Return to Rubicon: A Cultural Catchup Project

Return to Rubicon

October 16th, 2010

As some of you may know, I’m in the midst of starting a PhD program, which means that there have been certain televisual casualties this fall.

Some of them have been pretty insignificant: I don’t think that giving up on Undercovers after the pilot, for example, is a huge loss considering the series’ imminent demise. However, others have been more substantial, or more accurately have become more substantial with time.

Back at the end of August, I didn’t think that falling behind on AMC’s Rubicon was going to be a problem. While I liked the show, and thought it had potential, the first five episodes were not must-see television, and so the episodes started piling up on the DVR.

And yet, over time this became more problematic: critical and fan responses indicated that the show was starting to live up to is potential, and so it became a sort of social stigma to not be caught up with the series. Thankfully, the show seems to be fairly spoiler-proof, more interested in atmosphere than “plot” movement, but I was still anxious about being behind. I can see only so many “Arliss Howard better get nominated for an Emmy” tweets before I become uncontrollably curious, and so I knew that I would need to catch up before the finale.

As a result, I set aside all of yesterday to watch the last seven episodes of the AMC series ahead of the season finale – tonight at 9/8c – and I brought (some of) you along for the ride; over a 12-hour period, I watched all seven episodes, and returned here to offer some commentary, some links to other reviews, and a record of my growing appreciation for the AMC drama.

It’s not as substantial as it would have been if I had kept up throughout the season, but I’m just excited to finally enter into this conversation that will hopefully be enough to get the series a second season.

Episode 6: “Look to the Ant”

The visualization of paranoia is integral to Rubicon’s success, and “Look to the Ant” nails it: James Badge Dale plays paranoid as well as he played shellshock in The Pacific, and watching Will struggle with how to deal with the realization that he is being listened to and followed is really compelling television.

I’m realizing that Rubicon uses what I term “Scene-ic Storytelling“: instead of changing the plot in substantial ways, the show instead lives within thematically relevant moments which speak to the series’ larger story arc. With the lack of plot movement in the George case, and even in Will’s investigation, the serialized elements of the series are more in the atmosphere created by Will’s paranoia and the ways in which the atmosphere of his scenes has changed over time – small changes become big changes when their effect on Will is as substantial as it is here.

In this case, what spurs that change is Kale Ingram positioning himself as an ally to Will, a relationship which works to disrupt Will’s state of mind and offers new complexity to the series as a whole. We, unlike Will, know that Kale broke into Will’s apartment, and based on his decision to take off his coat we presume that he was the one who planted the bugs. However, what makes the episode so effective is that we still end up living in Will’s paranoia of ignorance – we know that Kale is not a straight ally, and that there is more to this story, but I still identified most with Will’s perspective in the hour. However, simultaneously, we got some interesting insight into Kale’s home life – including the fact that he is gay, which I don’t believe we knew before – so the show makes Will’s experience resonant without limiting us to his perspective.

As for the rest of the hour, I like the running thread of people struggling with being alone, and searching for some sort of connection. You have Maggie dealing with Sophie being with her father, and reaching out to Will and then a classmate in order to keep from losing her mind – the story ended up being pretty generic, with Will arriving in the middle of the night searching for a refuge as one would expect, but I liked the insight that she is taking a language class (which implies that she desires to play a more substantial role at API than her current secretarial one, not unlike Mad Men’s Joan). Miles, meanwhile, finds a kindred spirit of sorts during his late night surveillance mission, and I love the way that George’s wedding speech seems to both romanticize the meet cute and make him reflect on the tension in his marriage – it’s an example of a good way to integrate character work into an API story, and since Miles is by far the most interesting of that group it was a nice bit of work. Katherine Rhumor’s search for information about her husband was a bit more of a dull set of dot connections, but she has reached the point where a conspiracy is starting to form, and Richardson’s performance remains strong.

A great outing from Zack Whedon, and despite a lack of “plot” movement the stakes have been successfully raised in just a few scenes of paranoia and a couple of new pieces of information. For more thoughts on the episode, check out Todd VanDerWerff, Alan Sepinwall.

Episode 7: “The Truth Will Out”

Rubicon is not a show about paranoia, it’s a show about what paranoia does to people.

Take, for example, Tanya: as far as we are aware, she doesn’t have any substantial secrets which could get her in trouble during her polygraph, but she sets the thing off for every single questions because she’s so nervous. Similarly, the polygraph shakes Grant up because the person giving the rest tells him that his answer indicates that he has thought about, and has seriously considered, cheating on his wife. In other words, it isn’t about what they’ve done, but what people (or machines) think they will do. In reality, they both have nothing to worry about, but the situation gives them something to worry about. See also: Katherine Rhumor, dealing with a break-in and then abandoning her palatial estate despite the fact that nothing was stolen; her life was simply too violated, by both the suicide and the subsequent actions, for her to remain.

Not quite as atmospheric as last week, there is still something very compelling about the lockdown – sure, I question whether Will would really be able to so easily break into Spangler’s office, and the timing of swapping out the bug before the lockdown and returning it after seems suspect, but I think that’s part of the point. Will is, after all, discovered by Kale in Spangler’s office, and the timing of the bug swap only stokes Will’s existing paranoia (as it confirms that it is someone within API behind it), so there are textual elements which benefit from these particular events. I also enjoyed how we got to see Kale start to question things: I think we had instinctively lumped in Kale with Spangler and the conspiracy, especially since David went to Kale before his death, but perhaps he has been another pawn of sorts. When Will asks him whether they’re really working for the government – shades of Alias, anyone? – you can see Kale’s hesitation, and so we can read into that an extensive history of ignoring various signs in order to keep his job and its position of power.

Compared with the previous episode, this one had a bit more of an overbearing storyline, but I thought there were still small moments (Miles and Julie’s brief moment, Spangler and Ingram in the polygraph room, etc.) which spoke to the larger thematic material, plus some pretty significant steps forward in the conspiracy with Will discovering proof that Spangler is behind the crosswords, and that David was onto him and was likely killed for it. Plus, Kale threatened to defenestrate Will, so that’s worth the hour alone.

So far, so good. For more thoughts, again, see Todd and Alan.

Episode 8: “Caught in the Suck”

“Believe it or not, I’m Will Travers’ Guardian angel.”

I think I’m a believer at this point. “Caught in the Suck” is all about actions and motivations: whether it’s Maggie spying on Will, Tanaz informing for the CIA, James sending Katherine the picture, or Kale getting Ed to investigate Atlas McDowell further, we’re meant to try to reconcile why they do what they do. In every case but Tanaz (who is an evil terrorist, after all), all seem to have motives that we can relate with: we understand that Maggie wants to support her child, that James is beginning to feel guilty about his friend’s death and the work of his organization, and Kale…well, I’m still not sure about Kale.

As noted, I think that Kale has “positive” motives as far as our hero is concerned: he wouldn’t have passed the information onto Ed if he was trying to cover up this information, and so we have to presume that he is trying to uncover something. However, while we think his motivations are positive, they are still slightly obtuse – the closest we get to delving further into his character is Ed’s observation that Kale’s dedication to America blinds him from the nuance of political reality. It’s an interesting notion, and speaks to my presumption earlier that Kale’s problem is having ignored and looked past numerous hints as opposed to acting on them. He sees Will as an opportunity to make a move without actually making a move, and I’m curious to see how their relationship evolves in the episodes ahead.

Otherwise, the hour was compelling: I was a bit afraid when the interrogation storyline started, but the sense of displacement was compelling, and Tanya’s drug problem was handled in a subtle and effective fashion. We also got some further insight into Maggie (that she took the job under this condition, and that Kale does intend to move her into translation), which continues to make her character that much more interesting.

As for the plot, we’re seeing movement: turns out the “Bomb or Don’t Bomb” case connects with George – perhaps a bit too conveniently – and that Katherine (in receiving the picture from James) and Will (in discovering the office of the various organizations behind David’s murder) are one step closer to putting things together. It wasn’t a quantum leap for the show or anything, but it’s another successful move forward – if anything, the incremental movement is becoming a familiar pattern, and becomes that much more effective in the process.

For more thoughts, check out James Poniewozik, Cory Barker.

Episode 9: “No Honesty in Men”

We’re at the point in Rubicon’s run where even the mundane seems to have substantial meaning. Miles’ connection with Julia, now transplanted into their group due to the death of Group C and Tanya’s stint in rehab, is nothing substantial; however, I really like Miles, and I thought their time together in “Look to the Ant” was charming, so the storyline pops in a way the show wasn’t capable of in its early episodes. Similarly, Katherine Rhumor’s search for information regarding her late husband seemed dull in the beginning, and really hasn’t gotten that much more exciting, but the closer she gets to the truth (here walking past API’s door late at night, knowing that Spangler works there) the more engaging the connect the dots story becomes.

What helps “No Honesty in Men” stand out is what we’ve never seen before: getting to spend time with Annie Parisse (in an indirect Pacific reunion with James Badge Dale) is a nice bit of dynamism, and picks up nicely on those brief glances through the window in earlier episodes. On the one hand, the storyline is a nice bit of connection, as it’s great to see a brief moment from a previous episode (recognizable to some of us thanks to Parisse’s previous roles) become something more. And, on the other hand, the storyline is just compelling: there’s an element of sexual tension, an element of danger (in terms of what she does with the gun), and an almost Bond-like, whirlwind nature to the affair. Will is quite literally using her, both for the vantage from the apartment and for the sense of security that the new location offers, and Andy seems to sense that early on, making for a really interesting set of scenes.

I do think that I’m still more or less uninterested in Grant, who is by far the least interesting of the analysts when not being approached by Spangler, but that’s a relatively small complaint. We continue to get more depth from Kale, as Spangler confirms that his previous worth has been in his disinterest in asking questions and he continues to communicate with Will (who is rightfully distrustful) despite Spangler’s knowledge of their connection, and there’s even a small moment between Maggie and Will in the hallway (and their very own Miss Blankenship!) to add a little interest on that side of things.

And, let’s face it: it’s pretty impressive that an episode without any action beats, and which moves fairly slowly, still manages to feel as if it is building momentum – I didn’t think the show was capable of that when it started, so that’s been a most pleasant surprise. For more thoughts, check out James and Noel Kirkpatrick.

Episode 10: “In Whom We Trust”

I can’t believe it took me this long to realize that the George/Yuri/Tanaz/Kateb storyline is a direct parallel of the show’s primary conspiracy. I mean, I’ve always known that Will is using his analysis skills in order to delve into the conspiracy, the same skills he uses to figure out Katab’s next move or the development of a particular pattern, but at the end of “In Whom We Trust” the parallel became entirely clear. As Julia and Miles discuss news that the individuals in the photo that started it all are all dead, they discuss that these deaths seem a bit late if they are trying to cover up something that has already happened; I couldn’t help but think that the same could be said of the Atlas McDowell board, trying to clean up a mess that seems to be decades old.

I like the way that paranoia is a sort of virus on the show: it started with Will, transferred to Katherine, moved to James (pushing him to send Katherine the picture), and here moves most specifically to Kale. However, the difference is how Kale handles it: he sweeps the apartment, finds the bug, and then goes on with his life. There’s a sense that he has done this before, just as he easily eludes his tail when he so desires; he has control in a way that Will doesn’t, and seeing their different approaches to dealing with this has been quite illuminating. The consistency of paranoia gives us a nice point of comparison between the characters, something that they all share but all approach in a different manner.

A lot happens in this episode, but a lot of it is sort of swept under the rug. Will and Katherine meet for the second time, realize they’re following the same thread, but are quickly kept apart by a threat against their lives should they continue meeting; Tanya returns form rehab, but is put in a basement filing room for three weeks before she can return to the group; API learns that Katab has a particular pattern and could soon strike again, but they’re left to sit around waiting for Godot instead of doing anything about it. The only character who bucks this trend is Kale, whose slipperiness and badass nerve attacks make him an agent of power and change both in terms of dealing with the bug (or, if you prefer, questioning his partner’s taste in lamps) and running Maggie’s baby daddy out of town. Will tries at it, going back to his apartment and ignoring Andy’s calls, but a broken jar of pickles sends him back to her apartment, itself growing into a den of paranoia.

It’s a transition episodes of sorts: a lot changes without a lot happening, as the picture changes hands but there is no further movement on getting closer to their identity. It’s not a particularly superb hour, but the thrill of discovery continues to increase: even checking to see who last checked out a paper – a paper, note, which Will wrote, and which was a key component of the last conversation among the board members – is exciting, so I can only imagine what will happen when the dots actually connect. For more thoughts on the hour, check Todd and Cory.

Episode 11: “A Good Day’s Work”

There is nothing that really distinguishes the climactic moment of “A Good Day’s Work” from other moments in similar works: we’ve seen heroes kill in self-defense, and nothing about Will’s struggle with Bloom really stood out in and of itself.

However, what is different is the amount of time it took for us to get here: if this had happened back in the pilot, it would had far less impact. Instead of being a moment which shocks Will, instead it’s a moment which builds on months of chaos and paranoia. It reinforces existing anxiety, pushing Will from the point of a few angry comments in Andy’s direction when she expects their relationship to resemble normalcy to telling her to go away and never return. It’s not really a question of “What will happen now that Will has killed a man” – we’ve seen what will happen, and his final moments of shock mirror the early paranoia which proved so debilitating.

Of recent television dramas, Rubicon most closely mirrors Damages. The difference, however, is that there the question was how the show would get from Point A to the Point B created by the glimpse into a future event (in that case, the bloody death of the protagonist’s fiance). Here, meanwhile, the whole point is that it is unclear just where this is going: the suspense here is less mystery and more blind anticipation: we know what Truxton and company are up to, and so we know when Will is getting close (here putting together all seven names, and their general purpose), but we don’t know what Truxton will do. While we might imagine where the show goes from here – I certainly am – it’s more about the fact that so many different pieces could come together in so many different ways.

This speaks more to the broad conspiracy, as well as the news that Kateb is in fact an American who recently returned home (which I sort of anticipated, since it seemed like the two stories were preparing to converge), but what’s interesting is how within that they do the opposite. They show us Truxton explaining his suggestion on taking out Will, and then show us Bloom setting it up – they could have showed us none of this, instead giving us the shock of Bloom coming out of the shadows, but they chose to show the plan and make us sit in anticipation. We know that something is coming in that moment, just as we know that a conspiracy thriller in its 11th episode is going to up the ante, but the show makes us wait for it instead of putting us in Will’s shoes.

Just a really strong hour all around: whether it’s Truxton and Will’s thinly-veiled confrontation where Truxton sends Will to his planned death,  Tanya’s frantic search for hidden pills, Grant being held hostage (with scotch) for a nostalgic Truxton, Kale taking control of the murder scene, or just the small moment where Julia and Miles hold hands while going through files, the show is ramping things up in a truly spectacular fashion.

For more, see Alan and Todd.

Episode 12: “Wayward Sons”

It’s always wonderful when a plan comes together.

To be fair, I put it together before Will and co. did, but I think I was tracking the series’ structure more than the characters’ motivations. Considering how strong the series has been, I had a feeling that they would move towards convergence as the season came to a close. It increases the pleasure of seeing things come together: since we had already pieced together how each of the individual stories worked, the mystery of Kateb’s target makes the two threads one. You start out thinking that Will and Co. are distracted by Criminal Minds: Rubicon, but slowly you realize that they’re really waiting for that moment where Will realizes the plan that is coming together.

“Wayward Sons” follows The Wire’s rule regarding penultimate episodes, in that the season’s main storyline more or less comes to a close: the conspiracy, what David died trying to reveal and what led Tom Rhumor to kill himself, has come to friuition, with Kateb driving an explosive-laden boat into the Galveston Bay seaport and disrupting America’s oil supply. The finale, then, becomes about the fallout: while the damage has been done, it is unclear how Will and Kale will handle Truxton’s involvement, what precisely Tom intended for Katherine to find in Meet Me in St. Louis, and how this situation will resolve itself. America’s oil industry has already been damaged, but now it becomes about the human consequences for the individuals involved.

And, thankfully, we care about this. By keeping the series’ momentum at a fairly slow pace, it gave us time to connect with the characters, and so out interest does not die with confirmation about what the conspiracy was designed to accomplish. Yes, there’s a satisfaction in predicting that Atlas and Kateb were related (which I did) or remembering the Houston Problem (which I did not), but our real interest is in seeing Will crack the code, or seeing Katherine find resolution, or seeing Miles, Grant, and Tanya find a way to balance their jobs and their lives. We remember the oil explosion most of all, certainly, but we also remember Tanya reaching for a pill in a moment of tension, or the brief conversation between Maggie and Andy, or even that moment where Will brushes his hand over the spot where the plot used to be, Lady MacBeth style.

There is still a story to be told after the conspiracy is over, which is the series’ final test: at this point, I’m just excited to get a final hour, and am officially on the bandwagon for the series’ renewal (which better come early next week). For more on the episode, see Alan, Todd, and James.


Filed under Rubicon

4 responses to “Return to Rubicon: A Cultural Catchup Project

  1. SC

    It’s so exciting that you have seven episodes to get through, because each one basically gets better and better.

    You’re right about the story between Maggie and Will being generic in “Look to the Ant,” and also right about how it provided valuable insight into the character (I also like how you described her as Joan-like; it’s very apt). However, I still found the moment Will shows up at Maggie’s apartment to be effective, albeit generic. Like you said, the rest of the episode was about people struggling to make some connection, and here we had Maggie wanting to make a connection with and Will initially denying her that opportunity. So, she turns to the classmate. Maggie sort of deceives herself out of desperation, just like Will is involved in his own form of deception and desperation. I thought that their story paired rather nicely with Miles not admitting the truth about his marriage to Julia. He’s deceiving himself and rather desperate, too, but in a very different way.

    I hope you enjoy the next six episodes!

  2. I remain baffled – BAFFLED! – by how you could not find The Outsider great TV.

  3. Jason

    I have to agree with Todd about The Outsider, so many great scenes in that episode, it was the first one where I saw how good this show could be.

    Zach Whedon killed it on the episodes he wrote, you are in for a treat on his next one.

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