Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the March 4 episode of Counterpart, “The Sincerest Form of Flattery.”
One of the Catch-22s of the peak TV era is that, while there’s an abundance of stellar programs, the harsh reality of time means we can’t watch them all. For most series, it’s all but impossible to achieve the appointment-TV glory of ratings juggernauts like AMC’s The Walking Dead and HBO’s Game of Thrones, no matter how amazing critics tell readers they are. For a series to get to the point where it’s a bona fide must-see—particularly when episodes air over time, instead of being dropped all at once—requires a good deal of word-of-mouth, think pieces like this one, and just sheer luck that viewers will have the patience to wait it out.
Counterpart, Starz’s new sci-fi/spy hybrid series, may have officially hit that moment with its seventh episode, written by Gianna Sobol and directed by Alik Sakharov. (Disclosure: Sobol is an acquaintance of mine, and a former colleague of my husband’s.)
It isn’t that the episode, “The Sincerest Form of Flattery,” has a surprising plot twist—that came at the end of the sixth installment and, quite frankly, was fairly predictable to anyone who watches TV for a living (sorry). Nor is it that the episode offers a major development in the relationship between pencil-pusher Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) and his domineering clone (also Simmons), who crossed over from a previously unknown-to-Silk parallel universe. That gimmick may have been an entrance to the show and an approachable way to set up its ideas about a new kind of Cold War, but it doesn’t seem like that relationship dynamic will continue to be the major problem for the characters.
Instead, we’re treated to the backstory of Nazanin Boniadi’s Clare. Until the sixth episode, the character is only really seen as a handler for Sara Serraiocco’s ride-or-die assassin, Baldwin. That’s when it was finally confirmed that Clare’s the mole that her conceited, in-over-his-head husband, Peter (Harry Lloyd), has been looking for in his operation ever since the two Howards were introduced in the pilot. With the latest episode, the plot thickens. It’s revealed that Clare isn’t the woman Peter fell in love with: She’s a doppelganger from a renegade group on the other side, who long ago destroyed that woman and seamlessly fit into her life without raising an eyebrow on Peter, her family or anyone else around her.
This idea certainly has plenty to say about feminism and society’s tendency to dismiss women who seem to be happily playing the part of a Stepford homemaker. (How well do you actually know your significant other? What does a stay-at-home mom do during the day while her unsuspecting and trusting husband is at work at his high-clearance government job? She cracks the doofus’ safe, obviously, and pores over his confidential work stuff.)
But it also offers a chance to look at things from another point of view. Counterpart’s other side, the world the still-living Clare and the more grizzled Howard had been inhabiting, was hit with a flu epidemic some years before, evidently spread through pigs. It wiped out seven percent of the population—including that Clare’s parents.
Clare was taken in by an organization that taught her the alternate world—Silk’s world—is the enemy responsible for that outbreak. They deserve retribution, and the best way to do that is to infiltrate their world with highly trained clones who live among them and are ready to strike. Sure, the officially government wording is that no one is to be blamed for the epidemic. But can we really trust them? It’d be insulting to you for me to spell out the parallels to biological warfare, terrorist recruitment techniques, and Red State versus Blue State values in our world because… duh.
“The Sincerest Form of Flattery” ends with a flashback to the birth of Clare and Peter’s baby daughter. She cries as the doctor tells her that the baby is hers and she names her after a childhood friend—someone who also sacrificed his life and desires for the cause, and who could have been something more to her if the fates had allowed. It’s an excellent piece of acting that, depending on how you look at it, shows that she’s either a killer so dead inside that she can fake basic empathy or a child of unfortunate circumstance who understands that this new person whom she created in this dimension means she can officially never go back to hers.
I prefer to believe the latter.
Clare may be fulfilling what she believes is her duty when she pretends to be someone who would love and marry Peter. But she’s still a human being who understands the importance of parenthood and is genuinely moved by this newfound responsibility.
When I interviewed Counterpart creator Justin Marks late last year for Paste, he told me that this episode was almost exclusively how he got Boniadi to sign onto the series. He warned the actress—known for playing complicated female characters like Homeland’s Fara Sherazi—that she, as well as her Counterpart co-star Olivia Williams, would be playing characters who weren’t always sympathetic.
“Television isn’t changing. It changed. Television is not, ‘Find a formula and repeat it week after week,’” Marks told me then, adding, “I don’t think a story is something we have to establish in episode one and then rinse and repeat it every week. It’s something that we are just slowly building out.”
In the current climate, where we see even the president under fire for misreporting statements from his preferred news sources, “The Sincerest Form of Flattery” is key. It’s also something that scripted television could use more of—a chance to understand how our enemies have come to be and wonder if perhaps we don’t have all the facts, either. In this, Counterpart has the potential to join the ranks of shows like FX’s The Americans or—again—Showtime’s Homeland. Both have routinely fought to show history and world events from a perspective other than that of their target audience.
In other words, Counterpart now has a chance to be “think TV” as much as “peak TV.”
Counterpart airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.