Programming note: For simplicity’s sake, I will henceforth refer to all the Alpha world characters by their first names only. So Howard Alpha or Emily Alpha will now be just Alpha. Their “others” will be labeled Prime, e.g. Howard Prime or Emily Prime.
For the entire first season of Counterpart, it was easy enough to accept that Howard simply wasn’t cut out for the job. For nearly three decades at Interface, he was bureaucratic cog in the machine, playing his role without understanding its full purpose. He’s been like Jonathan Pryce in Brazil, a passive hero in a world of overwhelming and incomprehensible order, and the show is about the long adventure that leads to his awakening. As played by J.K. Simmons, Howard has been sweet but supremely ineffectual, buoyed mostly by a decency that seems to elude his shit-talking counterpart, Howard Prime. His proudest achievement is surely his marriage to Emily, who is the beneficiary of a love so steadfast that he visited her every day in the hospital when she was in a coma—same time, same flowers.
After a disappointingly plotty start to the season, “Outside In” delivers a twist that hits Howard like an emotional wrecking ball: It turns out that Emily, a secret agent in these cross-world spy games, had been the person keeping him from getting his promotion to Strategy all these years. Not only had she been living a double life, she explicitly ordered management to prevent him from realizing his career ambitions—and, perhaps, discovering that side of himself that Howard Prime displays so freely and purposefully. He was not entrusted with knowledge that could have given his life a vital direction, and likely would have brought him closer to his wife. Now that Howard knows the truth, his marriage must feel like a cruel charade, a bit of role-play he thought was real while his wife was playing him for a sucker.
When Emily Prime finally gets a chance to visit Howard in prison, where he’s being held as an illegal “crosser,” his interrogator has already dropped this bomb on his head, leaving Emily to pick up the pieces. What she tells him is equally shocking: Like her counterpart, she also kept her Howard from advancing to Strategy on the Prime side, because she wanted to protect him. When he discovered the truth, it ended their marriage and turned Howard Prime into the very different person we’ve known him to be since the show started. That leaves Howard to ask himself who he wants to be going forward. The truth poisoned Howard Prime’s relationship to his wife and daughter—and to humankind, too—and it could do the same to him.
Emily Prime’s encounter with Howard caps an episode that focuses heavily on her and benefits greatly from it. After a season premiere that jumped around the Counterpart universe, introducing new subplots while freshening up the old, “Outside In” gets a strong sense of the high-stakes intrigue that defines Emily Prime’s life—and shows why both Emilys were so keen to protect Howard from going along for the ride. What they don’t know won’t coarsen their souls. Or kill them.
The fate of Alpha/Prime diplomatic relations—and the crossing, which has stranded many since getting shut down—rests with Emily tracking down Mira, the teacher of the Indigo school. In the first season, Clare was Mira’s star student, an orphan who lost her parents in the epidemic and who was trained from an early age to replace her other in the Alpha world and commit acts of terror as retribution. Mira is currently at-large in Alpha and her capture (or death) would sufficiently ease the tension between the two sides so their cooperation could continue. But she’s proven to be an exceptionally wily target, capable of abandoning locations at a moment’s notice and leaving no paper trail behind.
What happens with Mira here is a virtual replay of what happened when the Alpha team raided the Indigo school: She gets enough of a drop on her pursuers to slip the noose. We’d been so used to seeing Clare as the show’s chief villain that we forget that it’s Mira who’s the true ideologue among them—equally dangerous, more honestly committed. Mira wasn’t recruited as a vulnerable child; she was the one doing the recruiting, and meting out harsh incentives when occasion warranted. That said, the cold open to “Outside In” is a little much in the manipulation department, with Mira treating a wavering comrade with… um… a firm grasp.
Though the two women are at loggerheads, the episode does well to find the parallels between Mira and Emily Prime, who both know the burdens of great responsibility. Mira and Emily Prime are in positions where they have to change—or outright ruin—people’s lives in order to achieve their goals. Clare had no choice but to participate in Mira’s school, because Mira needed a good soldier for the cause. She acted a surrogate mother to the girl, but not a nurturing one, because she was building a killer. Emily Prime may have acted out of a protective instinct in keeping Howard Prime from advancing to Strategy—just as the other Emily was doing likewise on the other side—but that truth, once revealed, was hugely destructive. They stand on opposite sides of the line, but in certain respects, they’re looking into a mirror.
• The twist involving Howard’s interrogator and his connection to Mira and the school underlines what a huge threat Indigo remains after the melee that ended the first season. And neither the Alpha nor the Prime OIs are well-positioned to stop it. The infiltration has been a massive success.
• A pre-accident flashback with Howard sending Emily out with a scarf around her neck is excruciatingly precious, given when we know about Emily’s activities. She’s definitely not a delicate flower who needs TLC from him.
• In a meeting with other OI officials, Emily Prime makes the interesting point that the “poker-faced diplomacy” between the Alpha and Prime intelligence communities has been ineffective. The implications of doubles crossing back and forth between the two worlds are obviously troubling, but it’s easy to see how the cloak-and-dagger approach could lead to misunderstandings.
• The writers have yet to figure out what to do with Ian, who doesn’t have much going for him besides grim-faced determination. A show this plotty and dense needs a little personality to give it some life, but he’s had too much screen time to be this much of a blank.