CPS2_201 Howard Alpha (J.K. Simmons)
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Howard Alpha (J.K. Simmons) in Counterpart. 

Counterpart creator Justin Marks reveals how Season 2 doubles down on the twists

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Dec 5, 2018, 12:30 PM EST

In Counterpart's freshman season, Starz's sci-fi/espionage drama quickly asserted itself as one of the smartest, and most surprising, genre series out there. A lot of the kudos belong to J.K. Simmons' masterful embodiment of the dual roles of Howard Silk (Alpha) and Howard Silk (Prime), men who share the same basic countenance yet who couldn't be more different in terms of temperament, skills, and plain old confidence.

In a nutshell, Counterpart revolves around a secret Berlin-based portal to a parallel earth (Prime) created by East German scientists in 1987 and maintained by the United Nations agency, the Office of Interchange. Both Silks work for the Office on their respective sides, Howard Alpha as a low-level desk jockey and Howard Prime as an adept spy who retrieves rogue operatives back to his side. From the moment the two met, twists ensued, with devastating assassins crossing into Alpha Berlin, double-agents being revealed, and Howard Alpha's beloved comatose wife, Emily (Olivia Williams), serving as an emotional chip for both men.

Even in that basic description, it's clear that Counterpart has a lot of moving parts, which creator/executive producer Justin Marks has been maintaining, and unspooling, in a carefully non-chaotic way with his writers and Simmons. For Season 2, Marks tells SYFY WIRE that the goal has been to allow their entire ensemble, and especially the Howards, to evolve in ways you don't see coming.

CPS2_202 Emily Alpha (Olivia Williams) (2)

Emily Alpha (Olivia Williams) 

You had ten episodes written before you shot anything for Season 1. Seeing your cast in action often inspires new stories, or begets unexpected narratives, so how did watching Season 1 unfold inspire your arcs for Season 2?

Well, in Season 2, from the very beginning, we can embrace the stronger aspects of the series.

One of the best, most easily identifiable surprises for us, especially as writers, was the realization that Baldwin, Sara Serraiocco's character, was not just an assassin who would just hang around a little and get out of the story. But in fact, she should stick around for a while. So, finding a way to reintegrate her into the story in Season 2 was a really interesting challenge that we wanted to do because we have these great characters and you want to embrace them.

The same could be said with Nazanin [Boniadi] and Harry [Lloyd] playing Clare and Peter Quayle. These are two actors who turned the show inside out in a lot of ways with their reveals. And we never saw this show as being about just one marriage; it was also about this other marriage. In Season 2, we make them even more a part of the show.

Speaking of marriages, let's talk about Emily, who was comatose in the Alpha world, and very much alive in the Prime world. Now, she's waking up in the Alpha side too.

Right. This woman who we really, at least for the audience, have only begun to introduce.

In Season 2, we say this is the season of Emily. This is the season where both Emily Alpha and Emily Prime are both searching for answers about the same woman, which is who Emily Alpha used to be, and what she used to do.

That takes us right back to the Howards, with the end of Season 1 showing us Prime pretending to be Alpha, and Alpha stuck in a cell inside the Prime world.

Yes, Howard Prime has been living fraudulently in Howard Alpha's life for a good portion of the first season, but at no point in the first season did he ever really have to live with someone who knew Howard as intimately as his own wife.

Now that Emily has come out of this coma, Howard Prime has a two-fold challenge. One is to avoid suspicion and avoid detection, especially with Betty Gabriel's character showing up in the show as the new Aldrich, so to speak. Two, he has to find out what Emily Alpha knew. What she had discovered that made him go in to take her down in the first place, and what still is yet to come.

So, Howard Prime feels rather predatory now with a newly awoken Emily?

I think he has to balance that while at the same time just being this innocent husband who really doesn't know much. It's a really big challenge for him. It also speaks to the thing that has been implicit in the show since the very first episode, when Howard Prime went to her hospital bedside and looked down at her in a coma and took her hand. I don't think it should come as a surprise that he may not be fully over what happened between them, at least in his world, and that there may be more things to come there.

CPS2_204 Yanek (James Cromwell), Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons)

Yanek (James Cromwell), Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons)

What about poor Howard Alpha?

The other Howard, as a prisoner of the other side... let's just say has the most coming to him. This is a man who when we first met him at the beginning of the first season is just the most gentle, meek person. Now he's a prisoner, and not just a prisoner in the traditional sense as we see him in the beginning of the season.

But as the season will develop, without getting into some strong, strong spoilers, let's just say the prison to which he was sent is unlike any kind of prison that we've really seen because it's a prison done the Counterpart way. It's called Echo and it's a real centerpiece of our season. And the fact that we've got James Cromwell, another wonderful actor to act opposite J.K. Simmons, as the spiritual warden of this prison is a very exciting thing.

As both Howard's follow their paths, will we find them coming into parity more as men?

Well, there's an interesting implication in the question, so I want to start there which is this understanding that the more Howard grows, the more he would be becoming like Howard Prime. I don't know if that's fully the case. That's something that we always talk about thematically in the show when it comes to which self is the true self? These Howards were clearly on two opposite poles from each other, but when it comes to where the center is, I'm not certain that one goes all the way over, or that they're both not marching towards the center that's very different from how we would expect.

One of the fun things we introduced in this show is it's all binaries. But there is this third component to who we are that you absolutely see with the Emilys because you've got Emily Alpha and Emily Prime both searching for who Emily Alpha was. They're simultaneously moving toward that third point, and I think you've also got Howard and Howard Prime both roaming toward who they could be, and that "other" self is someone different that can only be possible when you're confronted with this "other."

They can stand up on each other's shoulders and grow into someone else. That's been really fun because J.K. knows everything about where the Howard's have been, and most of where they're going. We've always kept that close to our vest and one of the things that we do collectively with him as we shoot the scenes is find that there's always this "two steps forward and one step back" approach that I really believe in.

What did you learn in Season 1 that helped in writing and shooting Season 2?

The multiples are one thing, but I would say the locations for the show is the big thing. Season 1, we shot two-thirds of it in Los Angeles and one-third in Berlin. This season is a flip. We decided to go to Berlin for two-thirds of the season and stay in LA for one-third.

We've never seen Berlin before committed to film in a very contemporary fashion, and we wanted to wrap our arms around that and embrace it. The idea of doing Counterpart in this world and really getting our characters out on the streets was something that Season 2 explored and it made our lives so much easier because we didn't have to spend all this time and money adjusting doorknobs in the United States to look like what they look like in Berlin. (Laughs)

Will you direct this season?

Yes, Episode 6. We knew from the first season that this one would be a very, very special episode. It's the beginning of the second half of this season. This season, in a lot of ways, is constructed in two halves with two climaxes that work with each other, which is different from how we structured the first season, where it was more like three acts.

The second half of this season is so exciting and so different from what we've come to expect when it comes to so many fuses that have been lit going off all at once. I'm really excited to see how people interpret it.

Counterpart Season 2 returns December 9, 2018, on Starz