‘Counterpart’ Season 2 Raises the Stakes in a Clash Between Two Dimensions

Starz’s “Counterpart” plays like one of television’s great mind teasers. Having two mirror worlds cross over into each other in a “Twilight Zone” meets “True Detective” format has made this a wickedly immersive hour of television. Even when you’re raking your mind over what’s going on, it’s never boring. Now for its second season the show kicks off with a premiere that flows right out of the last season’s finale. Woe to those who are just tuning in, because unless you have binged on everything that has come before, following the narrative thread is like staring at a half-formed puzzle. Still, this is compelling viewing.

Let’s keep this simple. Where we last off, Howard Prime and Howard Alpha (J.K. Simmons) have swapped places, meaning dimensions. In the Alpha dimension (take notes dear reader), Emily Alpha (Olivia Williams) has regained consciousness after a car accident nearly killed her. She returns home, but to Howard Prime. They still share a connection considering before her ordeal, Emily was already a double agent sending information to Prime about the Indigo project to infiltrate his dimension. Meanwhile Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd) and Clare (Nazanin Boniadi) are grappling with the revelation that their marriage has been one big sham, part of a scheme to kill high-ranking Alphas to then replace them with Primes. Clare was the double agent here, but Peter can’t bring himself to turn her in, especially since they have a kid. Clare tries to be affectionate but Peter pushes her away, and keeps a recording of the truth safe just in case he needs leverage. As all this happens an FBI agent arrives in Dimension One, Naya Temple (Betty Gabriel), who will be on the trail of Howard Prime and anyone else taking on false identities.

After all of the mind-bending twists and turns of season one, “Counterpart” is smart to open this new round with a somewhat simple episode. Few things are explained in detail for newcomers, but there aren’t any sudden, shocking developments. The focus is on the strained relationships caught in the intrigue between dimensions and the schemes of the Indigo operation. Shot with a David Fincher-like atmosphere, with a music score by Jeff Russo that evokes Trent Reznor, there is a noir eeriness to everything as people whisper secrets in shadows and relationships turn toxic because of hidden identities. Much of the episode focuses on Emily, who is trying to recover her memories following her accident, but it is supremely difficult when her husband isn’t the real one. There is a heartbreaking tone to scenes where Howard Prime returns home to find Emily wandering around, he keeps his distance but can’t help but feel for her.

Some of the most intense moments belong to Peter and Clare because in this case both are aware of what’s going on. If Emily is lost in the bliss of ignorance, Peter and Clare are like two adversaries who still have lingering feelings. Clare even tries to make love with Peter but he resists, harboring deep resentments over her own dual identity. “Counterpart” brilliantly combines these more intimate stories with its larger, dystopian vision as characters cross through German check points, strange figures listen to surveillance tapes or watch video monitors keeping track of other lives. Like the works of China Mieville, the science fiction is loaded with sharp political subtext.

Refreshingly the showrunners don’t rush to pack a new season with new characters or storylines. The narrative literally keeps flowing out of the last season and Naya Temple is the only new introduction. With Howard Prime now walking around Alpha’s shoes, the stakes are slowly being raised and we can expect a showdown with Temple later on. But if you catch this season premiere and like what you see, it is highly recommended you catch up with season one. “Counterpart” is finely woven to the point where missing key beats can throw the whole thing off for you. It’s a riveting mind game, expertly pulled off.

Counterpart” season 2 premieres Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET and airs Sundays on Starz.