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Counterpart Creator Breaks Down That Nail-Biter Season Finale

Plus, the 'relevant' themes he hopes to explore in a potential Season 3

Emily Rome

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for "Better Angels," the Season 2 finale of Counterpart.]

From its start, Counterparthas delivered espionage thrills alongside philosophical musings on identity, choice and fate. Sunday's Season 2 finale amped up both of these core elements, concluding with a gut-punch of a final scene overlooking the very same park where we first saw young Yanek sitting not far from the Berlin Wall. Even fans rooting for Mira to be defeated and the flu virus to be contained may marvel at the poetic justice of making Yanek patient zero.

Whether or not "Better Angels" will remain the last episode ever of Counterpart is uncertain. Creator and showrunner Justin Marks confirmed last week that Starz had canceled the series. Production company MRC, however, is reportedly shopping the show to streaming services.

Marks spoke with TV Guide about the big moments in Season 2's final episodes and about what the future of Counterpart could look like. While fans await news of whether we live on the side of the Crossing where Counterpart does get a third season, here are Marks' responses to our burning questions.

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I really want to see more Counterpart, but if it turns out that was the series finale, then that was a damn good series finale.
Justin Marks: Thank you. Yeah, with the exception of the downer last few seconds there [laughs] -- but that was always the intention. We kind of built the first two seasons as its own form of a complete story, but with enough in it that pointed in the direction that we wanted to take the story moving forward. In a lot of ways, these first two years represent the Berlin portion of the Counterpart story, and we always knew we were leading into this ending. What it means for the next chapter of the story is a different question. But yeah, in a lot of ways, it is kind of complete.

Where do things stand now with the search for a new home for the show?
Well, we are looking for a new home, and we're sitting down over the next few weeks with some interested parties and talking about it. A lot of it really is a chance to be a part of the show as it moves forward into, as we call it, "a second series" of Counterpart.

Now, there will be a lot of continuation from what we see. Characters, cast members, plot threads, obviously. I think that the release of the flu into our world by means of Yanek -- which was sort of Mira's final stroke, her insurance plan -- definitely has some story implications moving forward. But I would say that we never wanted to be a Cold War allegory forever. We wanted to have an espionage allegory, and a science-fiction espionage allegory at that, but moving forward into a next season, we take the spy world a little forward into the future, towards -- if the allegory of the first two years was the Cold War, maybe we're getting a little more now into an espionage allegory as it relates to lawless countries, areas where borders have less meaning, and, in a lot of ways, a Wild West of espionage. That's part of the fun of where we move forward. We love having our two worlds to play with, but the Berlin Wall portion of it is definitely finished. Now we take our characters to a new place.

Can you tell me what place physically that would be, what city or cities the third season would take place in?
I will stay mum on that, except to stay -- and this goes back to the very beginning from when I first pitched the show -- the movie that stays near and dear to my heart and always excites me when thinking about it in the context of Counterpart is Casablanca. [...] That's a whole other kind of border that exists in that story, and I would love to see that applied to our show and our characters.

Tell me about the decision to have Emily Alpha die, to have Ethel change her mind and kill her after she'd given Emily the intel about the sleeper cell.
Marks: Ethel has that moment of clarity where she gives it over to her and then in that last moment decided she couldn't go through with it. And fortunately Emily had enough breath in her lungs to save the day. To us, the second season belonged to Emily. It was planned that way from the beginning, that the second season is about the Emily we never knew -- that all season long, Emily Alpha and Emily Prime were searching for the same woman, this past woman that Emily Alpha once was. No one in this show is perfect, and there are things in Emily's past that she feels she has to atone for, just in the way Howard is wondering whether he is this version of himself, or this other version of himself that he can't seem to escape in his anger and rage. But I think it's Emily's acts of heroism in saving the day that finally shows Howard the answer to the question that we've been wondering for two seasons of "Can you escape this template of your destiny?" And the answer to Emily is "Yes." And she proves it. And Howard proves it by proving Yanek wrong in the final moments with [Howard] Prime by putting his gun down, or rather, handing it over. And that was always where we wanted to go. I'm so happy that we got to tell that relationship to its complete story.

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The scene when the two Emilys finally meet was incredible. I know you weren't directing that episode, but what can you tell me about how that scene was shot?
Marks: I didn't direct either of these [last] two episodes -- this is all the brilliant Charlotte Brändström -- but doing the Emily scene, we applied the same rules that we apply to any time we do the doubles, which is we bring in another actor for our actor to act against. [...] Gianna Sobol -- who wrote Episode 9, and did a wonderful job with that scene -- Gianna worked very closely with Olivia [Williams] as well in crafting the interaction.

This is a show where people are always butting heads across both sides of that border -- Howard and Howard Prime, they hate each other. Everyone projects their own self-hatred onto their Counterpart. And that's the way it's always been. But in the case of Emily, we wanted to do a version of it where just once two people sat across the line from each other and actually found a common ground. Emily Prime forgives Emily Alpha for the transgressions that she has done, which, to me, is the thing that Emily Alpha has been searching for all series long, which is to forgive herself. And she finally is able to forgive herself, but not in the mirror -- she's able to forgive her Counterpart. Olivia had this brilliant idea -- she said we were all very aware of J.K. [Simmons]'s wonderful scene from last season where he confronts himself across the Interface glass, but in the case of Olivia, she really wanted to be able to physically interact with herself and to have a sense of contact and to take each other's hand, to play with that border. The enduring image for me is the image of them holding hands in the end, because it speaks to all of the hope of what this Crossing could mean, that maybe someday -- not now for sure -- but maybe someday we could be better together.


Olivia Williams, Counterpart

Nicole Wilder-Shattuck

Your directorial debut was with the episode Twin Cities -- on one hand it seems obvious why you'd want to direct this amazing origin story, but on the other hand, it meant you didn't get to direct most of your regular cast. So why did you chose that episode to direct?
Marks: It's the first part. It was a mythology episode, and it's mythology that we've known from the very beginning stood at the center of our show. There were some logistical reasons, one being it was a very complicated shoot to do this episode, and there's never enough time. [...] Rather than communicate to a director who would then have to shoot for coverage to protect in case, not knowing what I may or may not want, in this case, I can shoot knowing exactly what I want. So it kind of cuts the amount of time it took us to make the episode in half, which was necessary in order to do it.

And the other thing was, I look at these two seasons of the show, and whether you know there's an end coming or not, in terms of what the show's future is, I knew that this chapter was coming to a close, and it was very important to me to say goodbye to it, or at least say goodbye to Berlin in that way. And I wanted to do so by directing, by getting into that, and by really putting my stamp on it in a final way. So it was a very emotional journey to go through, especially with our brilliant German crew, who we've been with since the beginning, and they kind of carried me on their back all the way through it. But it was -- to quote Baldwin from Season 1 -- "this one was for me."

Clare seems to be one of the most divisive characters among fans. Did the writers debate what direction to take her in Season 2 and where to leave things with her and Peter?
Marks: We love Clare, and it's funny, Clare and Quayle together [...] -- we love both of them so much more than our audience appears to. And it's not about hate, it's just love to hate, I guess. But they're this very complex couple. We find Clare to be in this impossible situation, and Peter's in this impossible situation, and both of them grow far beyond the place where they were. Harry [Lloyd] said something brilliant last season during his press tour, which was that his goal in every scene is to try to not be in the scene, that Peter's desire in every situation is "I just don't want to be here. I just wish other people could do this. I wish other people would make these decisions 'cause I don't know what to do. I mean, what am I in the middle of here?" And then he finds out he's sleeping with the enemy, and it gets even worse, so in this season, for the first time in his life, he takes responsibility. Maybe there was a part of it that I felt like, never having run a show before and going from there to here -- it was a story, a bit of growth that I think we should all build to at some point in our lives.

Clare, on the other hand, is raised to be a fanatic and has a kind of imprinting of the way she should see the world, and for the first time realizes that that's not the way the world is, but that's not such an easy thing. It's not a light switch that says, "Great, I don't have to believe in that anymore." She actually goes through this process where she is completely disoriented by what reality might be when she no longer believes what she's believed in since she was very young. I find it fascinating -- and a little disappointing -- that a lot of people talk about Clare, saying, "It's great that she's like this, but she shouldn't have cheated on Peter."

Oh wow -- and how long was Peter cheating on her?
Marks: Yeah, Peter was cheating on her since one of the first moments we saw him! There's something to that though, and Naz[anin Boniadi] played it so well, that she's fully aware of the double standard. There's this idea of roles that women are supposed to fill, in stories like this or in real life, and it's this idea of ambivalence we're sometimes afraid to show. Olivia challenged us a lot on Emily's maternal ambivalence and really felt like it should be a a very big part of her story. Without it, I don't think we could have had that scene in [Episode] 9. And I think Clare also plays with this idea of: What is it to be the perfect wife? And what is it to be the perfect operative? And finding that these two things are not necessarily what makes someone a good person or the best version of themselves. And finding that reality is where everyone lives. But there's always that strange standard that it bounces against, and it's not easy for an actor to take that on, and Naz and Olivia both did a brilliant job with it.


Nazanin Boniadi, Counterpart

Julia Terjung

The "points of departure," as Yanek calls them -- do you know what those points are for all your main characters?
Marks: We do, but "point of departure" is a term that Yanek came up with in his scientific process. I was just remembering this first conversation with James Cromwell when he was first signing onto the project. We talked about Yanek's worldview, and he was hearing this idea of "we're the same until the point of departure where we differ, and then this sort of animal survival instinct rises within us, and we have to defend that which we are, and we will eventually destroy our Other or be destroyed by our Other." And he looked at me and said, "But you don't believe that, do you?" And I'd never gotten a question like that before. It was just so visceral. I was like, "No, of course we don't believe that. Oh my God! That's a terrible way to think." We actually stand by this idea that the "point of departure" is a fallacy. It's something that's invented in a very simple and mathematical point of view. I think, as Howard's life has demonstrated, as Emily's life has demonstrated, the breaking off from the past of our other is not just a choice to go left instead of right. It's a slow, inevitable peeling that happens, so many small micro-factors that it's impossible to determine [one "point of departure"].

Now, you can say, "Well, Howard Prime challenged his father in a way that Howard Alpha didn't, and then Howard Prime challenged his wife in a way that Howard Alpha didn't," and maybe those things are related, or maybe there's something else entirely that resulted in the person they are. I look at fate and the choices we make and how they make us what we are, and I don't believe there's any one choice that defines us. I think we're defined by many, many choices that we make over a long period of time. It would be easy to believe like Yanek believes, but I think Yanek's method of thinking has a lot of self-justification built into it. I mean, he killed his Other and wants to believe that everyone else would do the same thing. And I don't know if that's true. I think Emily proved that wrong.

Something that's implied but not answered directly on the show: Why does the Other Side have apparently less advanced phone technology and yet all of these shiny, modern structures in the Berlin skyline?
Marks: Yeah, well, that's a simple one. It's the flu. The version of the other side's Berlin that we're looking at is a version that suffered under the flu. During that time, there was an eight- to ten-year pause on any development of technology besides medical technology. And then, our story was -- and we tied it very closely to the history of Potsdamer Platz -- that sometime at the beginning of the 21st century, once the flu was put down and things were OK, then, just like at the end of the Black Plague, there was a renaissance. There was a rebirth and a re-funding of public structures. There are all these beautiful buildings in the skyline of Berlin on the Other Side, except for one little thing that I wish people would notice more, and I'm glad to talk about it now: There aren't a lot of lights on in those structures. They're not quite inhabited. I look at Dubai and Abu Dhabi as great examples of cities that are being built faster than they can be inhabited, and we wanted to do that with Berlin because they're trying to portray a robust sense of self and say, "Come live here, things are great!" There's a poster in Episode 9 of Season 1 in the subway station -- it's an ad for Paris, where Knut [Loewe], our production designer in Berlin, grew up. It's all about "It's safe to come back to Paris again. Why don't you visit?" So they build these cities to try to attract each other, and they're beautiful cities with beautiful buildings, but they are, in themselves, kind of symbols of loneliness and sadness.

So that's really it. And we made a decision, because of Apple's flourishing in the early 21st century in our world, we wanted to say, "Well, what if the opposite happened?" So you're not going to see the iPhone or smart phone technology that we're accustomed to. And yet, I wouldn't consider their phones primitive -- that glass screen display is actually quite nice -- it just follows a different vocabulary from our world. It's as if Steve Jobs hadn't designed that.

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Is the baby formerly known as Spencer the only child of two worlds?
Marks: That is a big mystery that very specifically we want to explore moving forward, as to what it would mean to other children of two worlds and what that would mean -- not just in terms of what their loyalties would be. I don't even know how to define that -- but what their physiologies might be. They're existing with twice the gene specimens in a lot of ways, and twice the immunities, or half the immunities. It's a really interesting thing to play with.

As you leave behind this Cold War allegory, what do you hope is the takeaway for your audience in 2019?
Marks: I really hope that we've brought our characters to a landing place that says everything it needs to say about all of them. That they've all come around to a point of resolution, whether that be Howard or Howard Prime or Baldwin -- who kind of strangely has found a father in Howard Prime at the end of the show, someone who began the show in search of that -- or Emily Prime, or the late Emily Alpha -- I can now say that out loud! We've been sitting on that secret for months. Or Quayle and Clare. And Temple as well, who finally reconciles her vision of faith. These are all people who come to a last point. Now, that doesn't mean that their story is over, and many of these characters in our plans will continue, but it does mean that the story of a Western civilization reeling after the end of the Cold War -- we wanna leave that behind. Because there are other ideas, whether they be questions about borders, or the people who cross those borders, that I think are very relevant today and speak to the Counterpart that we always wanted to draw ourselves towards. Hopefully we get a chance to tell those stories, and if so, there will be a lot more conversations to be had. If not, I think this is very much a very personal expression of a lot of great writers and actors who all came together and put so much of themselves into this show. [...] They really just poured themselves into it, and I'm so glad that we got to tell that story.


J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams, Counterpart

Nicole Wilder-Shattuck