Tonight one of the best shows of 2018 returns to television with its sophomore season.
We were lucky enough to score an interview with creator and executive producer, Justin Marks, about how he approaches the creativity and unpredictability of the show as well as what to expect from Counterpart Season 2.
Marks has a lot to offer on the subject of his series, so read it well and prepare for another spectacular season of Counterpart ahead!
TV Fanatic: I want to thank you so much for Counterpart.
Justin Marks: Thank you.
It's so unusual that it's impossible to suss out what's happening. It's thrilling and yet incredibly thought-provoking at the same time. You have a marvelous team of people.
Well, thank you. Well everyone yeah has really poured their heart into this show and it's something we really tried to build from a very personal level, so that means a lot.
So when you were initially handed the two-season pickup, how far along was the second season story wise?
Story-wise I would say we had about 50% of what then became the second season. Then the other 50% was broken about a year ago as the first season was coming out and we were seeing what worked, et cetera. That's when we started to expand it in less expected directions.
About half of the things that you'll end up seeing in season two were very much seeds that we planted in season one and always knew that we were heading that way from a variety of levels. One is Emily and the secrets that Emily possesses.
The other is really the sort of early days of the office of interchange and some of the origins and meanings of the fourth floor and what that's all about and when we would get to reveal it and how. Then other things kind of took us by surprise in the process of building the second season and so we let the characters guide us.
That was kind of my second question. So what story ideas were running through your head after you saw the success of the first season and watched it unfold? What surprised you?
I think what surprised us was -- I won't say surprised but was pleasantly received by us -- was that people were really into Clare and the story of The Indigo School, that that stuff was really landing and connecting with people. It always connected with us as writers, so we wanted to continue doing it.
The relationship between Clare and Peter Quail really is one of our favorite things to write, and so we could really lean into that for season two and embrace them as the characters that they were at the end of the season. You know, that kind of thing. It really guides us. It's this pleasant thing where the material starts to take control of you.
Right. You guys don't shy away from the high stakes of building a character and investing in it only to terminate it where other showrunners don’t always have the guts to do that. How do you guys manage to do that while others can't seem to let go?
Well, I think we take from the best. So I mean I'll be honest, my favorite shows do that. If you look at The Sopranos, if you look at Breaking Bad, these are shows that are really not afraid to make every episode seem like the last sometimes. So we like doing it.
We also have a unique luxury that we know we have two characters from the two sides that are two versions of oneself to do that. We always joke if we kill one of you, it's a warning shot. If we kill two of you, you're done. So it's something that we feel like we need in order to keep the show vital.
This is not the kind of show that wants to set up false promises when it comes to the seriousness of violence. Action in this show is not something that we take from a genre perspective. One of the things I'm most proud of is I don't think action is exciting. I don't think action is something that I should look forward to when I watch a scene.
I think action is something that we should dread and look at with horror cause violence is a terrible thing. Seen from real character perspective, death is very, very impactful, and we don't want to give it short shrift by making characters feel like they can live forever. That's a lot of what we try to do with the show.
That's interesting that you equate action with death.
Yeah. Well in a spy show with guns but I guess that's sort of what happens but you're right, there are scenes where people can follow each other and it can just be more about gathering intelligence, and we have those, too. Or apprehensions or whatnot.
But when it comes to things like an assassin coming in to kill Emily in season one, those are things that we never want to feel like play as entertainment, you know? They should always be played with a hint of dread and humanity.
Interesting. So given the posters and the short chat I had with Nazanin [Boniadi] and Betty [Gabriel] earlier, it seems like Counterpart Season 2 is grappling with the idea of identity and what makes each of the characters who they are. Am I even close?
Yes. Oh yeah, absolutely. That's a perfect way of putting it too. No, I mean that's what the show is. I would say the first season is that too. I think where we go with the second season is a little closer to an answer to the question of who are we? And where do we meet?
You know, that's something Baldwin says to Howard in the first season, someday you'll find where you meet. And I think this season Howard and Howard Prime will find where they meet, very much so. When and how, I will leave open to those who watch the show.
But you know, this is a show about competition between these worlds, and this season is really a show about war as it starts to play out for real — the idea that in a competition, only one can exist. That co-existence does not appear to be possible after the events in season one, and that may change over the course of the season, but that's certainly the way it feels for us thematically.
That's pretty harrowing with the two worlds being at odds because of the events of season one. How do you imagine a world at war when there's only, as far as we know, one way to get in and out? Do you have that kind of narrowed down, how an actual war could take place?
Well, a lot of it was already set in place long before that happened. Part of this is Indigo's plot to close the crossing. Well, that was really only to set the stage for what's about to happen and for what Indigo is about to do, and that's what this season is really about.
The plans are in motion and just like in the case of the Berlin Wall, when the wall went up in 1961, there was still plenty of conversation happening back and forth across that world and plenty of ways to get plans back and forth and to have already installed operatives, and that's kind of what happens here as well.
In season one, J.K. Simmons had that great opportunity to blow us away with his dual performance. In season two, Olivia Williams is going to get her opportunity to do that.
Can you talk a little bit about the Emilys and what's in store for them?
Yeah. From the very beginning of this show when it was first pitched, and they said, what is season two? I said this is about the Emily we never knew. The unique thing that happens in Counterpart that other shows can't do because they don't have the counterpart twist, and that's we have a situation here where Emily has come out of her coma.
She was put into her coma presumably because of what she knew about Indigo's plans, and now she's come out of it having gone through this oxygen loss to her brain that has caused this memory loss and dysfunction which means she has to go on this trail, this path, to discover who she was.
While at the same time on the other side, Emily Prime, who's hunting down Indigo, is going through her own journey of discovering who Emily Alpha was as well. So they are both in search of the same woman, and that woman is who Emily Alpha used to be. So in a lot of ways, there's a third Emily this season.
The Emily of the past. The way they both regard that Emily says a lot about who they are and what makes them different and also what makes them very similar. So Olivia's done a fantastic job, and she has a lot of heavy lifting this season as we always promised her because when she signed on to this show, she did not sign on to the show to play a woman in a coma.
She knew what it was from the very beginning because I walked her through this exact storyline before we shot season one, that she would be coming out at the end of the season, that this is what two would be about. I think people are going to be pretty blown away by the trajectory that Emily takes this season.
How long will it take Emily Alpha to realize that she woke up into a completely new scenario?
That's a good question that I probably shouldn't answer. No, cause she's of course, right, being gaslit in a certain way by Howard Prime right now living in her home. The question is, when is this woman going to realize that this man is not her real husband?
Yeah, it seems like a nightmare. Just an utter nightmare.
Yeah, no, it is in many respects, and we really do lean into in the best way and in a very contemporary way.
Will Howard Alpha's love story with his Emily continue? Or as they all struggle to uncover themselves, will there be room for the four of them to kind of have some kind of ultimate battle for each other? And yes I realize it isn't a romance, but you made me do it.
No, it is. I mean look, this is a show, we always see this show as ... Some shows have hard love stories; some shows have love triangles, we have a love rectangle. That's how we see the two Howards and the two Emilys and where they go, where they bounce between each other.
I think all of them have a chance and the question of who's right for whom is a really open-ended question. It's a little less open-ended as the season moves on and as our characters begin to discover truths about themselves, but at the point right now I think it could go in any direction and it will.
Harry Lloyd may not play Counterpart, but he is forced to act differently with almost every person in his life.
Is there anyone on canvas with whom he can be himself during season two?
I'm so glad you put it that way cause we talked about that in the room a lot, the idea that he can become anything that anyone else wants him to be and that part of his maturity as a character over the course of season two is his process of finally understanding who he is. That's something that Clare is also on a journey to do, right?
They both have that same dilemma. So they both have to move towards that together but to do that they have to stop play acting. One is play acting as the young, handsome deputy director; the other is play acting as the housewife and mother, you know?
Eventually, they're both going to have to come to terms with who they really are, and I think, especially for Quail, this season will really start to get at who he is and who he could be.
I have to ask this because it seems like a thing. Is it a spy thing where women always think that if they can't cover a lie, they just to distract the person that they're lying to with sex?
It is! [laughs]
So if that person will have sex just to think about that long enough to forget everything?
Forget about it. It's the age-old spy trope that we try to get rid of in the first episode of season two. That's really what it is. It's that moment with Clare where he says, that won't work on me anymore. We're done with that, you know? That's part of it. We don't want to go there.
This is sort of a different reinterpretation of a contemporary spy story, and one of the things we wanted to do was do a send-up of the classic honeypot trope that Clare'sbeen doing to Quail for a very long time. But as of the first episode of season two, it's no longer in her arsenal.
She can't pull that on him or anyone anymore. Now we're going to have to evolve beyond it.
Clare is really two different people now with her daughter. And I'm wondering, does her daughter hold the key to Clare's Indigo unraveling?
Well, I don't want to give any spoilers, but I think that mother/daughter relationships factor very strongly into who Clare is and where she's going from there.
Kind of my final question for you is, can you tell me a little bit about Naya and how she's going to fit into the dynamic? Because she seems to have like a front row seat to management which is still up in the air, and I don't quite get what management is, but we do get a little clue early on-
What management is, even if it seems like there's management above management which is even more interesting.
Yes. Well, that's two questions. I will answer the second part first which is to say that I think you will definitely have a sense of who management is by the end of this season — a strong sense.
A strong awareness. This is their season in a lot of ways. As for Temple, you know she really is far into this massive character. We wanted her to stand as the antithesis of the privilege that Quail represents.
Someone who is not part of the traditional European old boys network who comes as an outsider who is read into the crossing at the very beginning of the season who is sort of looking at it all with fresh eyes. And because of that, she possesses no blind spots that Quail has always been able to hide within.
She's someone who, in 30 seconds, can figure out what it took someone like Aldrich ten episodes to figure out last season. We're really kind of embracing that in the way that Betty has played her this season is so dangerous.
In a lot of ways, she's the most dangerous character we've introduced to the show because she's relentless and inevitable in her ability to break someone down.
That is so helpful. That made all, the way you described her made all the difference in the world to me. I am so excited for this season. Thank you so much for talking with me, and I can't thank you enough for the show.
No, thank you. And I have to say, I do want to thank you as well because I've read your writing on the show and it does mean a lot, your thoughts on it and I have been ... To give it a closer reading as you have really means a lot to the writers and me and for someone to put as much thought as we do into it.
Counterpart Season 2 Episode 1 airs tonight on Starz at 9/8c. Don't miss what is sure to be another terrific season from Marks and his amazing team, cast, and crew!
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.