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Rubicon Recap: Crimson and Clover

Conspiracies! Puzzles! Sweater vests! Welcome to Rubicon, the third show in AMC’s aspirational jewel box of dramas. While Mad Men is hailed for being “brilliant” and “buzzy” and Breaking Bad is “intense” and “thrilling,” the operative word you’re going to hear about Rubicon is “slow.” As in: It’s slow. And it is! But there are plenty of things that are actually better when they’re slow! Like food. And guitarists. Heck, even Edith Piaf songs. But can we add Rubicon — set deep in the paranoid world of government code-breakers — to the list of things that are worth settling in for? In a word: yes.

Ably stepping into the Beatty/Redford role of intensely brainy (and brainily intense) leading men is James Badge Dale as Will Travers, a wonky (but dashing!) analyst for the super-vague, government-run American Policy Institute (Read our interview with Dale here). The API is the sort of place where people spend days poring over “intake” — files and articles and books and photos — all in search of potential patterns that will, we suppose, help to figure out just what is going on in the world. (It’s also the sort of place where no one uses computers and you can practically smell the pipe smoke seeped into the walls. Not a Kindle in sight!) Will is nominally brilliant and excellent at brooding (with good reason: His wife and daughter were killed on 9/11 when he was approximately 23 years old but hey, details ... ) and Dale is the perfect man for the job: Few actors can look as interesting as they manfully circle sentences in a Road Food guide book with a Bic pen.

Ably stepping into the Beatty/Redford role of intensely brainy (and brainily intense) leading men is James Badge Dale as Will Travers, a wonky (but dashing!) analyst for the super-vague, government-run American Policy Institute (Read our interview with Dale here). The API is the sort of place where people spend days poring over “intake” — files and articles and books and photos — all in search of potential patterns that will, we suppose, help to figure out just what is going on in the world. (It’s also the sort of place where no one uses computers and you can practically smell the pipe smoke seeped into the walls. Not a Kindle in sight!) Will is nominally brilliant and excellent at brooding (with good reason: His wife and daughter were killed on 9/11 when he was approximately 23 years old but hey, details ... ) and Dale is the perfect man for the job: Few actors can look as interesting as they manfully circle sentences in a Road Food guide book with a Bic pen.

Episode one begins, ominously, with a child saying “13” and counting from there. A bunch of kids scatter in the snow, hiding from Miranda Richardson (which seems like a sound idea to us). They are on the grounds of a frost-covered mansion. There is a fox statue. Ornate wood. And a nervous man having a solitary schvitz. He reads his papers and doesn’t drink his glass of orange juice. He discovers a four-leaf clover in his newspapers. Dun-DUN! If there’s one thing years and years of watching television has taught us, it’s that this man is going to live a long and happy life surrounded by his family to immediately shoot himself. And so he does. But that’s about all we know about the death of this rich philanthropist, because the story line involving his second wife (Richardson) discovering that he had a secret Upper East Side Townhouse where he liked to read novels (gasp!) isn’t really overlapping with our man Will’s life yet. In the meantime, at least Miranda gets to spend some quality time with Sledge Hammer.

Back to the API, where Will is busy not really enjoying his life but still keeping the V-neck industry afloat in these tough economic times. At work he is joined by Tanya (the new girl), Grant (the stiff guy), Miles (the shoulda been Jeremy Davies guy), and the pretty, austere Maggie, who has the hots for him or at least what passes for the hots in the icy light of this show (the warms?). He’s focused on his job and on the passing kindness of his boss and former father-in-law David, a super-superstitious fellow ably played by the great Peter Gerety (Judge Phelan from The Wire).

Exposition, exposition: Will forgets his birthday (workaholic). David won’t park in spot No. 13 (foreshadowing!). Miles has a framed copy of The Invisibles on his wall (paranoid). Their boss, Kale (KALE!!!), wears sweaters, gives icy looks, and reads things by holding his glasses in front of his face, which either means he’s pure evil or Arliss Howard really wanted to make him seem that way. Also, his name is Kale.

Will notices a pattern in all of the day’s crossword puzzles relating to four-leaf clovers. He takes it to David who seems uninterested but then gives Will a motorcycle, the aforementioned Road Food guide, and a strange note telling him to get out of dodge. Then, in a cool scene that is markedly not slow, the train David is riding on is promptly hit by another train. So Will now has even more reason to brood in his hood and V-necked sweater vests. He is also offered David’s job by Kale but maybe he wants to resign instead?

That night Will takes his brooding to David’s cluttered office and there’s a mysterious phone call dictating a chess move. Will traces the call back to Ed Bancroft, a legendary code-breaker (he was the best until “the codes broke [him] like an egg”) who is well-played as a doddering, if still brilliant Earl Grey enthusiast by Tony winner Roger Robinson. Like everyone on this show, when confronted with Will’s crossword discovery, Ed clams up and makes his eyes go big with fear and the sort of knowledge that only comes from producers who know they have at least ten episodes before they have to explain any of it to us.

Anyway, after discovering David’s car parked at the station (In spot No. 13? That’s unpossible!) and a sleepless night where he crashes Maggie’s way-too-nice apartment, brood-flirts, and wakes up her daughter, he decides to take the job which gets him access to the offices “upstairs” where a man named Spangler lurks (and also conspires with Sledge Hammer). Will also gets a lot of weird shoulder touches from Kale — but really, are there any other kind?

That’s the end of the first hour. The second amps up the atmosphere — RAIN-SPECKLED WINDOWS! OUR MAN IN HAVANA! STATE SENATOR CLAY DAVIS WITH BINOCULARS! — and provides a sense of what we’re going to be doing every week. Namely, watching Will learn to be a boss, seeing “the team” work on smaller (un?)connected bits of global intrigue (POPOVICH! BULGARIA! ETC!) all while sloooowly unspooling the mystery of David’s death/four-leaf clovers, and (maybe?) bringing Miranda Richardson into the A-plot.

But because this recap is already almost as long as the show itself, we’ll leave you with a list of THINGS WE KNOW and THINGS WE DON’T. In closing, we must admit to being hooked. There’s something to be said for the show’s steady, stately pace and old-fashioned airs. (A major plot point is about newspapers, for goodness sake. Newspapers! There’s even a typewriter in one scene. Next week: Will discovers an ominous wax cylinder! There’s a man following him with a daguerreotype!) Seriously, though: Good television doesn’t have to have a big concept, or be about a plane crash or cooking meth or a male prostitute with a gigantic wang. Right? Now get off our lawn!

THINGS WE KNOW
• Will Travers only dresses in layers, has put a motorcycle in his living room (as you do), likes to stand on the ledges of buildings (ditto), and is being followed.
• Maggie is spying on the office for Kale. But why?
• Ed invented the crossword code in 1983. According to Hal (who’s name isn’t Hal), it very well might be a “go code” for politically charged revenge killings.
• Grant thinks donuts are beignets.

THINGS WE DON’T KNOW
• Did David know he was going to die? Are we sure he’s dead?
• Is having Spangler smoke cigarettes and meet with bespoke white men in the house where Christopher Walken lived in Wedding Crashers an intentional homage to the villainous cabal in The X-Files? Or just lazy writing?
• How did we survive up to now without this much skulking in our lives! The characters on this show really skulk it up! Excellent skulking all around.

Until next week, feel free to add to these lists in the comments!

Photo: Courtesy of AMC