 when it comes to reversing the sins of the past. Yanek is encouraged by Mira Prime to visit his true daughter in his own world, and when he does she evidently is happy to see him and rekindle a family relationship with him. We see him with her daughter at the park playing with other children — anyone who is around children much knows is basically a petri dish setting — which is of course exactly what Mira’s plan was. Yanek then realizes he’s sick, and keels over, knowing he exposed the virus to his granddaughter, and she to others, and now everyone who has come over to help him in the grass.
If Counterpart gets a third season, and I truly, truly hope it does, we’ll see some interesting changes. Mira is out of the picture (at least, Mira Prime), as is Management, and the Crossing itself. Baldwin and Howard Prime are back in their world, and Clare is working with Naya Temple and the Office of Interchange to track down more spies (she and Peter also seem to be on more solid ground, and want to rename their baby). Emily Alpha is gone, but Emily Prime continues to operate, while Howard Alpha has given up his connection with that old life. And most importantly, perhaps, the Alpha world has now been exposed to a deadly biological weapon — Mira’s last revenge on the man who murdered her father, ruining her life and most of her world.
All of this is ripe for further exploration into Counterpart’s rich tapestry of storytelling and character study, but if things do end here forever then we can at least know that our leads are mostly ok. In every instance (even Baldwin!) they chose their better selves. And yet, with the outbreak, we could see them being tested in ways that could change that. Howard made a choice that seemed to reverse Yanek’s sin in his own life and in the lives of those around him. Yet as Counterpart continues to illustrate, that is but one choice of many.