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Through the Looking Glass - Counterpart and The Last Ship: Geopolitics and Pandemics

Through the Looking Glass - Counterpart and The Last Ship: Geopolitics and Pandemics
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

Warning, this article may contain spoilers. 

While TV series whose plots revolve around a massive pandemic are not uncommon, they rarely include a geopolitical dimension1. Almost all of them are of the "post-apocalyptic" type. In The Stand (1994, based on a novel by Stephen King), a virus with military origins kills 99% of the world's population. Jeremiah (2002-2004) has a more original take on the theme: only adults die. Survivors (2008) explores a world decimated by a hitherto unknown flu. Z Nation (2014-2018) describes a virus that has turned most of the world's inhabitants into zombies. In Twelve Monkeys (2015-2018, based on the 1995 film of the same name) the survivors of a pandemic that killed seven billion people go back in time to try to prevent the disaster.

Among the exceptions are two relatively unknown and - for different reasons - very interesting series. The first one is Counterpart, notable for its script and cinematic quality. The second is The Last Ship, because it perfectly illustrates how Hollywood can be a mirror of the current geopolitical obsessions of America.

Counterpart, the "What if?" theory

A new type of flu has appeared. More than 600,000 people have died from it. People now wear masks when going out, they no longer shake hands, social distancing is respected in playgrounds, hand sanitizer dispensers are found in all public places, quarantines are compulsory at the borders, and any symptoms must be reported to the health authorities.

Welcome to the world of Counterpart (2017-2019), probably one of the most masterful series ever made.

Or rather, welcome to one of the two worlds. This uchronic espionage show develops around the themes of duplication and separation. Following an accident in a physics laboratory in East Berlin in 1987 - caused by a scientist's attempted escape to the West - two initially identical worlds are created and slowly start to differentiate: Alpha and Prime. Only one strictly controlled passage exists between them. 

Counterpart urges us to contemplate historical causality, in terms of the evolution of societies of course, but also that of individuals. At the time of the separation between the two worlds, Alpha and Prime, each person has a "double" in the other universe. What are the collective and individual choices that lead to this or that destiny in each of the worlds? To that end, Counterpart operates in subtle and suggestive ways. Nonetheless, as we learn in the second season, the plot actually revolves around a micro-event whose indirect consequences will transform the life of one of the main characters, and therefore, the future of one of the universes2.

Fiction writers cannot be blamed for giving in to what Marc Bloch called "the fetish of the single cause". This type of plot driver is in fact widely used in time-travel narratives. It follows an ancient question, summarized by the poem For Want of a Nail3, or by the concept of the "butterfly effect", which we know from chaos theory. It forms the basis of the counterfactual approach embodied in the words What if?. What if such and such an event had not taken place: would the course of the world have changed?

It is impossible not to immediately see how Counterpart is a metaphor for the division of Germany, and more broadly for the Cold War.

Counterpart does not really make any such intellectual claims: the series is much more interested in the psychology of the characters, whose performance is to be saluted. Especially J.K. Simmons’, who will meet their double during a passage into the other world and thus will embody two different personalities, sometimes even simultaneously. It is impossible not to immediately see how Counterpart is a metaphor for the division of Germany, and more broadly for the Cold War.

The stage is set from the very first episode: some of the more perceptive viewers will recognize the main building where the main scenes are filmed, the abandoned Tempelhof airport, symbol of the Berlin Blockade. There are "border guards" between the two worlds, stamps on "passports", "embassies" and "diplomatic" relations, exchanges of prisoners, all in a sinister atmosphere: everything reminds us of the separation between the two German republics.Counterpart is slow, dark and sober, there are almost no digital effects. We are in a low-tech atmosphere whose offbeat aesthetics can be reminiscent of the film Brazil (1985). The photography and the music - mainly strings - are particularly well done.

As the episodes go by, we learn that the "Munich Flu" is a human product. It has been created by the scientists at the head of the mysterious administration, Management (which we don’t see until three-quarters of the way through the series) which governs the passage between the two words. Very early on, they had decided to create a biological weapon of mutual deterrence, fearing that one of the two worlds would seek to destroy the other4. "Communism is dead", says one of them. "Precisely, mankind’s animal instincts are now likely to regain the upper hand", retorts the other: "one of the two worlds will always seek to annihilate the other. And if we are having this conversation," he adds, "our doubles have certainly had, or will have, the same…"

In 1995, the Munich Flu caused a pandemic in Prime, the alternative world. Could that have happened by accident? Beyond its heavy human toll, it accelerated the divergence of the two universes: it delayed the development of Prime, then led it to a kind of Renaissance. And if there’s a pandemic, there must be a culprit - think of how the Trump administration evokes the "Chinese virus". Or then, there must at least be a scapegoat: once upon a time it was the Jews for the Black Death, today it’s Bill Gates. And that means that there "must" be revenge. Hence, orphans of parents who died from the flu were recruited into an organization that would then infiltrate them into the Alpha world, to kill their double if necessary.

Should the people of Alpha "have to" suffer the same fate as Prime? Ultimately, this represents an age-old ethical question in geopolitics, known to those who are willing to reflect on the consequences of deterrence: if deterrence fails, is starting a nuclear fire still necessary, even when all is lost anyway ? Those who would answer "yes" to that, would not necessarily speak directly of revenge (outright reprisals are prohibited by international law), but would justify themselves by saying that crime must never go unpunished, so that others can be deterred. But does that justify the mass destruction caused by nuclear or biological weapons? Those who would answer "no" stand on more solid ethical ground, but then cause a major contradiction: how can the defender convince the attacker of his total determination to retaliate, precisely so that the event does not occur? Having to be prepared to commit suicide in order to avoid death: this is the central dilemma of deterrence.

The last episode of the second season ends on a cliffhanger, as it should. Fortunately, given that the series has not been continued, there is no need for a sequel. The moral of the story, if there was one, could be: you always reap what you sow. 

The Last Ship, authoritarian temptation and national egoism

The Last Ship (2014-2018), an adaptation of a novel by William Brinkley, makes an exception in this respect. It focuses on an American warship sent on a mission to the Arctic to search for the origin of a massive pandemic that is ravaging humanity.

With Michael Bay, expert in major blockbusters (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Transformers) and executive producer of the series, we know what to expect: "No cure. No country. No surrender." Written with a jackhammer, played with a trowel, filmed with a steamroller, this homage to the glory of the Navy and the Marines doesn't really deserve to enter the hall of fame of contemporary series, even if there are a few spectacular episodes and the female military characters are given the importance they deserve, which is still quite rare in Hollywood productions. Eric Dane, who plays Tom Chandler, hardly needs as many close-ups of his tight jaws. By comparison, John Wayne’s acting is a model in expressiveness and sensitivity.

However The Last Ship does indeed have a particularly strong geopolitical dimension, which is not surprising given that it ticks most of the boxes expected from a production of its type5. In the first two seasons, the United States, torn apart by the effects of the pandemic, is threatened with collapse, some Federal States slide into fascism, and the President is removed from office. 

The only common point between these two series is the theme of ordinary heroism in extraordinary circumstances. 

Russia is present in the first season, through a certain Admiral Rouskov, who looks as if he has just come out of the The Hunt for Red October. Rouskov commands a secessionist ship and is trying to get hold of the cure of the pandemic. The Taliban also make a notable comeback. In the abandoned Guantanamo Bay camp, one of them - reminiscent of the Japanese soldier isolated on an island in the Pacific after the Second World War - meets his fate with the line: "There is one thing from the old world that still applies today, something that will never change: we don't negotiate with terrorists". China comes in during the third season. Chandler will have to face the fearsome President Peng, to whom the Americans have offered the cure for the "Red Flu" (!), but who uses it to assert his control over Asia. In short, just as the Russians are devious, the Chinese are cunning (and hate the Japanese), which results in a very impressive naval battle. In fact, The Last Ship, while not memorable, aptly describes the shortcomings of a world in the throes of the pandemic: authoritarian temptation, national egoism, and the radicalization of international tensions.

The only common point between these two series is the theme of ordinary heroism in extraordinary circumstances. That of soldiers risking their lives not so much to save the world as to save their brothers or sisters in arms. Or that of Berliners hiding their fellow men from the Staatssicherheit or helping them escape at the risk of hearing the bullets whistle over their heads. Just like the lovers of David Bowie’s Heroes, which he performed in front of the Reichstag on June 6, 1987, a few days before Ronald Reagan’s famous speech urging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that Wall. Two events credited with galvanizing German youth - and the year chosen by Justin Marks, the creator of Counterpart, for the opening of the passage between its worlds.



1The same goes for movies. Most productions use the theme of pandemics to depict a world of zombies. Such examples are 28 Days Later (2002), I Am Legend (2007) but also World War Z (2013, the only one including an interesting geopolitical dimension). None of them match up to Contagion (2011) in its troubling ability to predict the reactions of Western societies to a major pandemic, but the film by Steven Soderbergh has no notable geopolitical aspects.
2This is probably the key to the “first world’s” name: in the determining event in question, a young activist listens to a cassette of Alphaville, a German pop group that was quite well-known in the 1980s.

3"For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."
4It is difficult to forget here that, for different reasons, the smallpox virus, eradicated from the planet, is still kept in two laboratories approved by the World Health Organization, one in the United States, the other in Russia.
5There is even a mention of a nuclear explosion in France, but no further details are given.


Copyright : FR_tmdb & TNT

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