overnights

Counterpart Recap: Past Tense

Counterpart

In From the Cold
Season 2 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****

Counterpart

In From the Cold
Season 2 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Nicole Wilder-Shattuck/Starz

From the moment she regained consciousness after falling into a coma for six months, Emily Silk has not only gone through the process of recovering her memory, but also the process of rediscovering and reevaluating who she is. Her instincts have often been running ahead of her recall, in ways minor and major. She bangs her shin on a table that was once in a different place, and she seems to know that there’s something unfamiliar about the Howard in front of her, who doesn’t feel like her Howard, but it’s irrational to believe he’s someone else. But in the process of getting her bearings, Emily has been given the opportunity to find herself again and emerge as someone new, like a late-stage metamorphosis, and she does it by confronting the past.

The best episodes of Counterpart all cohere around a single idea, like the two Howards switching worlds or the founding of the Crossing or a young Clare’s indoctrination into the Indigo program. When the show is simply moving subplots forward, there’s not as much payoff to the arduous work of identifying who’s who and what world they’re in and what disparate agendas they might be pursuing. “In From the Cold” crystalizes many of the pivotal relationships on the show — Emily and Howard Prime, Howard and Emily Prime, Clare and Quayle — by putting the characters in a place where they can determine their futures by reexamining the past. They make key discoveries about each other — and about themselves — in the process.

Written by Erin Levy, a series veteran who won an Emmy for co-writing the stellar “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” episode of Mad Men, “In From the Cold” is largely a series of intense chamber dramas, each unfolding in a single setting. Clare and Quayle hide out in the abandoned husk of the Indigo school, where Clare starts to question her recruitment and indoctrination into what’s essentially a terrorist network. Howard and Emily Prime get closer as Howard recovers from a gunshot wound, staying at the estate where the other Emily used to take Anna in her surreptitious crossovers from the Alpha world. Meanwhile, Emily and Howard Prime have a more consequential getting-to-know-you session than usual as Emily’s memory continues to improve.

Clare’s secret identity as “the Shadow” has been known to Quayle for some time now, but her commitment to the Indigo mission has been a question mark for both of them. It’s hard to shake a true believer like Clare from the cause, even after it’s been revealed to her that her parents didn’t die from the pandemic, as her handlers had her believe. For a child like Clare, revenge was a simpler and more effective motivator than the messy politics between the two worlds. But knowing that she’d been used didn’t necessarily divorce Clare from the mission: If the Alpha world did deliberately release the virus in an effort to exterminate their counterparts, then that would still be a good reason to punish them for it. Add to that Clare’s complicated relationship with Spencer, who’s still in the field, and there are no easy answers for her.

The two Howard-and-Emily story lines both develop in part around their relationships to Anna, who is blissfully unaware of any of it. As he nearly bleeds out from a gunshot wound, Howard is left in such a state of weakness and confusion that he almost blows his cover. Anna keeps calling him “daddy” as she works to extract the bullet and cauterize the wound, and he comes a whisper away from telling her that he’s not her actual father. Yet there’s some part of him that is connected to her that deeply, and it comes out when she starts singing a song that his mother sang to him when he was a child. This was from a time before there were two Howards, and he can feel as if he was the one who passed the song along to Anna, not the impostor currently occupying his place in the Alpha world.

Memories of Anna also haunt Emily Silk in Alpha, who reveals to Howard Prime that she used to cross over to Prime to spend time with the daughter she never had. With her other stuck in rehab, it was easy for Emily to pull off the role herself without anyone knowing, and she sustained this maternal fantasy as a salve for her own sublimated desire to have a child. Revealing that secret to Howard Prime — who, naturally, wonders what impression she had of him at the time — is a sign of their growing intimacy, which happens despite her instinctual suspicion that he’s not acting like the man she married would act. The excitement of discovering and decoding a hidden message brings them closer together in some respects — she invites him to her bedroom for the first time — but makes him more unlike her Howard than ever. How would a low-level OI functionary be able to practice such advanced spy craft?

“In From the Cold” ends with the thrilling certainty and direction that a late-season episode should have. In the ghostly environs of Clare’s old school, she and Quayle finally come to terms with who she is and who they are, and take a bold step toward stopping the tit-for-tat pandemic that Indigo intends to unleash in the Alpha world. And after Baldwin warns Howard Prime of an assassination attempt on Emily, his effort to stop a home invasion makes it absolutely clear to Emily that he’s not her real husband. The two Howards have been stuck in different worlds since the fourth episode of the first season, so the idea of them converging once again has exciting possibilities. Can they continue to co-exist? Or will they destroy each other?

For the first time in a while, the show has made it worth caring about the answer.

Silk Threads

• Baldwin hasn’t been much of a presence this season, but her story echoes Clare’s: Both were present when their others were killed, both were betrayed by their Indigo betters, and both have now resolved to rebel.

• In an intriguing wrinkle, the two Howards share the same memory of the time they first discovered Emily was leading a double life. She wasn’t having an affair, but engaged in espionage, marking signals on road signs. That they reacted so differently to this revelation shows how easily the course of a person’s life can pivot dramatically on a single decision.

• “Truth doesn’t need to be indoctrinated.” That’s the core dilemma of the Indigo project, which clearly has an end-justifies-the-means philosophy when it comes to recruitment. Clare recognizes that she’s been used and betrayed, but it’s not as if Yanek and Mira are completely in the wrong, either. The entire Prime world was decimated by a virus. There’s cause to respond to that.

• The episode title is a reference to John le Carré’s most famous novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, an appropriate piece of foreshadowing to the characters finally revealing themselves here.

Counterpart Recap: Past Tense