Rubicon taps into the conspiracy TV treasure trove

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"What's the big picture?": Will (James Badge Dale) of Rubicon

By Ryan Lattanzio

“Story Matters Here.” AMC’s tagline should tell you something about their primetime gestalt. With two of television’s most acclaimed dramas in its lineup -- Mad Men, a show I admire but can’t love, and Breaking Bad, hands down the best show on TV -- AMC seems destined to be heir apparent to HBO’s kingdom of smartly written dramadies and tragicomedies (Treme, True Blood, and this fall’s Boardwalk Empire, to name a few).

Much to my chagrin, Breaking Bad just ended its third season and Mad Men isn’t returning for its fourth until August 1st. To triangulate its penchant for anti-heroes (Don Draper, Walter White) and dimly lit subterfuge, AMC has added another series, Rubicon, with a pilot slated for August 1st as well. So far, the puzzle-like plot remains veiled in mystery, but the cast is stellar: James Badge Dale (fresh out of HBO’s The Pacific), Miranda Richardson, and Dallas Roberts, among others.

After the season finale of Bad, AMC previewed the first episode of Rubicon, and it’s now available to stream online. Produced and directed by Allen Coulter, one of HBO’s brilliant episodic directors, the pilot is more enervating than enlightening in its piecemeal delivery of plot.

The pilot opens with a quote from Woodrow Wilson that sets the surreptitious stage: “Some of the biggest men in the United States…know that there is a power somewhere so organized…so pervasive, that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.” The next scene is pure bravado: the score swells and segues into a blank, white screen that soon reveals itself as an aerial shot of snow-laden ground. We then hear shots fire, and we know it has something to do with a four-leaf clover on the victim’s desk. It seems the clover is no longer the paradigm of good luck—one of the show’s many subversive elements.

“Not every conspiracy is a theory,” the show’s snarky tagline tells us—and that’s probably true considering how totally insane the protagonist often sounds to his colleagues. We soon meet Will Travers (Dale), a professional code-cracker who looks like a conspiracy theorist: disheveled hair, Oxford shirt, and the stoic gaze of a man who knows too much about something. (“He’s not mopey, he’s just introspective!,” one of Will’s coworkers says.)

In a montage of page-turning and shot-dissolving, Will spots a slippery pattern in an otherwise normal, everyday American pastime: his crossword puzzle. He brings it to his supervisor, who says, “It’s probably an inside joke.” But in a very X-Files-y way—and Will is almost like a dapper version of one of the Lone Gunmen—the boss brings the crossword to another unidentified man-in-a-suit. Something bad is going down. “What’s the big picture here?” Will asks. “You’ll know soon enough,” his associate tells him.

Series creator and writer Jason Horwitch makes Rubicon feel strangely familiar and entirely American in linking Will to September 11. The hysteria—and paranoia—of post-9/11 America is deftly portrayed in the passing of suspicious notes, mysterious phone calls, and train crashes. These tropes might feel tired elsewhere, but here they are fresh and rather chilling. Quickly we realize Will would probably dig something like that YouTube viral documentary sensation Zeitgeist.

Rubicon is a thriller steeped in a paranoid urban milieu -- the city is the devil’s playground and it’s best to keep your head in the sand. Yet Will Travers, the kind of guy who shares tea and secrets with strangers after dark, is obsessed by the unexplained deaths of his code-cracking cohorts and isn’t willing to stay shut up about it.

Despite subtle, tightly-wound character development, Rubicon's pilot feels like watching a show for the first time in the middle of its season. There’s little to learn from the pilot, but its ambiguity is in the sly interest of bating the audience to come back. What you can see is promising, yet what exactly the series is about remains unclear. So far, it seems to focus on over-educated, conspiracy-crazed geeks who love intrigue and find espionage in the same way you might find shapes in the clouds: they're there if you’re looking for them.

Regardless of its opacity (and that’s always a good thing in the end, right Lost fans?), Rubicon is poised to be another sparkling gem in the dark trove of AMC treasures that have made recent cable so fascinating and so...adult.