An ambitious, challenging piece of work that people will be dissecting for years. Don’t miss it.
Real espionage isn’t Aston Martins and martinis. It isn’t constant globetrotting to sexy locales and bedding sexy women. It’s tedious. It’s monotonous. It’s work. Spies spend time holed up in offices, poring over data—the type of data that makes your mind and soul go numb. It’s an office job, the stuff of cubicle farms and jammed printers and bland cafeteria lunches.
“Rubicon” understood that. The AMC show that apparently never had a chance presented the spy game not as the stuff of action movies, but the work of office drones toiling away, scouring through spreadsheets and trying to decipher encrypted, impenetrable documents. Yet that’s not to say the show was boring. What made “Rubicon” sing was the way it trafficked in paranoia, and the way it devoted time to delve into the lives of the 9-to-5 spies that all worked together in an office setting. It was a workplace drama where the work just happened to be spycraft.
So, where is it? Where is “Rubicon” in this world of multiple streaming platforms and DVD and Blu-ray physical media? Why has “Rubicon” been stricken from the record, completely removed from the entertainment zeitgeist the way sensitive material is blacked out when classified documents make their way to the general public? Why has “Rubicon” become akin to a botched covert op, something no one wants to talk about anymore, pushed far into the past?
The show, created by Jason Horwitch, was cut from the same cloth as "Three Days of the Condor." In that Sydney Pollack classic of post-Watergate paranoia, Robert Redford worked as a CIA analyst in a nondescript office building. Anyone strolling by outside would have no inclination that top-secret spy work was going on within. “Rubicon” has a similar setting, an office nestled somewhere in New York; somewhere down a side street, flanked by never-ending construction. Food carts on the corner. People bustling by outside, wrapped-up in their own lives, oblivious to whatever is going on inside that building.
At the center of “Rubicon” is Will Travers, an antisocial intelligence analyst who gets swept up in a confusing, far-reaching conspiracy. As played by James Badge Dale, Will is a shuffling, mumbling mope of a man. He’s no one’s idea of a spy, yet he’s the force that drives the show. The conspiracy he slowly uncovers over the course of “Rubicon”’s first and only season has great implications, and results in several fatalities—including that of his boss and mentor (Peter Geret)—yet the bulk action of the show remains almost entirely within that bland office building where Will and his team work. No car chases; no country jumping; nothing sleek or sexy. It’s all cold, hard work. Sometimes people die. Sometimes people clock out for the day and go home.
Will’s team are all equally lackluster in the “super spy” department. They’re not calm, collected, or deadly. They’re screw-ups, and achingly human. Dallas Roberts plays Miles, a brilliant guy with the jitters, incredibly awkward and going through a messy separation from his wife; Christopher Evan Welch is Grant, the smuggest member of the team, fully convinced of his own superiority to most of his coworkers; and Lauren Hodges is Tanya, the newest member of the team, with a major drinking problem, often strolling into work hungover. These are the types of people you might find in any office.
There are outliers as well: Jessica Collins as Maggie, Will’s assistant who is clearly attracted to Will but who also freely spies on him and reports what she finds to Will’s superiors. And Arliss Howard as Kale Ingram, Will’s mysterious boss who may or may not be helping Will, depending on the episode. Howard is Rubicon’s secret weapon, delivering a pitch-perfect performance, droll and monotone, never betraying just what’s going on in his head. There is also Michael Cristofer as Truxton Spangler (what a name!), the head of the company Will works for who also just happens to be driving the nefarious conspiracy Will tries to undercover.
The mystery at the center of “Rubicon” almost doesn’t matter. This might be seen as a flaw, but think of it more as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin—it’s only there to set the players in motion; whether or not it makes sense or gets solved is secondary. What matters most in “Rubicon” is the mood. Set during winter, there’s an icy chill that blankets the show. Everyone is frequently decked out in heavy winter clothes, and the cold, snowy backdrops add an incredible sense of atmosphere to the show (courtesy of cinematography by Michael Slovis).
Problematic pacing haunts many shows. Netflix shows in particular often suffer from it, where entire episodes feel like filler used to pad the episode count. For a good example of this, see literally every single Marvel series Netflix has produced so far. But there’s a mammoth difference between deliberate pacing and filler, and “Rubicon” understands that. The show never moves faster than it has to, and for most of its first season, it doesn’t have to move very fast at all. The show feels confident in taking its time, in drawing out the conspiracy and sending Will and company not just down one main narrative road but off into winding, unmapped side roads. Yet never once does it feel as if the show is spinning its wheels. The destination is never the point; it’s the journey.
Perhaps this was a fatal flaw, though. TV audiences are fans of decoding and declassifying things, almost as if they think of themselves as amateur information analysts. The wheel-spinning “Lost” turned an entire generation of TV watchers into treasure hunters, always working overtime to find an answer, to solve the mystery, to prove themselves smarter than the story they were being presented. This problem has only gotten worse—look at the recent revival of “Twin Peaks,” which made internet commenters lose their minds trying to solve mysteries that David Lynch and Mark Frost didn’t want them to solve.
“Rubicon” uses a similar playbook in approaching its central mystery. It’s almost impossible for anyone watching the show to “solve” things before the show solves them first. There aren’t enough clues to decipher, not enough Easter Eggs to spot. “Rubicon” isn’t being obtuse; it’s just playing by its own rules. It’s telling the audience that their job isn’t to be a detective trying to solve a mystery, but rather to be a traveler on this journey, waiting for the truth to come out on its own. So much modern television is about trying to predict where a show is going, but “Rubicon” recognized the value in the trip itself.
“Rubicon” arrived on AMC at a time when the network was still finding its footing. “The Walking Dead,” which premiered the same year as “Rubicon,” brought in a massive audience. Yet the channel had two shows that, at the time, weren’t exactly cleaning up in the ratings department: “Mad Men” and "Breaking Bad." While the ratings of these later two shows were nowhere near those of “The Walking Dead,” the shows themselves carried the type of prestige AMC craved. Perhaps three underperforming shows was just one too many. “Rubicon”’s premiere was huge—it was in fact the most-watched debut of an AMC original series at that time. But the ratings began to slip after that, and never recovered. The show may have found a bigger audience in its second season, but AMC never gave it the chance.
Which is fine. It happens. Sometimes certain shows, no matter how good, just aren’t destined for this world. Still, the question remains: why has “Rubicon” been scrubbed from the record? For a brief period of time, the show was available to stream for Amazon Prime members, but it has since been pulled. There is no DVD release. No other streaming platform carries it. It has simply ceased to be. Perhaps this is just the type of mystery some amateur information analysts can try to solve. Please, someone blow the lid off this one. Here’s an actual problem that needs solving.
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