“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.”

You Might Also Like

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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



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>