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October 13, 2015

'Rubicon' Is the Addictive Anti-'24'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 13th 2010 11:20AM
Until recently, I was ambivalent about AMC's 'Rubicon,' but the last couple of episodes have turned me into a solid fan. Sunday's episode and the Sept. 5 outing didn't just have the effective atmosphere, excellent acting and memorable characterizations I'd come to expect.

In the last couple of weeks, the pace notably quickened as well, and the show featured the kind of multi-layered, ambiguous yet compelling storytelling that is that hallmark of AMC's flagship dramas, 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad.' Star James Badge Dale had a featured arc in the third season of '24,' another intelligence-oriented drama, but 'Rubicon' is the show that has really allowed the actor to shine.

Normally I'm all about the mythology, and it's good that 'Rubicon' finally seems to have gotten a handle on the show's overarching conspiracy, which seems a lot less opaque now.

And while it does need some kind of story engine to keep it perking along, lest it become the Show About People Who Stare Out Windows, 'Rubicon' actually works best as a nuanced, subtly observed and wonderfully acted character drama.

So many dramas have trouble creating characters that feel specific and real, but 'Rubicon's' done a stellar job in that department. Sure, there's a hydra-headed conspiracy afoot and a cabal of wealthy men probably doing terrible things, but I really care about whether the brilliant but broken retired analyst Ed will go completely off the rails. I want to see what weirdly ominous pronouncement Truxton Spangler will make next. I'm wondering about Kale Ingram and what he's really after and why he thinks Will can get it for him.

There are so many questions of trust that reverberate through every episode. Can the analysts trust the data in front of them? Can the API employees trust each other? Themselves?

In the past few years, shows about people who work in intelligence have proliferated like crazy and there are more coming down the pike this fall. But very few of them show the personal and emotional cost of having this kind of information inside one's head.

For people who are at all sensitive or thoughtful -- as API employees Will (James Badge Dale), Tanya (Lauren Hodges), Miles (Dallas Roberts) and even Grant (Christopher Evan Welch) are -- the sheer weight of the information they process, as well the consequences of the decisions they make, eventually burns a hole in their soul.

The evidence isn't hard to see -- Tanya drinks and takes drugs to forget the things she reads and thinks about, and I'd bet more substance abuse is ahead after what she saw in Sunday's episode. The look on her face says she will never forget the image of the terrorist being tortured by Jordanian operatives. She stays and she does her job, but it costs her part of her soul.

Miles is extraordinarily good at his job and more able to keep himself steady in difficult situations like that, but he can barely admit that he's lost his family, and it's not hard to surmise that his job had something to do with the split. It's not like you can leave the job at work (though he learned the hard way that you really shouldn't take files home). The one thing that Miles is really good at has put a wedge between him and the people he cares about most.

Will also throws himself into the job rather than face his empty personal life. And while Grant still has an intact family unit, his polygraph results deeply unsettled him. Apparently he's already mentally committed infidelity, all that remains is for him to get around to the actual deed. If the staff is searching for role models, Kale (the terrific Arliss Howard) isn't exactly someone to look up to. He's efficient, but scary-efficient. He doesn't seem quite human on some level, and is that any way to live?

All these people have given up part of themselves to do something really difficult -- to find patterns and clues about the threats to America. What 'Rubicon' makes clear is their analysis comes at a price. This isn't Jack Bauer kicking down doors, but it's every bit as gripping as that, if not moreso, given the ambiguous yet urgent nature of their jobs and the layers of fluctuating trust among the characters.

The Sept. 5 episode, which had the FBI investigating a leak, recalled the Aug. 15 episode, 'The Outsider,' in which the group had to decide whether a certain terrorist target should be bombed (collateral damage among innocent civilians would be unavoidable). Both episodes had self-contained elements that wrapped up by the end of the hour, and both focused intently the effect of those situations on the characters. In the case of the Sept. 5 episode, the leak was a MacGuffin that allowed us to see Miles' nerves over the lost file, Tanya's jitters over her drug test, and the group's profound relief at being able to focus on their most recent case in order to get their minds off everything else.

In Sunday's episode, when Miles and Tanya debated the implications of what they were doing at that rendition site, their conversation had a moral urgency that is often missing from shows about intelligence work. It wasn't always the case, but '24' eventually fell into a pattern of showing Jack's "whatever it takes" methods to be the right ones.

Knowing as much as they do, Miles and Tanya can't see everything as black and white. They certainly know more than most of us do about the evil that people are capable of, and they are willing to live with the decisions they make about the responses to those threats. But they also know that they themselves and the people being investigated are usually pawns in much bigger games. Smiling Bob from the CIA wasn't exactly telling them the whole truth about anything.

I don't mean to beat up on '24' too much; it certainly worked as both a character drama and an adventure serial for a surprising number of years. Yet the Fox show's increasingly simplistic answers to complex questions was problematic (though its biggest problem was that it simply repeated the same kinds of situations and threats too many times). And it showed what his job cost Jack, though in later seasons, that aspect of the show got melodramatic to the point of tediousness.

Another issue was that over time, '24' killed off a lot of good characters and left its lead character increasingly isolated and alone, whereas in 'Rubicon,' you sense that Will would very much like to make a real connection with another person, not just connect the dots of fiendishly difficult intelligence puzzles. Like 'Burn Notice,' 'Rubicon' wisely realizes that the stakes only matter when the hero's family (biological or otherwise) is under threat.

If I have one concern about 'Rubicon,' it's that I'm not sure where it would go if it gets another season. The conspiracy that Will is investigating appears to be very insidious indeed. Would they continue to tolerate a Mulder in their midst? It seems doubtful, as doubtful as the idea that Will and Kale could bring down such a powerful and connected cabal.

Having said that, 'Rubicon' has developed to an addictive character drama, and if the writing keeps up with the abilities of the stellar cast as the rest of season 1 unfolds, it'll be well worth our while. If the show continues to focus on fussy Grant, lost Tanya, twitchy but lovable Miles, chilly Kale, scary/weird Truxton and brooding, evasive Will, I'll keep watching.

The secrets they choose to keep and reveal are getting more interesting by the week.

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Pretty Cute, title say's "How to fix Hawaii 5-0" but takes you to a story about a show that on an entirely different network which probably is not getting enough attention. I clicked because IMO Hawaii is quite successful and doing well so the headline did not make sense. Nice hook but just a little bit of a dirty tactic to use a good show to get your little tinie-wenie show some attention, good luck.

October 06 2010 at 6:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
LDP in Cincinnati

I think Rubicon is fantastic, and I enjoyed your review, but I disagree about Grant's having "mentally committed infidelity." My impression is that he really did cheat on his wife, and that's what was eating at him. If it's just that he's thought about it, then this was the show's worst moment, because there isn't a married man alive who hasn't thought about other women. Remember Jimmy Carter's confession about how he'd "lusted in his heart"?

September 14 2010 at 9:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This review totally changed my mind about Rubicon. I was losing interest but I am back to loving it. I wrote about how your review changed my mind in my blog! http://lovemytivo.wordpress.com/

September 13 2010 at 11:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I also forgot to mention that I really like the analyst who is separated from his wife; I also like the quirky exhausted female analyst; she's not sexy like the secretary, but there's something attractive about her. Later on, I started liking the married analyst, too.

Quite frankly, Will is the least interesting one on the show, but I don't dislike him at all.

September 13 2010 at 11:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I DVR'd the 6 episode marathon they had last weekend of Rubicon. I watched the first 4. The rest are sitting on the DVR and I doubt I'll ever get to them.

The show is just not very interesting. I kept waiting and waiting, but nothing.

September 13 2010 at 5:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am really enjoying this season. It runs to a classical music tempo compared to the pop rock of nearly every other show out there.

Having the analysts fret over whether to call a missile strike from their office is one thing. Have them come face to face with torture is another.

Fascinating stuff.

September 13 2010 at 5:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm glad you're liking it because others will take notice, too. However, I've found it consistently of the same pretty good quality. I actually really enjoyed the moment when Kale Ingram came alive during that lunch with a former lover and then, in the next episode, he invited Will over for dinner.

He really shines as a cool yet fascinating character that belies his frail and small build. He's kinda sexy, too. (And I say this as a hetero male.)

I also only really started liking the secretary in that episode when she was trying to invite Will over.

The old black guy (Ed, I think) has always been great and Truxton (something) is wonderful too as a deceptively "out of it" boss. Still not interested in Miranda Richardson's character, though it's nice to see Sledge Hammer.

I'm consistently reminded of The X-Files when I watch this show; it must have been an inspiration.

September 13 2010 at 4:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

I've got to hit Rubicon with one very big bad: You don't put your A-talent in the D-story, and I don't know why the hell an actress as fine as Miranda Richardson is being as badly used as Alfre Woodard in 'True Blood' this season.

September 13 2010 at 4:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's funny that you mention Mulder. When we got a shot of Will in his apartment this week, my first thought was "I wonder if he's subletting from Mulder." At least Will has a bed.

September 13 2010 at 12:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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