I was impressed with the first episode of Starz’ new series COUNTERPART. With a good premise and an interesting set-up, this sounds like a winner. Let’s just see what happens as the series launches on January 21st, i.e. tomorrow. The plot revolves around a UN civil servant that suddenly finds out he is involved in a secret project of guarding a portal between two dimensions. This civil servant, played by the very solid J.K. Simmons, finally meets his counterpart from the other dimension: a copy of himself in every way, except he took different decisions in life. A killer has also crossed from the other side, so the story is promising.
The main question posed by Simmons’ characters is one that can make us think for a long time: do we make decisions according to what we are, or do the decisions we make actually define us? This is not a merely philosophic or idle question. China, I’ve read the other day, is preparing a system that computes every decision one makes. Every book we buy, the restaurants we eat in, the people we socialize with, all of this is to be organized in a single system that gives us points and evaluates us, punishing us or rewarding us for each decision we make. Many in the US are also limited by their credit ratings that tie their future possibilities to their record of decisions made. If we ignore our recollections of Orwell’s 1984 or SNOWDEN, and all the abuse that might come from a centralized system that tracks our decisions, we could even admit that all decisions have consequences and so it’s fair to evaluate us by what we have decided in the past, however minute those decisions might have seemed to us at the time. Isn’t the whole Justice System based on that principle?
Still, raw decisions, and even wrong decisions, sometimes happen in a context that will need to be evaluated through different perspectives. That’s why, for example, murder is a crime, but a legitimate self-defense killing is not. The context qualifies the result. And that’s why we have trials, judges and juries. A fair system must allow us to make mistakes. The whole Human Experience balances between a dimension of Security, where we are safe, and a dimension of Freedom, where we can do what we want. We could only have 100% Security if we stopped Time entirely. Pascal said: all movement leads potentially to pain. All movement has a degree of danger. So to be 100% safe, all movement, all freedom, would have to be eliminated. On the other hand, if we had 100% freedom, chaos would be the result. There’s a Goldilocks level, a balanced level, where we can basically be free and safe. A fair system strives for that balance.
In a fair and modern system, we should be able to make the freest decisions we can, preserving the most security we can. But that means the system must allow us to make mistakes and learn and recover from our errors. This is not only crucial for us as individuals and to have meaning in our lives, but also crucial for future societies, where progress is so fast. Successful societies will be more and more dependent on creativity. And creativity depends on freedom, on risk-taking and on learning from our errors.
We could almost say, because fiction is the realm of the complicated, that just as we do, all our Main Characters are always dwelling on this crucial balance: more Freedom or more Security. That goes for the MC’s in COUNTERPART. As the story evolves, we learn that one of the J.K. Simmons character seems to have made decisions prioritizing Security, and the other seems to have made decisions prioritizing Freedom.
That apparently determined two different personalities. The one prioritizing Security seems more humble, rigorous, timid, tamed, less successful. The one prioritizing Freedom seems more confident, strong, successful. But we can see that something is evolving in the background and that other reasons and other contexts are looming in darkness. So I’ll be waiting to find out where it is all going.
Maybe fiction is the way to experiment with difficult and Life and Death decisions without going through them ourselves. Maybe watching movies, TV and reading books is our simplistic way to choose Security. To be safe while we travel in our own minds. Or maybe it is the way to free ourselves, to free our thoughts, to help us decide. Either way, we must use our power to decide and demand a fair system. Because it is in our hands. It is each and every one of us who has to fight to have fairness and freedom and security in our lives. We can’t leave that power to others. Or we will never be truly free and secure.