Warning: Spoilers for the Counterpart Season 2 episode “Twin Cities” follow.
One of the most chilling lines spoken in the Starz series Counterpart came from Yanek (James Cromwell), an “extractor” who specializes in comparing the experiences from the show’s two worlds. He’s speaking with Howard Alpha (J.K. Simmons), who has crossed over, and is telling him about some of the differences in his life versus that of his “Other,” Howard Prime. In describing Prime’s poor relationship with his father, and the decisions he made to abandon him, Alpha passionately exclaims “I would never do that!” Yanek comes back with those haunting words: “But you did.”
As grounded as Starz’s series Counterpart is with its character drama, it can be easy to mentally set aside the sci-fi elements on which the series is based. The crux of it is, of course, that the world was split in two in 1987 Berlin, after an experiment went wrong and revealed a parallel universe. The split has mostly been kept a secret, but there is a spy organization that keeps an eye on the other world and the “echoes” there. However, starting at that point in 1987 we know that things in the worlds started to change. The people and circumstances within the two worlds were no longer identical, morphing from that point due to slightly different decisions that became bigger and bigger indicators of who they would become in each version. Counterpart has asked the question of how one’s life would be different with just a few changes over and over again with a variety of characters and outcomes, but in “Twin Cities,” it went back to the literal origins of the split and how things started to shift.
Counterpart has been building to this moment thematically for quite awhile. We spent Season 1 learning the rules of the two worlds, and the history of the second world and a flu epidemic that wiped out a huge part of their population. Through Howard Alpha and his Other, Howard Prime, we were also able to see how two identical men could become so vastly different. As they ended up swapping worlds and living in each other’s shoes quite literally, it was also fascinating to see how the circumstances of their different lives began to mold them yet again: Howard Alpha has toughened up, and Howard Prime has softened just a little. Season 2 has also spent more time examining the differences between the two Emilys, as well as introducing two Peter Quayles, and has continued to tease the role Management plays in all of it.
“Twin Cities” made that all explicit though by taking us back to a younger Yanek, whose decision to leave his post and spy on the experiments performed by his organization (to help buy his passage to democracy) changed everything. The details are pretty sketchy here, and that’s totally fine; the point of it all is that Yanek’s actions opened a portal to another world, where he then met himself. Being a scientist, he was eager to experiment with what this could all mean, and the two men brought in colleagues along the way to help keep the secret and further explore the potential of this split reality.
Yanek’s disappointment with the fact that the two worlds were clones, though, led him and his Other to perform a causal experiment; Yanek Alpha took a gift to his daughter, and Yanek Prime did not. It kicks off a butterfly effect that leads to the death of Yanek Alpha’s son, while Prime’s lives. A bitter Alpha then begins to sneak over to his Other’s world to live in the comfort of his still intact family, while Prime also sneaks over to Alpha’s home. The two men begin to change as well, and their actions continue to cause ripples in the continuity of the worlds, just as their colleagues begin to expand their operations and experimentation. After Yanek Alpha witnesses the duplicated rats of the two worlds turning on each other and killing/eating one another, he declares it to be a universal inevitability: The jealousy and competition of the dual worlds means only one can ultimately survive. They will turn on each other, which Yanek Alpha proves by fighting with and ultimately killing Prime.
From there, the paranoia between those in the organization grew, and the group split apart, living as hermits, with briefcase devices used for communication and running the Office of Interchange from afar as the mysterious “Management.” The legacy that Yanek left is one we’ve seen play out in different ways in the series, especially in regards to Indigo. Yanek killed his Other, and eventually, a virulent flu strain that was developed as a precaution was also released on the Prime world. So the Prime world trained an army of assassin-spies to infiltrate the Alpha world and punish them. We’ve seen it with Clare, Baldwin, and to a degree the way the Emilys and Howards have operated.
Counterpart has always traded in Cold War analogies, and Yanek’s story could act as an atomic metaphor. That choice split the world as well, and lead to the creation and dominance of two massive opposing powers in Russia and the United States. The Cold War is a literal backdrop for the creation of the two worlds, but it takes it to a new, quantum level. The lesson is that the people on the other side — whatever other side that is — are exactly like us. Different choices have been made, but we are fundamentally the same.
“Twin Cities” was an exceptionally interesting and emotionally engaging hour, as we watched Yanek’s story serve as a microcosm of everything we know about Counterpart’s world so far. It ends with Mira on a mission to destroy the Alpha world so hers can thrive, ending the experiment forever. But are the circumstances Yanek predicted and enacted inevitable? We’ve seen how well Claude Lambert got along with his Other, and how the Howards have worked together — is it impossible to imagine peace?
We didn’t need to know the origins of the Crossing or the identity of Management to become engrossed in Counterpart’s stories, or enjoy seeing how these characters behave in different circumstances (or imagining how we might). Explaining it could have taken away an important sense of intrigue, or even spoiled the experience. But “Twin Cities” managed to avoid that completely, as the series remains one of the smartest and most carefully crafted on TV. The secrets didn’t ruin anything, they only added urgency regarding what to do about these two worlds, and if they can both survive. It showed us the where these quandaries about identity and choice started, and how one man undid the world. Howard, then, could be primed to save them both.
Counterpart airs Sunday nights on Starz.