We can tell within the first few seconds that he’s on screen what kind of man Howard Silk is. Played by J. K. Simmons, the protagonist of STARZ’s new series, Counterpart, seems like a man who hasn’t come up a winner in life’s lottery. You can see it in the slope of his shoulders, the manner in which his much younger colleagues subtly tease him, the way he seems to be moving through the world out of mere habit. When we see him ask his youthful boss for a promotion, we know it won’t go well. Howard has been working for the same organization for 29 years, all the while barely understanding what it does. He feels as if his time has come to move up the ladder. His boss matter of factly tells hims that after three decades, if it was going to happen it would have already. When Howard later meets his double, the other Howard is more successful and evinces that arrogant intensity and touch of menace we’ve come to associate with Simmons’ best characters. He wonders what happened to original recipe Howard, why hasn’t this ostensible milquetoast done more with his life and career?
While getting your working legs under you has become more difficult than ever, those at the other end of the career spectrum are often also facing a precarious reality. What do you do if you’re staring down the barrel of your last stretch of salaried years and you don’t have enough saved to live on in retirement? What if you’re still paying on your mortgage or putting the kids through college? What happens if you lose your job and find yourself competing with applicants half your age for roles that pay a third of your former salary? What if you simply come to the end of the line and you haven’t achieved what it is you had dreamt of doing at the beginning? All valid questions and Counterpart isn’t the only entertainment offering engaging with the late-career crisis recently.
The precipitating incident in The Commuter, the latest entry in the “Liam Neeson fights bad guys, often barehanded” genre is Neeson’s character, Michael MacCauley, being fired from his insurance sales job. He’s devastated. He tells his boss that he’s 60, his family lost their savings in the Great Recession, he’s got nothing to fall back on. His boss tells him that it isn’t personal; his salary is high and doesn’t offer enough ROI. MacCauley’s desperation makes him an easy target for Vera Farmiga’s Joanna, a mysterious woman who offers him a deal that’s too good to be true. Unlike Roman J. Israel, Esq., another recent film where an aging protagonist is suddenly left without stability of the job he depended on, McCauley’s story has an improbable happy ending, wherein he lands in a role better suited to his skills.
Although their portrayers are terrifically well-preserved, even everyone’s favorite FBI agents, The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, are facing the fact that they’re closing in on retirement. In a recent episode, Scully muses aloud about what will become of their relationship when they no longer work for the Bureau. And it’s hardly as if either of them are going out at the top of their careers. Their single-minded devotion (at least Mulder’s; we’re shown Scully is employable in other contexts) to uncovering the truth about the government’s entanglement with alien life has left precious little time for career advancement. Shouldn’t one of them have Skinner’s job by now?
It’s tough to be young and struggling, but to be older and still struggling is poignant in its own way. When you’re just starting out, you have hope things will improve and you’ll find your niche. When you’ve worked for a few decades, you realize that that may not happen and even if it does, there’s no guarantee that it will last until you choose to walk away on your own terms.