Rubicon is a throwback to a simpler time for conspiracy theories. Or so it seems. AMC’s new series is set in the present, but its heart is in the ‘70s, having more in common with the political paranoia of Three Days of the Condor than The X-Files or Lost. The conspiracy here is grounded in human activity and ambition, rather than aliens or supernatural forces.
Like so many Cold War era thrillers, Rubicon opens with a suicide. As Katherine Rhumor (Miranda Richardson) plays outside with her children, her husband (Harris Yulin) shoots himself in the study of his mansion, where the décor is ornate but hardly warm. The gunshot is heard, but not seen; the shock is delivered in Katherine’s face rather than a gory corpse.
This, along with a credits sequence over crossword puzzles and numbers, is an early sign of Rubicon‘s emphasis on enigmas and ideas rather than visceral effects. These mysteries are presented and potentially solved by decidedly unusual characters, introduced in their workplace, the innocuously named American Policy Institute. Housed in a nondescript building in New York City, it’s a front for U.S. government intelligence analysis. As we follow Will Travers (James Badge Dale) inside, the shabby façade does not give way to a sleek interior filled with state-of-the-art technology. Here, the hallways are narrow and dimly lit, and offices are crowded with chalkboards, stacks of papers, and world maps. At the exceedingly brief morning staff meeting, the office head, David Hadas (Peter Gerety), distributes to his analysts the day’s “intake,” which consists of stacks of documents bulging out of accordion folders. Each worker heads back to his or her own space, where walls are papered with post-its and timelines. The only reference to a computer is non-visual; one worker notes that “Hal” couldn’t figure out a problem.
In other words, Rubicon draws attention to the actual labor of intelligence workers. It also suggests that the staff at API is particularly adept at spotting patterns and codes. API means to catch what no one else sees in the most mundane sources. But its members are also a collection of misfits and neurotics, displaying personality traits that make them basically unfit for social situations, but perfect for solving puzzles.
In this respect, Travers is an exemplary API worker: a new coworker, Tanya (Lauren Hodges) wonders why he’s so “mopey,” unconvinced when Miles (Dallas Roberts) tries to explain (“He’s just introspective”). We learn early that Travers has good reason to be mopey, as well as uneasy “keeping secrets,” even though this is, essentially, his job. Rubicon is wonderfully clear-eyed about the limits of intelligence analysis. When Travers laments to Hadas, “It’s our business to tell people what to think, and the truth is, I have no idea what to think anymore,” he lays out the dilemma of today’s intelligence gathering in a nutshell. Though he’s supposed to interpret disparate facts, such interpreting is increasingly fraught. As we know from so much history, what the analysts think is wrong as often as it is right.
Still, Travers’ dedication leads him to work double-time, even on his birthday, in order to think through a new self-assigned puzzle, a pattern he’s discovered in crossword puzzles spread across all the major U.S. newspapers. Though Hadas puts him off, the spooky soundtrack piano indicates Travers has stumbled onto something. Our suspicions are confirmed — however obliquely– when Travers’ superior at API, Kale (Arliss Howard), gives him an assignment he’s reluctant to take on.
Rubicon indicates why he might be reluctant when a friend of Travers dies and he’s moved to investigate. He begins with a visit to a retired analyst, Ed (Roger Robinson), now living quietly. Ed asks what he’s heard about him. “You were a genius at cracking codes,” Travers reports, “until the codes cracked you like an egg.” This is what’s at stake in intelligence analysis, beyond the more familiar action scenes that take up so much screen time in recent spy thrillers. The “why” is as important as the what, Travers insists, in both devising and solving puzzles.
As Travers is increasingly immersed in this murky business, he must interpret motives as well as events. Focusing on the emotional as well as political processes, Rubicon points to conspiracies that are not “out there,” but instead, profoundly internal. When Travers worries that he’s been forgetful and distracted, even obsessed with his work, Miles reassures him. “We all get a little preoccupied. It goes without saying. It’s the nature of the job.” Which is to say, it’s not simpler at all.