“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

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"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.”

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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.

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