Slouching Toward Conspiracy

The brooding, snail-paced Rubicon.


AMC first aired Rubicon (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET), an atmospheric homage to ‘70s paranoia thrillers, in the form of a one-hour preview preceding the June season finale of Breaking Bad. Then, at the end of July, it aired this extended tease again after the season premiere of Mad Men. We must give this unusual programming strategy some credit for building the large audience that greeted the series’ proper debut last Sunday—a two-hour affair that ranks as the highest-rated premiere in AMC’s history. While we’re at it, we must also wonder if this unhurried unveiling was meant to accustom viewers to the slow pace of the show itself.

Being generous, we could praise Rubicon for respecting our intelligence and having the courage to be patient with exposition. Being impatient, we could just call it listless and then maybe try to poke it with a stick to see if it’s dead or what. After watching the first four episodes, I’m content to settle on the euphemism deliberate and to note that the performances—centrally that of James Badge Dale as an intelligence analyst named Will Travers—have so far been sharp enough to ward off outright drowsiness.

Will works for the American Policy Institute, a federal agency that gives its employees a bit of latitude in the matter of office attire. He favors a layered Ivy League look suggesting Robert Redford’s in Three Days of the Condor, though modernized with the occasional well-chosen hoodie. His mentor David Hadas (Peter Gerety) flops around like a commuter-train slob—or at least he did before dying early on, surely murdered, after noting the machinations of a cabal perhaps constituting a fourth branch of government.

Meanwhile, the top boss, Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer), wears rep ties that pair well with the OSS and Skull and Bones flavor of his given name. Kale Ingram—Spangler’s potentially sinister right-hand man, played by actor Arliss Howard—goes in for quietly expensive crewnecks and solid dark slim-fit dress shirts that give him the air of a music mogul slithering comfortably into late middle age, which is to say that the wardrobe department doesn’t at all want us to trust him.

I don’t quite understand how Will’s comely assistant Maggie (Jessica Collins) affords all those Anthropologie-quality blouses on a government salary, but they anyway indicate that she, a single mother and vulnerable sweetheart, is both the API’s delicate flower and its gentle mama bear. She’s the one who reminds walled-off Will that it’s his own birthday.

Though the proximate cause of Will’s detachment concerns national security—his wife and child died at the World Trade Center on a morning he was running late—his loss is not the motivation for his civil service. There’s no righteous passion to his steady gloom. He’s lost in his thoughts even when they aren’t rueful. Inasmuch as he thinks before he acts, he stands as a welcome addition to a TV lineup busy with shoot-first-ask-questions-later types.

On the other hand, placing thought before action is tantamount to putting mood before plot, which has its limits on-screen. I don’t want to spoil the developing story line of Rubicon. Also, it remains unclear what there is to spoil. Will continues to decode a trail of clues that David has left for him to follow, and it will somehow, sooner or later, lead him to stare into the spectral eyes and forehead of Miranda Richardson, who plays the widow of a zillionaire somehow wrapped up in the whole big enigma. The pieces of the puzzles have not yet begun to fall into place—or, for that matter, to be removed from the box. We’re instead just getting to know an Edward Hopper kind of action hero—a solitary man passing time among dark furniture in classic settings—and hoping that it’s not all just oak-paneled hokum.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.