“The First Day of School”
August 1st, 2010
Back in June, I wrote my initial response to AMC’s Rubicon, which wasn’t particularly positive. In fact, let’s quote my review for the sake of posterity:
If a show’s pilot is supposed to be a teaser trailer, an aesthetic exercise designed to build hype, then I would consider this to be moderately successful: there was absolutely nothing here which would keep me from tuning into the series in August. However, a pilot needs to be something more than a teaser trailer, and the series’ shortcuts in establishing both its central character and its central conspiracy show a lack of elegance which does little to convince me that this belongs in the same breath as AMC’s other original series.
This is, very clearly, not quite a ringing endorsement of the series, and so I went into “The First Day of School” with a bit of apprehension, apprehension which remains despite the fact that I think the series’ second episode is a vast improvement on its first. Not all of the problems have been wrinkled out, and there’s a big gaping hole where the series’ plot should be, but this episode captured some of the types of ideas which the series is interested in and which I find quite interesting as well. While the premiere relied heavily on mystery, “The First Day of School” shifts its focus from confusing the audience to confusing its characters, capturing how they respond to the puzzles placed before them.
The result is a successful glimpse into how paranoia takes hold of those in delicate situations or particularly challenging workplaces – sure, there isn’t quite a series for it to really relate to yet, but I think there might finally be a television show here if they can build on this momentum of sorts.
“The First Day of School” has to answer two important questions: why would Will Travers be so desperate to solve this puzzle, and how does his desperation relate to his everyday life. It’s clear early on that there are no intentions to clarify the plot here, as this is all about ramifications. We see Katherine Rhumor dealing with her husband’s suicide, and we see Will starting his first day in his recently deceased father-in-law David’s old job, but none of it offers any insight whatsoever into plot. Instead, it focuses entirely on how their everyday lives are changed by these tragic events: Will works outside the system to hunt down the meaning of the Crossword code, while Katherine discovers her husband’s secret townhouse and starts asking questions of their friends to discover its meaning.
To be honest, the series remains pretty uninteresting in those moments: the show took too many shortcuts with both characters to really sell me on their personal struggles, and so hearing them talk about their connections with the deceased or act in ways which reflect their death still feel a bit sudden. Rubicon is very much designed like Damages, in that there exists a high-stakes game being played a level above the seemingly pedestrian legal setting – here, the conspiracy is that upper level, and yet we have yet to see anything as compelling as Damages’ early flash-forward, which managed to turn even the smallest bit of foreshadowing into a clue for the audience to decipher how the series could get from Point A to Point B over the course of the season. With Rubicon, there hasn’t yet been that moment, and so the conspiracy remains too vague to actually connect with the audience, and those moments where Will and Katherine seem to be pushing against that conspiracy fail to register as it seems the writers want them to.
However, what “The First Day of School” captures is the sense of paranoia which takes over their lives in the wake of being victims, of a sort, of the conspiracy. I love the scenes with Miranda Richardson’s Katherine walking through her husband’s townhouse to a haunting piano melody, wandering through a life she didn’t know existed: what she finds doesn’t reveal any form of adultery, but rather that he lived a separate life here. He entertained, he slept, and he even had novels on the bedside table, and those scenes are really expertly designed to capture less our feelings about what is being revealed and more her own. Of course, once she actually spells all of this out it becomes much less interesting, especially when the person she spells it out to ends up being part of the conspiracy, but the episode’s high production values finally seemed like they were being put to good use in those sequences.
The same goes for the images of the growing paranoia which faces Will Travers: whether it’s standing on the roof of the building pondering what it would be like to leap off, or his testy trip home where someone in a hoodie is a potential threat, and footsteps in the hallway indicate potential danger, and where a baseball bat on the mantle quickly comes into action. It doesn’t matter that he was actually being followed, spied on by Clay Davis on the rooftop and followed by another individual while walking home. Those sequences are beautifully shot, and they really capture what kind of position he finds himself in as he takes over David’s work and all of the responsibility which comes with that. He’s balancing his own investigation into David’s death with the everyday workload of the firm, and it means that he is seeing shadows where shadows might not exist – James Badge Dale did some great work demonstrating the psychological impact of war in The Pacific, and he’s strong here as well in terms of capturing the effect which paranoia would have on his day-to-day lifestyle.
The episode also nicely tied this into working at one of these intelligence thinktanks, something that was underrepresented by the pilot. This is a place of employment where there are routine sweeps of everyone’s offices, and where Will spends the entire episode worrying over whether David’s things will be taken away before they turn to his wife; it’s also a place where Maggie is quite literally a spy, and where more importantly her bosses are concerned enough that they would bother to hiring someone to spy in the first place. Maggie indicates that Miles is upset over something, and it’s not the Nigerian uprising which he seems to be obsessed with: however, that something might just be the stress of working this job, the sense that everything you do is designed to either start a war or cause one, and that any piece of information you collect could lead to something bigger than you could imagine (like the code which David worked on in 1983 being used to trigger assassinations). It’s an environment which will invariably lead to people beginning to lose their grip on reality, either taking to the bottle (as the newest recruit seems to have done) or standing up on the roof pondering their fate. They can’t tell people what it is they do, and even Will can’t communicate why they do what they do: he doesn’t know, simply picking up that day’s intake and passing it around to everyone as if they know what they’re doing. He may have received a promotion, but his position is now perhaps even more frustrating: not only does he not understand their mandate, but now he’s responsible for convincing people to do it despite that fact. This episode did a much better job of explaining what it is Will does, and why this conspiracy storyline will prove interesting within this particular environment.
In that sense, I could see how this visual signature and thematic material could result in a good television series, as at moments this was a really compelling piece of work. However, the conspiracy itself remains vague and, more problematically dull: while Damages’ conceit would eventually fall apart under the weight of its red herrings, it at least created some initial excitement, excitement that I think would help Rubicon justify its otherwise slow pacing. I may be engaged by the images on screen, and “The First Day of School” did a solid job of connecting those images to the characters, but I still feel as if there is no actual plot to speak of. I think that the stage has been set for an interesting series, but I still need them to prove that this conspiracy is more than smoke and mirrors, and even Clay Davis isn’t enough to convince me that this couldn’t all fall apart when things get more real in the future.
- As some of you may know, I’m watching Buffy and Angel for the first time this summer, so it was fun to go from seeing Harris Yulin on Buffy earlier today and then realizing in the “Previously On” segment that he had played Tom Rhumor. Small world, that.
- Every now and then, the show runs into a roadblock as it returns to more basic storytelling methods: the little romance between Will and Maggie feels inconsistent with the series’ stylistic touches, and seems to cheapen the episode rather than creating more complex characters.
- I wasn’t the only one who wanted Isaiah Whitlock Jr. to drop a “Sheeeeit,” correct?
- As it will be airing right before Mad Men, chances are that I might not be getting to Rubicon consistently each week, but there was enough of substance here that I’ll likely try to do some weekly reviews until the point when it either lets me down or I run out of time (which is likely towards the end of the season).