Over the course of Counterpart’s one-and-a-half seasons, Howard Silk has gotten to know his “other,” a man who’s a major player in the Prime world, who has a much different relationship with his Emily, and who carries himself with swagger that’s far removed from Howard’s sweet, ineffectual nature. But the point that the show has been making all along — and that it continues to make with great sophistication in “Shadow Puppets,” the strongest episode of the second season — is that Howard has really been getting to know himself. He can act like he’s divorced from Howard Prime, that he’s a more considerate person, a more attentive husband, a more peaceful human being. The problem with that, however, is Howard and Howard Prime are not like identical twins. They’re literally the same person, copied into separate worlds. Their souls are as aligned as their bodies.
The most important scene in “Shadow Puppets” lands Howard in Yanek’s office for another interrogation session. Howard has meekly acquiesced to Echo’s personality-harvesting purpose, but Yanek finds him a frustrating subject, doubly so for being the one man in Echo from the Alpha world. “I’m not getting through to you,” he says. “It’s like you’re determined to defy me at every turn.” The source of his unintended rebellion, to Yanek’s mind, is Howard’s refusal to come to terms with the person he truly is. It isn’t honest to believe that he’s different from Howard Prime, much less better, and it isn’t natural, either. Yanek believes that a person and his/her other are two souls from the same body and that there’s ultimately room for only one of them. And in this metaphysical conflict, the dark side always wins out.
“Faced with survival,” Yanek continues, “we all give in to our darkest self.” Though Howard rejects Yanek’s grim view of human nature, we’ve seen that meeting his other has changed him. The impulse to be more important a person than the low-level functionary has burned within him from the very first episode of the show, and Howard Prime has slowly brought out that dark self. Just the process of acting like Howard Prime when the two men switched worlds has forced him to access a part of himself that’s long been dormant. Here, Yanek is perplexed that he continues to put up such resistant, especially when Howard Prime is out there in the Alpha world confidently stealing his life. (And steering it in an extremely perilous direction.) This is war, according to Yanek, and those who aren’t prepared to take up the fight are doomed to be the losers.
That doesn’t mean Yanek is right, though we learn that he was present at the creation of the Prime world, and has been rigorously processing data about it ever since. But it does throw into question the uneasy détente that’s been maintained by the two worlds for 30 years. Until now, the main source of chaos has been the Indigo project, a terrorist organization hellbent on attacking the Alpha world for a pandemic that decimated its population. While Indigo is still extremely active, Yanek’s line of thinking suggests that a larger conflict is a necessity and an inevitability, and that people like Howard will either come around to this essential truth or find themselves on the wrong end of it. When Howard picks up a gun and shoots a man at the end of the episode, he takes a giant step toward his other self — not merely Howard Prime, but the man inside that he’s been suppressing for so long.
After four episodes of oft-laborious table-setting, “Shadow Puppets” ends the first half of the season with an incident-packed lead-in to the second, though it’s still unclear how the gathering forces will settle. For now, there’s a lot of cleaning up messes by creating new messes. The biggest mess is Lambert, whose capture and confinement in the bowels of OI spells trouble for Quayle and Howard Prime, who have been covering up the shocking true identity of “Shadow” for a while now. It’s nice to see that Naya, the former FBI agent brought in to investigate moles within OI, understands more about what’s going on than expected, especially as it relates to Quayle, the partner she knows not to trust. The audacious assassination of Lambert and his guards is initially understood to be Howard Prime covering for Quayle, but someone else has gotten to him first. Naya doesn’t know that yet, but she does know that Aldrich isn’t Shadow and that Quayle has been active in obscuring Shadow’s identity. And she’s kept that knowledge close to the vest.
For the time being, sheer good fortune has spared Quayle once again, as a mysterious mole has offered herself up as Shadow to save him at the expense of her own life. He’s a more pivotal figure in the intrigue between the two worlds that even he seems to realize. Evidence for that comes from his other, Quayle Prime, who obsesses over a VHS of the same rugby match as it played out in both worlds simultaneously. One slight change in the action altered the course of a game that had, to that point, been unfolding in exactly the same fashion. Quayle Prime has gone through the tapes over and over again because he senses he’s the butterfly that flapped its wings, causing the two worlds to separate. The fact that those tapes have now been stolen and his Prime counterpart is precious enough to be saved suggests that Quayle is important. As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good.
• There will be a time when I’m interested in Ian Shaw and will puzzle over his comings and goings. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but the revelation that his real identity is “Wesley Pierce,” and that he’s been “adopted” from the other side is worth mentioning. Maybe he’ll have a late-season resurgence like Clare in season one.
• Before he’s killed, Lambert lives in defiance of Yanek’s assumptions between people’s relationships with their other. The two Lamberts got along swell, and were so alike we could never tell which was was killed last week and which was killed this week. “Double the fun,” as he says.
• Clare’s loyalties to Indigo are seriously in question, but (adult) Spencer’s presence in her life summons old feelings that are unquestionably authentic. How will their renewed affection affect their political allegiances? They’re too busy shagging to sort that out.
• Howard Prime continues to be terrible at imitating Howard Alpha. His attempts to cover up his uncharacteristic outburst at the evidence room clerk are hilariously half-hearted. It seems clear to me that J.K. Simmons’s Prime self has thoroughly devoured his weaker half.