Rubicon Season One
My apologies in advance for there being so many lists in this review. Sadly I just couldn't give Rubicon the time I would have liked to.
This is not a review of this episode. Or even this season as it turns out. This is a review of the whole show.
The first two episodes of Rubicon were so slow that when the avalanche of shows fell on me in September I had no time or inclination to make time for the show. But with shows like The Event and No Ordinary Family making it clear that network dramas just don't satisfy me anymore I returned to Rubicon.
The Good: I ended up rushing through the next ten episodes in less than ten days. Rubicon is a television lover's television show. The more I watched it the more addicted I became to seeing the next episode. Contradicting the 24's or Gossip Girl's of this world it was the slow, deliberate pace which became most addictive. When characters made breakthroughs I believed they had really worked for them. When characters broke down I was fully aware of their stress. The show's drama was built upon authenticity and that authenticity made for good television time and again.
When Will entered his office his bag was searched. When he brought in David's widow, the security guard followed her in and out of the building. Will confronted a man following him and got punched in the stomach. Kale told Will that his apartment was bugged and not to do anything about it. Will went home and searched every inch of it for bugs. Tanya's substance abuse issues were known about instantly and dealt with politely and professionally. Despite the security of the United States being on the line other agencies would repeatedly refuse to share information with API. When Truxton and co made a threat to Katherine Rhumor they were crystal clear and made her genuinely scared. They didn't just threaten to kill her and Will they said they would kill her parents as well. It was the kind of threat that someone couldn't misunderstand or brush off. When the FBI investigated a leak at API they found it in one day. They also asked people embarrassing personal questions which instantly exposed their capacity for fooling a lie detector test. Will goes to an internet cafe to avoid his searches being tracked and his paranoia overcomes his embarrassment. When Tanya and Miles come face to face with actual torture they are horrified. They also have no idea what country they are in.
All of those things don't happen in other TV shows. Each scene demonstrated why keeping things as authentic as possible is so much more interesting than going to the extremes of tense drama that have become so clichÃ©d in 2010. So many of those scenes beautifully exposed human emotion in small ways. Grant being exposed for cheating on his wife in his mind, Tanya having to accept that she had a problem, Kale sweeping his apartment for bugs and Truxton's wonderful tie analogy which he presented to the military in Washington to show the value of API's advice. I also loved Will finally ending the string of tails he had collected by almost tearfully pointing a gun at one of them, taking his picture and yelling at him to leave him alone. It was more dramatic to see a nervous man use his brain to overcome real fear than many a hero fearlessly standing down an over hyped opponent. There was a genuinely wonderful dilemma presented to Will's team early on where they had to choose whether to kill some children (by bombing a building) in order to kill a man whose crimes included killing children.
Rubicon ran two different stories throughout its existence. One was the conspiracy and how it tied into the work of Will's team. The other was what life is really like for those charged with keeping America safe. This latter story was the one that was more successfully told but then that is no surprise. It was the incidental story, the story going on in the background more subtly. The sad but important lives of these quiet people was told really well. The frustration of politics and secrecy which dogged their work. The stress Will was under and the lack of free time which always kept him and Maggie apart. Grant's marriage foundering on his inability to share his work life with his wife at all. Miles' hilarious but poignant "I said I was married, I'm not now." Tanya's story was pleasantly complete as she arrived as the whizz kid and wisely quit by season's end. She was spared the fate of Ed Bancroft whose mind was so well trained at solving puzzles that he couldn't let go of the work.
The actual murder\suicide\Kateb story was better than I thought it would be. As I have made clear the details were so good that the mystery never felt needlessly implausible or too easy to solve. I liked little moments like Katherine asking at a Chinese restaurant for information that in another show might have been gleaned in flashier ways. The singular focus of the show on the mystery helped too, making this one continuous conspiracy seem important and vital by giving it such undivided attention.
The Bad: In the end though the story finished on an unexpectedly flat note. After so much build up it was difficult to imagine how the story would wrap up but it was so devoid of emotion that it disappointed me greatly.
There were a few moments too which seemed less convincing than the rest. Will's seduction of his artist neighbor Andy was an oddly bold moment for this otherwise cautious and almost shy man. His desperation to keep his investigation secret was a good enough justification for his behavior but the success of his blunt seduction seemed odd. In the final episode we learn that Andy was perhaps in on the plot all along which was the only really 24 moment the show produced and a bit of a let down. Although admittedly without a season two we will never know what was really going on.
Will's fight and murder of assassin Donald Bloom was an anti-climax too. Perhaps it was just too obvious that Will would survive. Perhaps it was just too easy for him to overcome Bloom. Perhaps it was because I thought Bloom had injected him with something as the struggle began and it never seemed to have happened.
Then we came to the final episode and everything seemed setup for some dramatic payoff. When will phoned Kale and worked out where the terrorist attack would happen (just as it took place) I got goose bumps, so well was the table set for this mystery to come to a head. But in the end the two big confrontations lacked what I thought were key ingredients. Once Kale was fully in the picture about Spangler's plan it seemed entirely fitting that he would behave as he did. The former CIA man and lifelong soldier could see that with the public readying themselves for war with Iran, no one would be in the mood to learn that it was a conspiracy of old white men. But when he made this case to Will there was no passion. He didn't grip Will by the shoulders and yell at him to bury what he had discovered and focus on surviving.
Similarly as Will throws his cards on the table and confronts Spangler there was no emotion. I was waiting for thirteen episodes of frustration and emotion to come pouring out. I was waiting for Will to tell Spangler that killing his father-in-law, killing a train full of people, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands over the years and now setting up a war with a potential nuclear power was evil. I was waiting for him to show the kind of emotion that surely he would be feeling in a confrontation with a man who would have no other choice than to murder him. But it wasn't there.
It was odd and disappointing. Even if my desire for emotional satisfaction wasn't in keeping with Will's character it seemed odd that he exposed himself the way he did. Will didn't know that Spangler had had his four-leaf clover delivered. Will was basically laying himself open to being killed and I wasn't on that emotional journey with him. I was left feeling cold.
Best Moment: There were so many good moments and I listed them all above. So instead I am going to pick a best performance. Undoubtedly it was Michael Cristofer as Truxton Spangler. Throughout the show he was as real a human as you will ever glimpse on a TV screen. He would pause, he would non sequitur, he would cough, he would ramble, he would be kind, he would be evil, he would laugh at his own jokes. More than just his nuanced performance though what made him seem so real was the way he almost never had a conversation on the same wavelength as the person he was talking to. The episode where he and Will went to Washington really tickled me for simulating something I have experienced a thousand times but barely seen reflected in art. And that is talking to someone who you realize doesn't get you. Either they don't care about you or they are just incapable of understanding your needs and thoughts and so the conversations you have with them are always a little off. Spangler treated Will throughout that episode like that and it was a genius piece of television.
Conclusion: In my review of episode one of Rubicon I dismissed the show because of my own disinterest in conspiracy stories. As I became more engrossed I regretted being so churlish. But sadly as the show wrapped up I realized there was a lot of truth to what I had said. Conspiracy stories create too many difficult situations. The main one being "If these people are so powerful why don't they just kill this guy?" While Rubicon attempted to solve that problem time and again they could never quite solve the conspiracy conundrum. In the end I found myself questioning whether these men could really want to start a war with Iran. Surely such educated people would see that that scenario could easily destroy their financial positions as much as it could enrich them? It also placed an implausible moral conundrum about how greedy and evil a bunch of otherwise normal men could really be.
As good as Rubicon was it only served to underline my original feeling. It took the best conspiracy show I have ever seen to convince me that they are a bad TV cliche that needs to go away.