The initial hook of Counterpart was that we’d get to see J.K. Simmons in a double role: as Howard Silk, an ineffectual cog in the Office of Interchange machine, and as his “other,” Howard Prime, his clandestine doppelgänger in OI Prime, who’s closer to the profane, tempestuous Simmons characters in films like Whiplash and Spider-Man. The show has had its share of fun with the two Simmonses, especially in “Both Sides Now,” the fourth episode of the first season, when Howard and Howard Prime swap worlds and have to pretend to be each other. (In perhaps the episode’s funniest moment, Howard Prime is so appalled by mindless drudgery of Howard’s job that he quits on the spot.)
The relationship between the two Howards is complex and ongoing, a fascinating nature/nurture study in which Howard is learning, ever so slowly, that he isn’t that far-removed from his “other,” especially when under extraordinary duress. But, of course, everybody on the show has an “other,” which has opened up all sorts of dramatic possibilities, from the Indigo plot for Prime intruders to infiltrate the Alpha world by replacing their others, to the wide range of relationships the pairs can have with each other. Two of the best moments from last season were fatal interactions between doppelgängers: Baldwin witnessing the shooting death of her Alpha other, who’d survived their mutually traumatic childhood to become a classical musician, and Clare Prime having to strangle her other to take her place on the arm of OI upstart Peter Quayle.
“Something Borrowed” plays with doubles as compellingly as any episode to date, starting with a Prime facility called Echo where prisoners are harvested for intelligence that might help Prime OI understand their Alpha counterparts better. With Howard still stuck in the Prime world, this gives the brain trust behind Echo, represented by the towering James Cromwell as Yanek, the opportunity to interrogate an honest-to-goodness Alpha directly. (“Your bicuspids are quite striking,” observes Cromwell in a robust German accent. “That’s the one thing you can’t fake: dental records.”)
Howard’s getting-to-know-you session with Yanek is more critical, however, for its insight into the threat Howard Prime poses to his life, especially now that he’s in the Alpha world and has access to his job, his home, and his wife. It’s never been entirely clear why Howard Prime has insisted that Howard be brought into his mission, but Yanek’s explanation makes sense: “Any man could see himself as ordinary, but confront him with another version of his life, and one destroys the other. It’s inevitable … Your other is out there right now, erasing you from your own existence.”
Meanwhile, Claude Lambert, the scheming Prime ambassador, has quietly supplanted Clare as the villain du jour, and to emphasize the point, “Something Borrowed” likens him to Patrick Bateman in the film version of American Psycho. In American Psycho, there’s a scene in which Bateman has sex with a prostitute while looking at himself in the mirror, smiling and flexing and getting off on his sense of conquest. That same pathological vanity surfaces here when Lambert Prime comes home and gets beckoned into a threesome with Lambert Alpha and a random woman in their bedroom. The two Lamberts have a sick compatibility and intimacy that contrasts sharply with the two Howards, who seem like strangers to one another. This perverse domestic scene defines Lambert not merely as a schemer, but as a man whose narcissism is so overwhelming that it consumes both versions of him. It’s his dominant trait.
Lambert’s emergence as the show’s primary threat adds an intriguing new wrinkle to the marital standoff between Clare and Quayle, who are still having trust issues. (It turns out that discovering your wife is an imposter who killed your girlfriend, took her place, and used stolen intelligence to orchestrate mass murder at your workplace is not easy to get over.) Quayle thinks he has the goods on Clare when he surreptitiously records a conversation between her and Lambert, but when he and his operatives follow up on a meeting intended for Clare, they’re ambushed. Quayle’s first thought is that Clare set him up, knowing that he’s recorded here, but the more obvious play, Clare reminds him, is that Lambert intended the ambush to wipe her out, because she’d become a liability in the mission. There’s a possibility that Clare’s dedication to family is real and contrary to the goals of the Indigo project, and that appears to have concerned Lambert enough to lead him to arrange for her assassination. It’s possible that Quayle’s original conclusion was correct — but unlikely, because he was dim enough to be the perfect mark for Clare in the first place — but her feeling of disconnect from the Indigo mission puts them in alignment for the time being.
The only operative seeing things clearly now is Nia, who doesn’t appear to have an agenda beyond sorting out what happened at OI and rooting out any double agents who may still be lingering. Her meeting with Emily is mostly an exercise in padding in the dark — Emily’s memories pre-accident are still too fuzzy to trust — but she does come away with the idea that the “Shadow” was not Aldrich but a woman. And when she finds out who that woman is, she may have a question or two for her partner.
• This episode, along with last week’s “Outside In,” was directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, an indie filmmaker whose most recent feature was The Stanford Prison Experiment, a look at the notorious 1971 academic study on the psychology of imprisonment. The study, which divided lightly compensated college students into prisoners and guards, proved so stressful and violent that it was abandoned after six days, but it suggested some valuable insights into prisons as incubators for authoritarian abuse. It’s a film worth seeing, and it seems apropos for Alvarez to be the one to stage scenes at Echo, another ugly experiment in incarceration.
• The show’s point of view on the Prime world has been consistently negative, reinforced this week by Echo, which essentially treats its citizens as involuntary sources of information, with no rights or humanity worthy of consideration. Yet the premise that Alpha deliberately attempted to wipe out Prime through disease strikes me as a fair basis for retaliation. They’re painted as extremists and terrorists on the show, but they kind of have a point.
• The Prime version of Quayle, weak and hungry for recognition, is a good window into why his Alpha counterpart was the right mark for Clare.
• Clare’s discovery that her old school chum, Spencer, is part of the Prime terrorist cells she’s been told to activate again muddies her motives. She knew him at a time when they were children and shared a friendship that transcended politics. She’s been long since removed from that relatively innocent time, but the meeting brings her back.