“On that day, I betrayed my world. And myself. And I knew I would do it again.”
These words, from Yanek, underscore a line of thinking on human nature that his character believes fervently — and that Counterpart itself, at varying times and in varying ways, has sought to express. The show, by its conceit, makes the human struggle metaphysical, to where people are not only in conflict with each other, but in conflict with themselves and their contradictions, and the way circumstances reshape their thinking. Howard and Howard Prime, for example, have completely different temperaments, but they are quite literally the same person, carbon copies growing apart due to the conditions around them. Of the nature versus nurture question that gets raised time and again, the show comes to a nuanced conclusion over how that balance gets struck. But it emphatically contends that we’re in a state of war, with each other and with ourselves. We’re too flawed to transcend it.
“Twin Cities,” written and directed by the show’s creator, Justin Marks (in his directorial debut, no less), is by far the best episode of Counterpart ever, arriving like an oasis of clarity and purpose in a season that’s too often lost itself in murky intrigue. Marks has given himself the privilege of answering so many of the questions that have been hinted around or tabled since the beginning of the show’s run: How was The Crossing created? How was the Office of Interchange (OI) conceived? How did the devastating pandemic get released into the Prime world? What’s the deal with management communicating through those suitcases like an unwieldy reboot of Charlie’s Angels? It was high time we knew some of these answers, but it’s the right time for Counterpart itself to take stock of the show it’s trying to be. Perhaps we’ll dive right back into the muck again next week, but a little payoff has been a long time coming.
The episode opens in East Berlin in 1987, and the significance of that time and place in history comes through more vividly here than it ever has before. As the wall is coming down between East and West Germany, another east/west divide is about to open up between two worlds that mirror each other. Young Yanek is trying desperately to secure passage for his wife and two children to the West, in part because his son’s political activities have roused the interest of the secret police. But in the process of taking spy photographs of his workplace and the powerful Light Source Synchotron within it, he inadvertently creates the Prime world and opens up The Crossing between them. (It’s smart on Marks’s part not to dwell on the hows of such a scientific phenomenon. An ’80s computer went on the fritz and the world split open. That’s all you need to know.)
The meeting with Yanek and Yanek Prime is like the Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man meme or the mirror gag in Duck Soup, a perfect reflection of the same person. And both Yaneks, once they start communicating, think they have good ideas — in fact, every idea they have is the absolute best, because there’s no difference between them, only an echo. And the Yaneks decide that, in the interest of science, they can gather up a few of their brainy friends on each side and come together on an ongoing experiment that will be endlessly fascinating, and possibly transformative in its benefit to mankind. But their scientific curiosity almost immediately overwhelms their scientific rigor.
The first contamination: They visit each other’s worlds. The second and most consequential contamination: They buy the same cassette for their daughter, Mira, but one gives it to her and the other doesn’t. And with that flap of a butterfly’s wing, a devastating sequence of events is set into motion. When the police burst in to collect Yanek’s son, sending the kid into an epileptic fit that goes unnoticed by his parents and the authorities, the Mira who doesn’t have the tape saves her brother and the Mira who does have the tape is listening to it at too high a volume, resulting in his death. And so the two Yaneks are now in vastly different psychological spaces: One who has his entire family intact, the other who has his life transformed by tragedy. That makes the bereft Yanek covet the life of the happy Yanek, and things deteriorate from there until one of them kills the other in front of the other’s Mira.
For those keeping track at home, that means that the grown-up Mira is now partnered with her father’s murderer, who is also a version of her father. In the present day, they seem to have come to terms with how that happened, but “Twin Cities” gets to the root of the Alpha/Prime split and why this one tragic death has metastasized into millions. The fracture between the Yaneks suggests a profound truth about mankind: That our lives are often built around trauma, like the scab that develops over a wound. The death of one Yanek’s son throws his entire world so completely off-balance that he and his counterpart no longer feel the same things or look at the world through the same lens.
Marks tells this origin story with a clarity that’s been missing from the show and a surfeit of cinematic brio. It helps, of course, to be able to cast aside all the ongoing interactions between the Alpha and Prime worlds and start from scratch. But Marks does better than that, especially in split-screen sequences where tiny changes in action can have a ripple effect that disrupts the universe. In a way, Counterpart is affirming the value and consequence of life itself, of how the choices we make and the things that happen to us are important and world-changing. Yanek may occupy a unique place in the split between the world and its copy, but destinies are carved out every day.
• “The experiment was perfect. It was corrupted by our pettiness.” Indeed. “Twin Cities” gives credence to Yanek and Mira’s opinion that The Crossing needs to be shut down altogether. The phrase “good fences make good neighbors” is kinda nonsense — hilariously, Laura Ingraham tweeted out (and then deleted) Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” thinking that it was an endorsement of walls — but this seems like a wise choice, given how toxic the interchange has been.
• Now that we know who management is, we can both appreciate their humanity and good intentions while understanding the hubris that is pushing them to get this experiment to work.
• Until tonight, I think we looked at Mira as Terrorist No. 1, so it was healthy to step back and see that everyone has their reasons. The rationale for forcing management to close off The Crossing altogether is sound, especially given how much control has been exerted over who gets to cross over. The border between Alpha and Prime is not terribly porous.
• “The experiment has failed. What happened to me will happen to everyone. One will destroy the other. It’s inevitable.” Of the two Yaneks, the younger one sounds the most like Werner Herzog, who would definitely approve of sentiments like these.