TV: Rubicon

This past weekend, AMC’s Rubicon wrapped up a terrific opening season. It’s easily my favorite show on television right now, an intelligent, complex, slow-building, character-driven mystery that pushes all my spy fiction buttons. Whether or not it will get renewed is still a question mark, but I’m desperately hoping it gets another season to build on this solid foundation.

Rubicon is a contemporary spy series set in a fictional New York City intelligence agency called the American Policy Institute. A think tank full of brilliant intelligence analysts, API is an independent outfit providing objective, external insight to the US’s government intelligence community. Will Travers (James Badge Dale) is one of API’s best and brightest, a quick-minded but dark and internal analyst who’s never quite recovered from the deaths of his wife and daughter. Will’s attempts to solve the mystery of another family member’s death put him on the trail of a vast corporate conspiracy that gradually takes over his life — and eventually puts him into the crosshairs of the conspirators. Elsewhere, Katherine Rhumor (Miranda Richardson) is traumatized by the inexplicable suicide of her husband, and her investigation into his past reveals its own surprises, putting her on a collision course with Will and his investigation. The two of them independently stumble across the wrong secrets, and find themselves thrown into lives filled with paranoia and fear.

Meanwhile, Will’s team at API — Miles (Dallas Roberts), Tanya (Lauren Hodges), and Grant (Christopher Evan Welch) — are tasked with combing through intelligence reports connecting Middle Eastern terror suspects, mentally exhausting work that Will’s distracted absences makes all the more difficult. It’s a stressful job with long hours that takes its toll on each of them, even as it brings out their work ethic, intelligence, and commitment. Their efforts run parallel to the conspiracy story, at first informing its world, then later intersecting with the central plot.

Rubicon recalls the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s — think Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, etc. — both in its subject matter and in its deliberate visual style. Filmed on location in New York, the show is beautifully shot, eschewing shaky cameras and quick cuts in lieu of shots that are steady and meticulously composed. In terms of visuals and story, the pace is often slow and contemplative, which is liable to put some viewers off. But for those viewers with whom it connects, it just makes the proceedings that much more enjoyable to savor.

The showrunner is Henry Brommell, a writer well known for slow-burning dramas that take their time, establish a strong mood, and get their hooks in. (His credits include Carnivale, an engrossing period fantasy for HBO, as well as Brotherhood and Homicide: Life in the Street, two series I haven’t seen yet.) Rubicon is definitely a show in that mold, a patient, thoughtful escalation. The central narrative involving the conspiracy is a deft, impressive juggling act of story threads, marred slightly by moments of unlikely recklessness from Will, and the fact that Katherine’s arc is severely underdeveloped, wasting Miranda Richardson in what feels like a weekly cameo. That said, the central plotline pays off brilliantly in the season’s penultimate episode, before “resolving” somewhat muddily in the finale — which feels unsatisfying at first, but also feels thematically correct in the scheme of things. It’s constructed like a series that expects to continue, and I think it’s a more successful ending if Brommell is allowed to pick up the threads again next year.

Where Rubicon succeeds brilliantly, and in my opinion unconditionally, is as a character-driven drama. Dale and Richardson are fine in the A-story plot, but the real fireworks occur in the supporting roles. The workplace interactions at API are the highlights of every episode for me, recalling the political maneuverings and personality clashes of old-school British spy TV  (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Sandbaggers leap to mind). I absolutely loved Will’s team. Dallas Roberts stands out as neurotic intellectual Miles Fiedler, who takes the work too much to heart, while Lauren Hodges has a heartbreaking turn as troubled Tanya MacGaffin, who’s beaten down by the weight of it. Also very likeable is Christopher Evan Welch as the straight-laced, average Grant Test, a well meaning but unexceptional man who loves his work and has his moments. The three of them have great ensemble chemistry, and bring much needed comic timing to the often sober, tense proceedings. The only API character that feels like a square peg in a round hole is Will’s aide Maggie Young (Jessica Collins); Collins is fine, but the show can’t entirely seem to figure out what to do with her.

The real standouts, though, are the higher-ups. Michael Cristofer plays the head of API, Truxton Spangler, and it’s one of the most memorable supporting roles I’ve seen on TV in years. His unique, quirky characterization is unforgettable, and in my book lands Spangler in the Fictional Intelligence World Espiocrat Hall of Fame with the likes of George Smiley, Neil Burnside, and Harry Pearce. The same could be said of the initially inscrutable Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), Spangler’s right-hand man, a cynical veteran of the game who knows its ins and outs and leverages his personal agenda in a ruthlessly matter-of-fact, badass manner. At the end of the day, character is Rubicon’s bread and butter, and the acting is uniformly up to the task — Cristofer, Howard, Roberts, and Hodges all deliver what I would consider award-worthy performances, and you could throw in guest actress Annie Parisse, who has a minor but impressive role as Andy, an attractive neighbor in Will’s building who gets drawn into the proceedings.

It’s an engrossing series, to say the least, one of those shows that if you like it at all, you’ll probably love it. It succeeds in its overarching conspiracy storyline only partially, I think, but it does so many other things well — building intrigue and suspense, creating complex relationships, framing beautiful shots, depicting the political maneuverings and interactions of its spy world figures — that ultimately the destination doesn’t feel all that important. The journey is the destination, for me anyway, and I really, really hope it gets picked up to take me further.

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