Rubicon (2010)

Here’s the lead to every Rubicon review I’ve run across,

“AMC has been on a roll lately…”

And lazy me, every way I’ve thought to start this review was some variation on that sentiment. So, let’s just go with it…

AMC’s shows have specialized in characters who are at once an enigma, yet also an archetype. As well as sympathetic. You get the feeling Don Draper or Walter White could be capable of anything given the appropriate situation. There was a point in Mad Men’s season one where I would’ve bet Don was going to kill his brother and Walt, well, Walt has killed more than once. And still we root for them and empathize. The shows are slow boils, where what isn’t said is as important as what is, where appearance and perception is often passed off as reality. Plot is secondary to the character and tone is king.

Rubicon fits the mold of Breaking Bad and Mad Men in many ways, but also adds a different element, the element is the notion of plot as enigma. The plot of Rubicon feels like a character, an amorphous enigma of conspiracy, doubt, hidden knowledge.
On the surface, Rubicon is a conspiracy mystery. The lead, Will Travers, is mostly a true blue trying to work out a conspiracy surrounding a death. I don’t want to give too much of the plot so far because the show isn’t about surprises, but about the slow build. The viewer doesn’t even have a firm grasp of what Will does for a living for the first three episodes and most of the show is set at his work place. That’s what I mean about the plot as a living character, it lurks in the corners and, for the most part, the characters have to work to draw out the plot instead of outside forces mostly shaping the actions of it’s characters. Most of television is an examination of a character’s reactions to plot. These reactions force a tidy resolution, in say, 48 minutes. No so with Rubicon.
This may be why many have called the show slow-moving(that’s code for boring). Watch the first three episodes of Mad Men, very slow plot-wise, but the show kicks in on other levels by episode five. This is where Rubicon is now. Last week, it’s sixth episode, is where the really episode kicks in.
The show’s tone is of a classic 1970’s paranoia movie like Day of the Jackyl. There’s a grimy dated quality to the sets. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of President Obama on a back ground wall that I was certain of the year of the show. They don’t work at CSI or rarely use anything high-tech. The cinematography likes to surround the characters inside doorways and frames inside frames (shout out to ’40’s noir, y’all) and the exterior shots look like elaborate, warped mazes or stereo-eye pictures. The interiors are bland, florescent-lit affairs. Another criticism I’ve read is the show looks cheap, but the show looks this way for a reason.
The ambiguous acting, the small apartment, the dinginess, the officiousness of the higher-ups, the slow pace, everything adds to the tone of creeping paranoia. Will and the other show’s ‘hero,’ a widower trying to understand her husband’s suicide, could move on easily from tragedy, like many of the other characters around them apparently have, but their sense of paranoia, in part, compels them forward.
In many conspiracy movies, the conspiracy itself is a large overwhelming behemoth crushing those who interfere. Here, it seems, the conspiracy moves slowly and quietly. Rubicon isn’t a show like Lost or Heroes where mystery upon mystery thrown at the viewer in a vane attempt at some connected meaning. I don’t think Rubicon will become victim to this mystery overload for a few reasons. One, the focus is narrow, just a handful of characters. Two, the characters drive the conspiracy solving, not the other way around. Their compulsion is, in part, not just emotional, but intellectual. Three, the ‘bad people’ can and do good things and vice versa. Their motives, so far, aren’t based in arrogance. And four, the tone is low-key.
Another reason to watch is the actual work-place lives of the characters. It’s unique and interesting and the show does a great job of showing the effect and cost of doing such a specialized job. These people are thinkers and over thinkers and obsessives and paid to be such. And they all have to lie about their lives.
I know I didn’t do a good job of explaining what the show’s about, but you figuring out the explanation is the big lure.
Like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, you’re encouraged to fill in the blanks.
So far, Rubicon has plenty of blanks. Just give it a few episodes.

Oh, and AMC’sThe Walking Dead is going to be balls-out awesome, for reasons entirely different than Rubicon and Mad Men.

(AMC has already renewed The Walking Dead for a second season and it doesn’t air until Halloween. No word on Rubicon, get on it public and watch it and get on it AMC and renew it.)

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