“Rubicon”: Eerie portrait of “Top Secret America”

AMC's stylish drama about a powerful intelligence contractor isn't pure fantasy, according to the Washington Post

Topics: Rubicon, Our Picks, TV, Television,

"Rubicon": Eerie portrait of "Top Secret America"James Badge Dale in "Rubicon"

In the wake of a catastrophe, sometimes all you can do is sink yourself into the little details of life: This needs to happen, and then this, and then this. Your existence becomes a series of steps, actions, tasks, a to-do list that stretches into a murky future. You wake up and shower and put on clothes, you navigate city streets and climb the stairs to your office, but your surroundings feel like moving images on a screen far away. You proceed despite any connection to your environment, maybe out of habit, or maybe just to oblige the Fates, to give them a fair chance to determine how this story ends.

When we first encounter Will Travers (James Badge Dale) in AMC’s new serial thriller “Rubicon” (premieres 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1), he’s simply putting one foot in front of the other. Will’s wife and child died in the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11, a somewhat clichéd backstory that nonetheless comes to feel appropriate given Will’s line of work: He’s an analyst for the American Policy Institute, a top-secret intelligence contractor hired by various factions in the government to sift through data and identify patterns that might indicate a looming terrorist threat.

Soon, though, Will is trying to identify patterns in a far more immediate crisis. His discovery of hidden code in crossword puzzles published in newspapers across the globe leads him down a dangerous path, and a deadly accident follows. Will is left to piece together a series of clues that seems to lead him in the direction of a shadowy alliance powerful enough to have him erased from the face of the earth if he gets any closer. The question is, does Will even care if he lives or dies?

Sounds just vague enough to avoid like a mysterious virus, doesn’t it? But while the colossally disappointing finale of “Lost” might have seemed to kill the golden goose for all mystery-based serial dramas to come, “Rubicon’s” mix of moody tone, terse dialogue, and clever but restrained suspense building adds up to a more intelligent, subdued conspiracy drama for the fact-oriented set. And the show’s subject matter couldn’t be more timely — just this week, the Washington Post investigated the intelligence operations that have sprouted up around the country since 9/11. The newspaper estimates that 854,000 people now have top-secret clearance in a vast web of intelligence agencies, but asserts that no one has much of a handle on how big these agencies are or even what they’re up to.



Naturally, “Rubicon” takes the world of private intelligence and boils it down to code breaking, surveillance, detective work and pattern recognition, punctuated by the occasional untimely death. Yes, here is the grieving widow, searching for clues as to why her wealthy husband might’ve ended his own life. Yes, here is Will’s haunted associate, dropping him notes that say things like “Drive away. Don’t look back. It’s time.” and “They hide in plain sight.”

But such dark provocations shouldn’t diminish the obvious subtlety and dexterity of the storytelling here. After all, “Rubicon” is to “Fringe” what “The West Wing” is to “The American President” — you know, that movie where Gordon Gekko buys his way into the presidency and then, like, totally falls in love with a smoking-hot lobbyist? And while “Rubicon” may share “The West Wing’s” fond but somewhat geeky sense of itself — brilliant characters sputter strings of facts, tease each other nonchalantly, and generally demonstrate the emotional maturity of antisocial tweens — its real strength may lie in its interest in grounding every inquiry and plot twist in at least some trace of factual plausibility. Unlike most of the mysterious conspiracy/mystery serial dramas of the past few years,”Rubicon” isn’t a merry-go-round of empty provocation. Where “24″ and “Lost” and “Fringe” transform nefarious plots and government cover-ups into the stuff of bad acid trips, giant time-bending wheels, three-headed cows and evil automatic-weapon-toting villains, “Rubicon” shows much more restraint, supplanting men in black and dry ice machines with strangely claustrophobic offices and unnervingly cluttered cityscapes.

Perhaps sensing that such dramas tend to scatter colorful clues and jack up the stakes higher and higher until they slip over into the realm of Steven Segal movies, showrunner Henry Bromell (the series was created by Jason Horwitch, but he left the show in February) and the other writers appear determined to cement the action here in the mundane but nonetheless deeply uncertain machinations of this strange organization. We skip the “Outer Limits”-style gooniness embraced by TV writers ever since Mulder and Scully were making world-weary goo-goo eyes at each other through the foggy Canadian night air, and indulge in the ’70s-style suspense of “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Conversation” (both of which Bromell mentions as influences in the “extras” segment included with the show’s screener).

James Badge Dale, a familiar face from HBO’s “The Pacific,” has the right mix of casual gravity and believability as Will, and he has no trouble embodying a reasonably blank everyman for viewers to identify with. Dallas Roberts is wonderful as Miles, a fellow analyst with naturally mournful eyes and the solemn, harried demeanor of someone who fucked his life flatter than hammered shit and lived to tell the tale — although he’s not about to tell you anything, so you can just sit on your hands and wait. Lauren Hodges adds a nice curveball as Tanya, a newbie whose cynical demeanor hides the fact that she’s constantly haunted by the weight of what she’s doing. “I’m going to get good and drunk,” she says after one particularly odious day at the office. Despite Grant’s (Christopher Evan Welch) admonition to Tanya that “getting the doughnuts is your most important job,” all of these analysts have jobs so important that they can barely grasp the ramifications themselves.

Of course rich, powerful white men whispering behind closed doors come into play eventually — when don’t they? But the real gift of “Rubicon” is to take old familiar subjects — terrorism, corruption, the CIA, the Pentagon, shadow governments — and allow viewers to discover them anew, as if stumbling on some secret document themselves in an empty room. Because, while several decades of espionage films and suspense thrillers have transformed the mind-blowing realities of global politics and modern warfare into the stuff of video games, the challenge is to remind viewers that the human cost of these activities should still give us real pause.

And like any other smart dramatic work, “Rubicon” balances its face-value exploration of intelligence contractors hiding in plain sight since 9/11 against the struggles of a survivor to beat back the nihilism that lingers in the wake of his loss. Can Will’s attempts to follow the trail of crumbs left by his co-worker finally force him to engage with his life instead of going through the motions?

“You know what the biggest joke is here?” Will asks his boss and father-in-law David (Peter Gerety) in an early scene in the show’s pilot. “It’s my business — our business — to tell people what to think, and the truth is, I have no idea what to think anymore.” After the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” series, we may not know what to think either — but somehow, despite feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, we need to know more about this vast, dangerous, expensive secret government that exists right under our noses. With its patient pace and restrained style, “Rubicon” may take a while to get to the truth, but at least as viewers we suspect that there will be something weighty to discover once it does.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>