“There’s always a why – you just don’t understand it” – Will Travers, being paranoid.
“It’s only bullets whistling by, they can’t kill you.” – Kale Ingram, being enigmatic.
“I have to finish my cereal. It gets soggy.” – Truxton Spangler, eating cornflakes.
When Will Travers (James Badge Dale), an intelligence analyst at the American Policy Institute discovers a pattern in several newspaper crosswords he informs his boss and mentor David Hadas (Peter Gerety). When David is then killed in a train accident, Travers suspects foul play and his investigation leads him deep into a web of mystery and intrigue and a conspiracy that goes right to the top! Possibly.
AMC has built a reputation for producing high-quality, smart, engaging shows with their critically acclaimed Breaking Bad and Mad Men, both shows that are sterling examples of long-form, serialised storytelling, and with Rubicon they set out to do to the conspiracy genre what they’ve already done to the popular genres of chemistry-teachers-who-are-also-drug-lords and The Sixties. Rubicon’s story is a little more complicated however as while both those shows are quite heavily creator-driven, the creator of the Rubicon (Jason Horwitch) left after the pilot and a new showrunner (Henry Bromell) stepped in with a slightly different vision or the show. What looked like something that was gearing up to be a show all about the big conspiracy refocused itself into a workplace drama about the American Policy Institute which is re-imagined to be less of an independent think tank and more of a semi-autonomous component of the American intelligence structure, where people spend their nine to five analysing intelligence, drinking coffee and brooding on the rooftop that any organisation that’s possibly at the centre of a vast conspiracy is contractually obliged to provide. This refocus takes it from being a straight conspiracy show to being a weird step-child of shows like 24 and Spooks, albeit it one set in an ordinary office and with fewer explosions per episode.
These are shows that are interesting examples of the reaction of pop culture to 9/11 in that they’re shows essentially rooted in cultural insecurity, (the world has got scarier and we require darker, meaner spies who don’t play by the rules to protect us). 24 is torture happy to the extent Jack Bauer’s successes are unironically used in support of torture in the real world and its UK equivalent Spooks can have similar political undertones – a weird sub-plot in one episode comes to mind that seemed to serve little purpose other than to give our spies a snipe at a human rights lawyer, (“[You’ll get] the warm feeling of helping your country. It’ll be a new experience for you”). Rubicon can in some ways be seen as a backlash against these kinds of shows, what it does a fantastic job of conveying is the terror of insufficient and uncertain information – doing for the genre what The Wire did to police procedurals, slowing down the action to wring the nuance out of the situation with the team similarly focused on following one investigation throughout the season. Through its run it encounters issues of polygraphs, drone attacks and torture which in lesser hands would have felt like ripped-from-the-headline plot points, but with Rubicon’s capable writers serve to repeatedly return to this theme of certainty. It paints a picture of the intelligence world removed from the magical computers and gadgets, where knowledge comes mostly from moving pieces of paper round the table and your investigation can be held up by people in another office not returning calls. Oddly despite the utterly fictional premise, it’s likely to be one of the more accurate portrayals of intelligence work out there and any show that uses an actually quite apt if obscure analogy between slime moulds and terrorist networks deserves some points on the smartness scale.
While the original conspiracy plot is diluted to the extent it proves the show could work without it, it remains the main event of the series and Will’s investigation into the death of his mentor and father-in-law David (and Katherine Rhymour’s (Miranda Richardson) parallel investigation into the “suicide” of her husband) has the requisite staring at mysterious pieces of paper and midnight meetings in car parks that the genre demands. Although it takes its style from the conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s, Rubicon is very much a show of its time and while the way we’re told in the pilot that Will’s family died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 is a little blunt, it’s thematically appropriate that a show about conspiracies and government intrigue would seek to connect itself to one of the largest conspiracy generators of modern times. Part of what defines conspiracy crackpots is their discounting the role of randomness and refusing to accept the absence of “why” – the trouble in Will’s case is that his slow descent into paranoia is completely vindicated. He lives in a world where people are actually hiding clues in the crossword puzzle and there really are people hiding in the shadows watching him. The gorgeous opening credits where lines connect seemingly random information and locations reflect this mindset that everything must be connected and, if we just pay attention, we’d be able to connect the dots.
That said, a series tied up in its thematic concerns to the exclusion of all else wouldn’t just be slow-paced but dull, and Rubicon’s strength is that it pairs strong themes with equally strong character work. The core team are well realised characters who play off each other well and in Kale Ingram and Truxton Spangler, the show has created characters for the ages. Watching Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard) juggle several different sides while never losing his cool is a treat (if the show had gone on longer, he might well been able to knock Benjamin Linus from his pillar of “TV’s best schemer”) and from Spangler’s soggy cornflakes, advice on buying briefcases to just managing to be generally suspicious no matter what he’s doing, Michael Cristofer brings to life a really unique, warm and menacing character (his “that tie” speech – see below – deserves to go down as one of the all time greats.)
Rubicon isn’t a perfect show, but the series unfold to a stunning climax. As it has sadly been cancelled; the fact the very last episode gambles on setting up the pieces for a second season rather than putting a proper cap-stone on the show is a shame, but given the general strength of the show, it’s a forgiveable one. Rubicon may be a one-season wonder, but wonderful it is.
Rubicon is aired on BBC4 at 11pm on Thursdays.