'Counterpart': A Deep Dive Into the Season Finale With Creator Justin Marks

"The second season is the Cold War after the Berlin Wall has been formed and how people start to draw battle lines and how they escalate the spy game in light of the fact that diplomatically we are more hostile toward each other," Marks tells THR.
Nicole Wilder/Starz

[This story contains spoilers from the season one finale of Starz's Counterpart.]

Starz wrapped the critically acclaimed first season of spy-fi drama Counterpart on Sunday, ending with a tense diplomatic standoff, a game-changing death and the two Howard Silks (J.K. Simmons) trapped in one another's foreign world.

Howard Alpha (from our world) is desperate to get back to his comatose wife Emily (Olivia Williams), but his only option is to beg for help from the mysterious leader of Project Indigo, Alexander Pope (Stephen Rea). Pope agrees to assist him, but only if Howard agrees to become his assassin on the other side. Howard angrily refuses and kills Pope in self-defense after the latter draws a gun on him, becoming the first person Howard has ever killed.

Project Indigo’s mission is to raise children to be sleeper agents, have them take over the lives of their doppelgangers on our Earth, and mount a terrorist attack. The assault on the Office of Interchange results in multiple deaths, with the last infiltrator dying at the crossing between the two worlds.

Here, showrunner Justin Marks sits down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the season finale, the Howard's complex interpersonal relationships and where the series goes next.

Howard Alpha kills Pope. How does that change him?

It's a very big moment for Howard. In a lot of ways, the whole season has been about the areas of overlap between Howard Alpha and Howard Prime. Pope taught Howard Prime everything he knows about the spy trade. And he was blind to the truth about Pope early on in the season. There's something fitting to the fact that Howard Alpha, in killing Pope — albeit in self-defense — was able to do what Howard Prime couldn't ever bring himself to do, which is acknowledge that Pope has been manipulating him and that he's the enemy.

Emily Prime warned Howard Prime about Pope — even giving him the news about his rendition order coming from Pope, and it still didn't sway Howard Prime.

Yes. And you have to consider the source when it comes to Emily Prime because Howard Prime seems to have such a difficulty forgiving her for past transgressions. When it comes to the relationship between Emily Prime and Pope, there's no love lost there. So, for her to be the siren warning him, it's hard for Howard to believe someone like that.

The two Howards are slowly moving closer to the core characteristics of the other. Howard Alpha is becoming more hard-boiled and Howard Prime is showing more vulnerability than he ever has. Is that the whole character arc for them at this point?

Yes. It's the question that we have always wanted to do: explore this question of which Howard is the true Howard. The answer is it's a combination of the two and where the center is, is a question that the series wants to figure out by the end of its run. We don't ever want to place a pin on that map firmly as we go through. At the beginning of the series, the two Howards are very different. One has more empathy, while the other has a little more of a brutal honesty with himself and with the world around him. As the season goes on and they begin to inhabit each other's lives, they begin to cave in the direction of their other, whether it's conscious or unconscious. And as they do that, the question is, where do they meet? Do they meet closer to Howard? Or do they meet closer to Howard Prime? So far, it's unknown. We always saw this show as this Darwinian battle, and Pope even calls it that; it’s between two versions of the same self when it comes to the survival of the fittest. In some ways it's two sides of the same soul that are fighting to occupy the same real estate and where they land is an anyone's guests at the end of the first season, except to say that they're closer together.

Will that be a point of emphasis for season two? Because of the diplomatic crisis, the Howards are cut off from their normal dimension and will have to find a way to adjust to the world they're trapped in. Will the new environments continue to have an effect on them?

For a variety of reasons, because it's not just the environments that they're in, but the circumstances of the story, Howard Alpha and Howard Prime are both, in a lot of ways, finding their identities challenged, or at least their perceived identities, the way they saw themselves, who they thought they were on both sides of the equation. We want to, in the second season, really present it in both ways. One of my favorite moments of the season is where Howard Prime is reading the poem to Emily Alpha as he sits there by the hospital bed. There's a surrender in his eyes where he doesn't want to read her poetry or indulge this. Yes, it's an appropriation of his counterpart’s life. But there's also something in him that actually is enjoying that. The process of Howard Prime dealing with his own softening is interesting, and in the second season, it’s a big priority for the character.

He's come full circle, having let his guard down around Emily from the very beginning.

Yes, she is his Kryptonite. In every broken relationship, there's the hope of what it could have been. He holds these feelings for her, whether he realizes he has them or not. They shared a child together and have always had to deal with each other. There's always this part of Howard Prime that holds out hope for that relationship. In Emily, he sees a woman who he can project onto all of his hopes for what that relationship could have been. Because this is a woman who he hopes doesn't hate him in the way that Emily Prime a clearly does.

Would the old Howard Prime have made the deal with the assassin Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco) when he first crossed over?

No, not at all. And would Baldwin have made the deal with him?

Being in our world has profoundly changed her as well, especially since she witnessed her doppelganger being killed. She now wants this storybook life. But can she truly find that? Just who is the real Baldwin?

When it comes to Baldwin and her counterpart Nadia, she saw in Nadia someone who clearly at the beginning of that second episode, had a somewhat of a contempt for her other and we play with it a lot in these characters. There's an extent to which they covet what the other has, or what the other has done or has endured or not endured. The reveal is that both of them suffered that same trauma and Baldwin questions why her other was able to overcome that trauma of watching their father die and essentially being complicit in the act by not trying to save him. How is it that Nadia was able to do what she did and then the reveal that Baldwin had turned her pain outward to the world as a killer. She wears her scar on the outside of her clothes, so to speak. Nadia had turned her pain inward toward herself and Baldwin realizes at that moment that you are born back against your own trauma; that there is no escape from it. And if there is no escape from it, then isn't it likely that she can possibly fight against that and erase it and create a new identity for herself. That's what she's doing: She's going to try to build a new identity and that's what she tries to do, to mixed success, in the first season.

Howard Prime makes a deal with Baldwin, someone he tried to kill a few episodes ago. Giving her the money is a lifeline of sorts for her, giving her hope that she just might be able to have that other life after all.

Yes, and there's also something else at play, which is important for Baldwin in season two: this deal she makes with Howard Prime. She's such a lone wolf and here she is collaborating with someone. In making this deal he's almost looking after her and there's a sense of a character who is so lonely, constantly reaching out for connection to the world and seeing the very person who shot her through the mouth in the first episode. In a show about characters meeting in the middle, what a strange two characters to find a convergence.

Howard pressures Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd) into a deal as well, so it’s not a stretch to think that Howard and Baldwin will band together to make sure Peter toes the line.

Howard Prime and Quayle have such an interesting set of compromises between each other. Both of them in some way are protecting their wives. And neither of those characters are in a certain sense their actual wives, which is such an important distinction for Quayle because Clare (Nazanin Boniadi) is the woman who murdered his wife and took over her life, even though he doesn't know that yet. And with Howard, it's this woman who he's projecting all of his hopes for a failed relationship onto and neither of them want to be in any form of compromise with each other, but under the circumstances, they have to be. Given the fact that there are problems when it comes to this Indigo school, they're forced to band together in spite of the fact that they were trying to kill each other. Both of them have compromised their own values to work with each other. We look at Quayle as a young man flailing around without a father figure, and in Howard Prime he has a perverse inversion of a father figure.

When Clare meets Peter in the hospital after the intentional car accident, she realizes he has cast his lot with her, that the accident was his way of setting up an alibi for them, so in a way she owns him now. As a result, putting Peter in charge of the Indigo investigation is like the fox guarding the hen house.

Yes. Clare becomes what she needs to be in order to survive. If she needs to be Baldwin’s lover. she’ll be Baldwin’s lover; if she needs to be Quayle’s wife, then that's what she’ll be. She is at a bit of a crossroads when it comes to the birth of this child. A child born of two worlds is a very complicated thing that she probably did not see coming when it came to stretching her loyalties. Quayle is the father of her child and he is the reason she is still alive because it's her mission to handle him, to run him, to siphon intelligence from him. So she is just as much a victim in this marriage as he is. They're both victims of this pretentious idea of a marriage where they were both using each other for their own separate needs. For Quayle it was ambition, and for Clare, it was this man who is well connected, who she was going to steal intelligence from. Moving forward, both of them have a lot to learn when it comes to finding a truth. But they are moving toward each other in a strange way. And the power dynamic continually shifts as it does in every marriage.

Let’s talk about what is probably the most unusual conference call in the history of TV between the two worlds.The very unusual tech involved is virtually identical. Are the members of management on both worlds the same people?

That is something that is potentially being suggested. The answer is a lot more complex and it's an answer that our second season really wraps its arms around: Who is management? What is their history? What is the history of the crossing and the history of the Office of Interchange? How did it really form in the first place and why? And how it developed over the decades. We understand why Indigo is driven toward some sense of revenge against our world. What we haven't yet seen a lot of is how Indigo also came about and what its connection with management is. At the end of the first season, we wanted to introduce the idea of management in a way that wasn't what we would otherwise expect because in the second season management is a kind of character of their own.

The show is a metaphor for the Cold War, and the crossing is very similar to Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin in the early 1960s, especially when the infiltrator dies in the no man’s land in between. Is the crossing your modern version of the Checkpoint Charlie scenario?

Yes. The whole season, allegorically speaking, I would call Berlin 1961, right as the wall was about to go up. That's the story of the first season, where there's clearly a Cold War brewing in every respect, but the wall hasn't quite officially been drawn. The second season is the Cold War after the Berlin Wall has been formed and how people start to draw battle lines and how they escalate the spy game in light of the fact that diplomatically we are more hostile toward each other.

The underpinnings of the show have sci-fi elements, Counterpart is more about personal identity, the sense of self and relationships between people. Is that fair to say?

Yes. This sounds like a downer of a theme, but it's a show about regret and about what if, and who we might be under a different set of circumstances and what our life would have turned out to be. If we were confronted with the reality of that life, would we covet it? Would we want to take it for ourselves? Would it change us fundamentally? Would we compete with our other selves or with this version of our other life? And, Cold War allegory aside, it’s an important story to tell on a human level. We always want to place our characters in that trajectory and next season will start to expand it even more because we get into matters of theology in a two-world universe.I like a good puzzle box, especially one where I care about the characters.

What did you think of the Counterpart finale? Sound off in the comments below and click here to read our interview with J.K. Simmons about the finale and season two.