‘Counterpart’ is the best spy series of the year … and possibly also the best science-fiction.
The premiere of ‘Counterpart’ a few months ago allowed us to take a first look at a series that promised to unite with a subtlety and good taste not too common in a medium so given to metaphors fantastique with machetes (yes, ‘Westworld’, you I look at you) Cold War spy movies and parallel realities science fiction. After the first season, we can say that Not only has the mission been amply accomplished, but it has thrown viewers a good deal of extra incentives.
For example, he has managed to build a consistent world with very concise rules without the need for hackneyed narrative techniques. It is true that, after the first bars of the series, in which JK Simmons carried out a monotonous and cryptic office work, we anticipated a critical dystopia with the gray daily life of today’s society. And finally the thing has gone the other way. But in doing so, has delved into a much more exciting universe: that of a reality divided in two, which favors a political and a human metaphor.
Be careful: spoilers from here.
The policy is very clear, to the point that the real reference is significant: the action is set in a timeless Berlin, which we recognize as current due to technology, but the creators of the series take care of modern details. The metaphor of the Wall and the Cold War is obvious: two divergent realities in the same physical space. The stories that we have often heard of Berlin families that were divided overnight, being divided on both sides of the Wall, have here a clear parallel with the two worlds into which reality is divided.
Throughout this first season we have received specific data about those two dimensions that were pointed out in the first chapters: at the end of the eighties (of course!) Reality was split in two. In principle they ran parallel, but soon they begin to diverge: in 1996 a flu kills 7% of the global population of one of the two worlds, and they suspect that we may have had something to do with the plague. The existence of the two worlds remains secret, although espionage and counterintelligence are the order of the day.
The human part is closely related to politics (as is always the case with good political metaphors!), Because ‘Counterpart’, apart from evoking a part of our history that is not as ideologically buried as we would like, speaks of the duality that nests in any human being. And it does through its protagonist, of course it does: timid clerk in one world, ruthless spy in another. When plot circumstances force them to swap places, ‘Counterpart’ raises an espionage plot accentuated by the personality of its hero (s).
But the character of JK Simmons is only one of the duplicates, which are abundantly deployed in both worlds, and in very different circumstances. For example, ‘Counterpart’ manages to make us believe that the protagonist’s wife (a seasoned spy in one world, in a coma due to an accident in another) live a similar parallel to his, and nothing is further from the truth. A hit man (a real candy for Sara Serraiocco) has to kill herself, which will cause countless conflicts.
And the best plot of all: In one of the worlds, children are educated from a young age (in organizations that also remember the worst of Eastern Europe from the Cold War) to replace their counterparts in the other world. This is what will happen with one of the most interesting characters in the intrigue, played by Nazanin Boniadi, from which we will discover that as a child she had to endure having both her legs broken to have the same injury as her reflection in the other world, to whom she It was time to replace.
It’s good, but … is it the best?
Is it possible that the best science fiction series of the year has arrived on the sly and with little noise? Is it possible that it surpasses the bombast of ‘Westworld’, the cataract of colors of ‘Altered Carbon’ or the suggestive change of third in a historical franchise, of ‘Star Trek Discovery’? It is difficult to speak in absolute terms and compare series that often do not have much to do with each other: the bombast of the Star Trek space opera collides with its expressive sobriety, and on the other hand … is it science fiction? Stranger Things’ ?. But what is clear is that ‘Counterpart’ is at the top of the list.
At the discursive level, in fact, it has no rival. You just have to compare it with the other great metaphysical science fiction series of the moment, ‘Westworld’, which only needs to put in capital letters of neon its message about “what makes us human”. ‘Counterpart’ talks about that too, but like the very plot that backs it up, it doesn’t take the shortest path, but the most complicated one.: Thanks to the division into two worlds, ‘Counterpart’ could simply pose a division of the human essence in two, a la Jekyll and Hyde, in the same way that in ‘Westworld’ there are artificial beings and real humans.
That is, we could have a message of “a human being consists of two opposite personalities, and this is what happens when they face each other”, but ‘Counterpart’ opts for a much more intelligent solution, since each of those personalities .. has its own personality. The second half of this first season explores the complexities of that duality, when we see that we are facing something more complex than a “good” Howard and a “bad” Howard. This is contagious to the rest of the characters, who enter (along with their doubles) in a gray area that is very difficult to define..
The comparison with ‘Westworld’ is pertinent, and although the technical invoice of the original HBO series (‘Counterpart’ is originally from Starz) is incomparable with ‘Counterpart’ (although it does not intend it either: its visual register is one of discretion and the appearance of the extraordinary among the gray asphalt of the city), the message of the series produced by Jonathan Nolan is more of a broad brush. Binary codes, artificial or human beings, the confrontation between the two and little else.
Perhaps in these terms the series most comparable to ‘Counterpart’ is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: the complexity of his proposal, completely removed from dual approaches, runs parallel to his careful staging, which also like the Starz series makes good use of clever use of lighting and production design. Both, too, use a code of science fiction simple and without fanfare, away from the excesses of fantasy to raise credible and realistic worlds. Science fiction in both cases is a backdrop, not a plot support, subtly camouflaged as a traditional lady in one case and as a political espionage fiction in another.
In a landscape as fertile and stimulating as that of today’s television science fiction, it is difficult to choose a series to put in the lead. ‘Counterpart’ is one of the best of the moment thanks to its spectacular interpretive work, its visual subtleties and its dosage of the plot. Also without a doubt, and it is clear that it is what makes it special, the one that achieves it with less fanfare. We do not know if it will be the best, but certainly the most elegant.