AMC’s latest drama, Rubicon, may have broken network records in ratings, but let’s not forget that it was positioned to do so: the conspiracy-thriller was sandwiched between the Breaking Bad finale and the Mad Men premiere. AMC has done a notable push in promotion for this series, planting commercials all over the place and creating a great amount of hype. If that weren’t enough, Rubicon got an enviably ideal pilot treatment—the already couch-laden Breaking Bad viewer-ship, reeling over the loss of a weekly staple, plus the hyper eager Mad Men fans, glued to the television at least ten minutes early so as not to miss bachelor, Don. So, while the show’s Hulu sneak peaks and advertising clips did work for themselves, it should be understood that its audience of two million is perhaps more of an AMC accomplishment than an individual episode triumph.
That said, the show did get off to a relatively promising start, plot-wise. It begins with a cold, unexplained scene. Snow blankets a suburban yard, small children play games with an anonymous woman (Miranda Richardson), a middle-aged man paces around a mansion and looks out tall glass windows at what appears to be his family. The man makes eye contact with the woman, a lingering moment full of unspoken emotion, and then he casts his gaze toward the floor, releasing her attention. He lifts an arm and cocks a pistol into a steady temple, then shoots himself. The woman hears the gunshot and looks up, but doesn’t seem surprised. Rather, dismayed, as if she knew this was coming.
After the initial drama, the camera cuts to a gray office set; paperwork, coffee, bad lighting. Unnamed and unembellished, it is some sort of federal intelligence agency in Manhattan’s Financial District. The show’s main star, a depressed Will Travers (James Badge Dale), takes us along his daily routine of puzzles and meetings, enlightening those he encounters with obvious genius and dampening every mood with an overwhelming sadness.
As the day progresses, Travers discovers a unique and alarming code hidden amongst his stack of morning crosswords. He is turned down upon presentation, only for his boss to take credit for the idea minutes later. Travers observes that the job is slowly turning his life into a vacuum. He can’t talk about it to outsiders, can’t relate to it beyond desk horizons. It is his birthday, and he didn’t even remember. By the end of the episode, the only person who is able to make Travers smile, his father-in-law (parent of Will’s late wife and grandparent of his late daughter, both of whom died on September 11th), is killed—reportedly in a locomotive accident, but really by his own doing. The show finishes off with an air of unsolved mystery and curious secrets that Travers can’t help but pursue.
This was by no means a superb, gripping opening, but at the same time not one without potential. Thanks to the network’s planning and promotion, summer viewers of this show are likely to tune in for at least several more episodes, where hopefully things will get more exciting. One can tell that there is substance to Rubicon—it has the interesting premise of a 1970s conspiracy show, the likes of which we have not seen in recent times. There is also a wonderfully delicate shadow of subtext in the appearance of innocent, impressionable young children—but in terms of story, it can border on the recycled. J
James Badge Dale, formerly of 24 does a decent job as the main character. His Travers has a strange mix of endearing and unsettling, a creepiness that is not off-putting but certainly arresting. We know that he has had a rough past, though who he was before the World Trade Center is very unclear. Was he cheerful? Friendly? Extroverted? Travers is so sullen now that it is hard to imagine him having ever been different. Moreover, Dale bears a striking resemblance to another television Will: Matthew Morrison of Glee. Anticipation of a swoon-worthy ballad was an almost knee-jerk reaction. I kept expecting each brooding scene to be interrupted by a heel turn and piano introduction, Dale finger-snapping his way through government hallways while belting out some sort of introspective C.I.A. ballad. Thankfully, people looking to watch Rubicon are probably not big musical theater buffs, so this annoying casualty is most likely reserved only for those of us with too much time on our hands.
The rest of the cast is not so memorable. Rubicon is shot with a gloomy, cheerless color scheme of sepias and slate that conjure frames reminiscent of a cold, overcast day. Its actors, either due to the somber tones or maybe just calculated casting, are similarly faded. Despite typically strong, masculine personalities, faces don’t seem to stand out. For example, Will Travers’ father-in-law’s suicide is the first image we see. The scene is surprising and clear, the camera focuses on each character for a good period of time before looking away. We saw Will’s father-in-law kill himself. We saw him throughout the rest of the episode. And yet when a company head sardonically announces that “he blew his brains out,” we are absolutely surprised: so that’s who that guy was. How is it that we can spend one hour following these characters around, but in the end still not remember who they are?
Rubicon leaves us wondering the same sort of existential questions that its main character struggles with throughout it's opening salvo. It’s in the eerie vein of “what’s going on?” but toes the line of “what the hell?” Viewers are left with an initial dismissal of a weak plot, but it’s the aftertaste that counts: Will Travers and his federal world are entirely confusing, but just when we thought we didn’t understand, we do. Maybe that feeling—the frustration, the empty anxiety—maybe that’s what Travers is going through. And maybe that, not its politics, is what will actually drive this show.
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