Speculative fiction is often just that—speculative. Sometimes it’s an effective metaphor for real-world issues. Oftentimes it imagines a world drastically different from our own. But sometimes sci-fi of the past takes on chilling new meaning in the present. Such is the case now with tales of pandemics, stories of widespread disease that we always knew were in the realm of possibility but that felt distant and unreal—until the novel coronavirus pandemic became a horrific reality.
Movies like Contagion and books like Station Eleven are being cited frequently these days as we deal with the troubling new normal of climbing death tolls and a damaged economy. One TV show deserves just as close an examination as those titles: Counterpart, the excellent but under-watched and short-lived Starz series that aired from late 2017 to early 2019. Now available to watch on Amazon Prime, it features performances by J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams that should have gotten those actors oodles of awards.
While many are now grappling with uncertainty about what the future holds, Counterpart is uniquely worth taking a look at since it depicts civilization recovering two decades after the height of a crippling (but not decimating) pandemic.
[Note: This article contains light spoilers about world-building in the first seven episodes of Counterpart. Bigger, plot-related spoilers about the conclusion of the series are underneath the spoiler banner later in the post.]
Counterpart has a lot more to offer than just its imagining of a post-pandemic world. Packed with both espionage thrills and thought-provoking character drama, it’s a philosophical show about identity, choice, and fate. Taking place primarily in modern Berlin, it serves as a Cold War allegory in its depiction of two parallel dimensions divided by a border called the Crossing. We learn that there was once a single dimension and then in the 1980s, a separate, duplicate version emerged. Since then, the two worlds—and the people in them—that were once identical have become more and more different.
The two dimensions are called variations of “the Other Side,” “your side,” and “our world” by Counterpart’s characters, but also described by the show’s writers and fans as “the Alpha World” and “the Prime World”—the former being a reality we’d recognize as our own real world, the latter being a society recovering from a flu pandemic.
“The idea of a pandemic being crucial to the fabric of the show was not really something that we intended,” Counterpart creator and showrunner Justin Marks told io9. “What we were really looking for, candidly, was a delta, a difference between the two worlds that would be palpable and evoke a certain mood on the Other Side, without being so dramatic that there were no overlaps to what we on Our Side would have considered ordinary life.”
Counterpart’s flu kills seven percent of the world’s population within four years of its initial outbreak in 1996. That’s over 400 million people. For comparison, the (very real) Spanish flu is estimated to have killed over 50 million people after it spread in 1918. Here’s an important thing to remember, though: Covid-19 is unlikely to be anywhere near as deadly as the fictional flu in Counterpart, but it—which, at time of publishing, has taken the lives of over 97,000 people—is currently much more dangerous than real-world seasonal flu strains. Even though there’s very little reason to fear that the coronavirus pandemic will become as severe as Counterpart’s flu pandemic, the series holds new resonance that may help people process our weird current era and deal with uncertainty about what comes next.
However, it’s worth considering this advice from public health expert Dr. Meghan McGinty: “As long as people remember that a particular show is fictional and they feel like they’re in a state of mind to watch something like that, then it’s fine [to watch entertainment depicting a pandemic]. But if anybody is feeling distressed or being overwhelmed by consuming too much of this content, then I would urge them not to be indulging in this genre of entertainment and to perhaps watch something different that can be a distraction from the current state of the world.”
McGinty is an affiliate adjunct professor at the University of Washington. An experienced disaster researcher and emergency responder, she spoke with io9 from New York, where she is doing public health emergency management in the city hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Marks and McGinty each took some time to talk in detail about various elements of Counterpart’s flu pandemic. Read on below for their reflections on how much our own real-world post-coronavirus pandemic may look like the Prime World of Counterpart.
Masks worn in public
In Counterpart’s Prime World, about 22 years after the outbreak of the flu, people can frequently be seen wearing face masks in public spaces. It’s an image of public space that’s feeling more familiar now, especially after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recent recommendation that Americans wear cloth masks while in public.
“I don’t think that it’s unreasonable that we might see the wearing of masks become more normalized,” McGinty told io9. She noted that wearing masks in public is already common practice in Asia, particularly China, due in part to the 2002 SARS outbreak. She said that as stay-at-home orders and other restrictions are loosened, people “may be wearing these masks more and more in order to protect themselves in public. And that may contribute to this becoming a more routine behavior that persists after the pandemic is over.”
Log on to Etsy these days, and you’ll see fabric masks dominating the list of currently popular items. Counterpart also imagined its flu impacting the world of fashion; for the Prime World, the show’s costume department created clothing with high collars and outfitted more cast members and extras with gloves.
Criminalization of failure to report illness
In Counterpart’s third episode, a PSA screened in a near-empty movie theater encourages Germans to keep their vaccinations up-to-date. That PSA then declares, “Failure to report the illness of your loved ones is punishable by fine, jail sentence, and possible quarantine.”
Marks said of that PSA, “What we wanted to do was put some teeth onto the genteel side of big government that would certainly emerge and exists in Europe as it is. We also wanted to better spell out just how dangerous things got for humanity on the Other Side.”
The showrunner admits that the PSA was meant to feel “almost farcical” but added that re-watching that PSA last month, “Maybe it’s because I was watching it while I’m watching footage of beaches in Florida, but I just felt like, why can’t we have a civilization as responsible as the one that was proposed in a fictional sci-fi story?”
McGinty said she hopes that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic “we have more people who realize how critical vaccination is,” but she said she’s concerned by the concept of criminalizing people who fail to report illness.
She cited the infamous case of Typhoid Mary as a rare instance of forced isolation but said that generally, public health officials do not “want to incarcerate people for failing to report their health status. I don’t think that’s going to be a successful strategy for achieving health. When we take actions to protect health, we want to have as little infringements on civil liberties as possible.”
Tobacco products are banned
We learn in episode seven of Counterpart that on the Prime Side, European countries banned tobacco products in 1999. When one Prime character indulges in a cigarette while on the Alpha Side, another Prime character says, “disgusting,” and immediately demands he put out the cigarette. Marks revealed that the writers decided that tobacco fields went fallow in the years since the flu outbreak. “It wasn’t even available should someone want to do it illegally,” he said.
Though McGinty wouldn’t support Germany Prime’s practice of incarceration to protect public health, banning cigarettes sounds like a better idea to her: “That’s a really positive development that we haven’t seen happen in this pandemic, but if it did, that would be beneficial for everybody going forward,” she said. McGinty pointed out that covid-19 poses a greater risk for people with lung disease, “so if a consequence of this pandemic was decreased smoking, that would be a terrific outcome.”
Screening for symptoms in public spaces
Hospitals and some grocery stores are now screening patients and patrons for symptoms of covid-19 before entry via questionnaires and temperature measurement. A brief deleted scene from Counterpart, which Marks posted on Twitter last month, depicts some kind of screening in the U-Bahn, Berlin’s public transit system.
In the clip, people walk through a device that looks like a metal detector and are sorted onto different sides of the platform labeled “well” and “unwell.” It’s not immediately evident whether the device is scanning just for temperature or has some other high-tech, sci-fi ability to detect specific diseases.
“If it’s screening [only] for temperature, I have concerns about that for some sort of sorting,” McGinty said. “That wouldn’t allow you to differentiate between someone who has flu and someone who has coronavirus and both have a fever. And people might be unwell and not have a fever. We do use temperature screening, but then we follow up with people who may have an elevated temperature or other symptoms.”
Advances in medical treatment and technology
In the Prime World, the smartphone hasn’t been invented. When a character from the Other Side catches a glimpse at an iPhone in the Alpha World, he snipes, “All this innovation is possible with the luxury of time, while we of course have been too busy fighting ourselves back from extinction.”
While the Other Side lacks personal devices created by Steve Jobs, it does have more advanced medical technology than Our Side, and its scientists have apparently succeeded in creating a hepatitis C vaccine. In a hospital on the Prime Side seen in episode four, screens measuring vitals are clearly more high-tech than those in real-world hospitals today. An accordion-like structure to the walls enables the ICU to expand as needed. Patients’ wristbands glow blue on a chrome base.
That hospital set design stemmed in part from conversations the episode’s writer, Erin Levy, had with a public health expert who was among the scientists consulted for the show, connected with the writers via the Science and Entertainment Exchange. That hospital room “felt like an Apple store, in the best way possible.” Marks said, also explaining that with more people spending more time in hospitals, “you’d want it to be a pleasant environment. Not just a sterile environment, but a human environment. So we worked really hard in the design to kind of present that.”
Medical advances and better funding of medical research may be seen as a result of the real coronavirus pandemic too. “One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic is we’re seeing a lot of creative research and development, a lot of engineering and medical advances,” McGinty said. “[Work is] being done to create a new vaccine, to create new diagnostic tests, and to either identify new treatments or repurpose existing drugs for treatment. And all of that activity wasn’t happening at that level prior to the pandemic.”
Shaking hands and other physical contact
In Counterpart, the Prime Side has abandoned the custom of shaking hands. Marks marveled at the fact that this element of the show may prove prescient, since it came from an idea discussed with two actors on the day they filmed the brief scene that first revealed that people don’t shake hands on the Other Side.
“It’s such a crazy thing because we just sort of felt it out with Harry Lloyd and J.K. Simmons on the day. It was just an idea for some lines that we would maybe discuss,” Marks recalled.
McGinty said that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic “it’s very possible people will—at least initially—be nervous about shaking hands…. I think that physical contact, hugging and hand-holding and hand-shaking, are important social interactions for humans, so, personally, I hope that we see those things return, but I hope if they return, we need to remember the valuable lessons that we’ve learned about hygiene. One practice that I hope persists is regular, thorough hand-washing and that people are staying home when they’re ill.”
Migration away from cities
Counterpart’s flu—which both McGinty and Marks note is more severe than our coronavirus pandemic—prompts mass migration out of cities. We’ve already seen people with means fleeing cities for vacation homes and others going to family members’ houses in rural areas. But that may prove temporary. In the 1920s, American cities were growing and flourishing, despite the recent spread of the Spanish Flu. Whether there is permanent mass migration away from cities “remains to be seen,” McGinty said.
“It will depend on how severe the pandemic ends up being and people’s feelings about it,” she continued. “How stressed, how anxious are they? How do our priorities change, and do they feel that they need to be in remote places and places they can better isolate, versus do they feel like they can better get some resources in cities?”
Counterpart’s image of people starting to return to cities 22 years after the outbreak of the flu may give us a sense of what it will look like to have people fill our real public spaces again, hopefully well before two decades have passed. Malls and restaurants in Berlin Prime are still chillingly empty in 2018, but there are signs of a long-awaited return to cherished city spaces. In the show’s fifth episode, a large advertisement (which Marks said intentionally has a Jetsons feel to it) declares, “Paris: Open for Business Again.” One of Counterpart’s production designers gave Marks a coffee mug bearing the design for that ad.
Marks also revealed to io9 that the fireworks in the very first scene of Counterpart are for a celebration unique to the Prime World: “That’s not New Year’s—that is actually a celebration held in Berlin on the Other Side every year on the anniversary of the date of the vaccine for the flu going public.” Such depictions of the end of a pandemic and the return to cherished communal experiences we’ve lost may be Counterpart’s greatest offering of hope for viewers watching the series during the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking probably only part-jokingly about what it will look like for us to leave our homes again, Marks said, “When I can get my 12 Monkeys hazmat suit on and go into my office, which we haven’t been to in several weeks, I’d like to pull out that ‘Paris: Open for Business Again’ coffee mug. I think it’ll give me something to look forward to.”
Season 3 plans: The truth about the flu
Partway through season one, viewers are given a sense of a terrible accusation that fuels tension between the two dimensions: the widespread suspicion—often dismissed as a conspiracy—that Our Side intentionally introduced the flu virus into the Other Side. We learn in season two that this is partly true. Sometime after beginning research on the parallel worlds, Yanek Alpha and Juma Alpha create the flu as “insurance. For peace,” as this Yanek calls it, saying, “We could never use it. Just a precaution.”
In the present day, Mira Prime recounts to Yanek Alpha: “The precaution you proposed was released into our world. Accident or on purpose, no one knows.” So the circumstances of the flu’s release on the Other Side were left a mystery when the show ended after two seasons.
That mystery was solved for fans last month, when Marks—who has moved on from previous efforts to find a new home for Counterpart after Starz’s cancelation—answered fans’ questions via a Reddit AMA, revealing some of what would have happened in season three. He said that the flu was released not intentionally by Management on the Alpha Side but by “a pure accident of incompetence.” Details of how that happened would have been depicted in a flashback episode titled “Patient Zero” in season three.
Marks told io9, “We wanted [the flu’s release] to be the result of a series of human errors that slowly spiraled out of control. And then we wanted also a bit of a cover-up that just exacerbated the situation and made it worse on the part of two opposed factions of Management who were both in on that together. If they were to admit that they had some part in the creation of this flu virus, they would have had to open themselves up to further scrutiny from their governing bodies into the existence of the Crossing itself, which is something they were not willing to do. And as a result, millions of people died.”
As for the flu that entered Our World in the shocking conclusion to what ended up being Counterpart’s series finale, that of course was released intentionally in a massive revenge tactic by Mira Prime. Marks said that this new flu pandemic would have killed the same ratio—seven percent—of people the on Alpha Side as the initial flu pandemic in the Prime World.
“There was very little institutional knowledge in our world about the flu on the Other Side,” Marks explained. And it was too late to seek help or new knowledge from the Prime world since the Crossing had been closed—truly permanently, Marks confirmed: “What we would have seen in the first moments of season three was concrete being poured on the big steel doors that we shut at the end of the season.”
While seasons one and two spoke to Cold War divisions and how borders are dealt with today, Marks said the third season (set four years after the end of season two) would have dealt with “what I consider a bit of a post-Cold War state. Not terrorism, which I think has taken a lot of the attention over the last several decades, but honestly, it’s our relationship with the planet.”
The “Patient Zero” storyline would have been fertile ground for a reflection on the response (and lack thereof) to climate change. The release of the flu due to neglect is “just something that never should have happened. I think about that a lot when I think about how we manage not just our biological ecosystem but our environment in general,” Marks said.
The best science fiction often depicts fantastical places and times while making keen observations about own real, present world. The Counterpart writers certainly delivered that kind of reflective sci-fi with the handful of issues it dug into, but the flu storyline is not where they expected that to happen.
“It’s a show about what makes us otherize other people and this idea of otherizing a version of yourself,” the showrunner said, adding that when it comes to the new resonance of the flu storyline, “I’d hate for that to be the [show’s] legacy…. It’s kind of a sad byproduct of what was supposed to be pure speculative science fiction.”
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