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Rubicon Recap: Intelligence Failure

This is the end, beautiful friends. The end of our elaborate, oil-tanker-sinking plans. There is no safety — especially not for Katherine Rhumor, who definitely should have stayed in one of her (many) townhouses this week. Nor is there really much surprise — other than the fact that a troubled series unlikely to get a second season chose to end with a limp cliffhanger. (We’d keep with the classic-rock-quoting theme for this recap, but the only character who would have appreciated it — Islamic radical/Kansas fan Joe Purcell — is currently in a billion tiny pieces in the Gulf of Mexico.) Bottom line? A promising show that started with a train crash ends up kind of a train wreck.

Because, even accounting for our deeply entrenched skepticism about the overall success of Rubicon, this was an exceedingly strange finale. “You Can Never Win” was the title, and while that may be true for stir-crazy intelligence analysts and housebound, classic-film-loving widows, it also sounds like a cry for help from the writers’ room. By the time we reached this thirteenth episode, Rubicon was no longer a paranoid thriller and nor was it exactly an anti-terrorist actioner. The characters, while more interesting than they were at the beginning, remained essentially mushy — like cake pulled out of the oven far too soon. Instead of putting a button on any of the myriad shows that Rubicon flirted with being throughout its debut (and most likely only) season, show-runner Henry Bromell seemed to throw up his hands. Damned if he does try to offer resolution, damned if he doesn’t. But we’ll be damned if we can figure out exactly what to make of this final episode.

We begin at API: A white hallway is flooded with worried white people. “We suffered a massive intelligence failure,” Spangler tells the troops, citing their “inability to stay ahead of the narrative” and ending up sounding like his beleaguered show-runner in the process. For some reason or another, the entire global spy apparatus is looking to this depressing office in the South Street Seaport for answers about Kateb’s successful attack in Galveston. “The intelligence is clean on this,” Grant insists in a very Grant way. “We have the chain.” But because he’s finally figured out that achingly obvious Supervillain Truxton Spangler is behind it all, Will pushes his team to keep digging. His rationale? Everything is too easily set up to make it look like Iran was responsible. Galveston was merely the smoking tanker gun: The real goal was to incite a war with the world’s least-popular bearded politician. Heady stuff!

Luckily we get a breather in the form of movie time over at Katherine’s. But before we can really settle in and enjoy Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s interrupted — hey, some schlub recorded over the disc! (Which isn’t technically possible, but what the hell, right?) Instead of staring at Judy Garland, we’re stuck with Tom Rhumor who explains he has proof that Spangler has been “manipulating” intelligence over at API. That sounds great! Where is it? But we don’t find out: Instead, he tells Katherine to memorize a Chinatown address and to “go there” if she’s ever in danger. What is it with this couple and real estate? Anyway, he switches places with the guy behind the camera and — what the what! — it’s David Hadas. Hi, David! David, being far too generous considering the snail’s pace of this show, assumes that Will must be there with Katherine watching this intimate video of her husband and speaks directly to his former son-in-law. But Katherine isn’t interested — there’s a new house for her to mope in! She cuts off the disc and runs off.

Meanwhile, Will is steaming. Or at least misting. (He’s still kinda hard to read.) Kale says that intelligence, like television!, is “largely a failure business: you win some, you lose a lot,” and tries to explain that they have “lost the battle, not the war.” But Will can’t see past those super-cool sunglasses and demands to know what happened to Donald Bloom’s body. Kale mentions that Bloom loved the East River because he lived in Williamsburg before it was “full of stockbrokers and babies.” Uh, Kale? That’s Park Slope! Williamsburg is full of artisan coffee cuppers, annoying beardos, and lots of fun drug parties that Tanya can’t go to anymore. Troubled by this lack of neighborhood specificity, Will hustles back to his office and does the international sign for no longer fucking around: He drops a bug into a glass of milk. OH SNAP! This is part of his only marginally successful bid to convince Miles that he’s 100 percent not insane and that he, Miles, should totally drop everything he’s working on and risk his own (bearded) neck by jumping aboard Will’s crazy train. Miles is dubious — in fact, he thinks it’s all a joke. Ha-ha! “Our boss is responsible for a terrorist attack that might lead to global annihilation, P.S., there’s black-ops tech in your milk.” CLASSIC JOKE.

Meanwhile, Spangler reclines, leonine, beneath some stairways. A particularly bland-looking member of the League of Extraordinarily White Gentlemen approaches to tell him to “stop,” that Spangler is “pig-headed and arrogant” and this “mess” is his fault. Why is he so upset, this white guy? Because he may have led his country into a generations-long apocalyptic war? No, but because a scrawny analyst and an alcoholic widow are still running around loose. Yes, we suppose that’s risky. But not nearly as risky as having a conversation about global treason in a public lobby. Jeez, get a room you two!

Of course, the League does have a room of its own. Scratch that — judging by its appearance, it doubles as Charlie Rose’s studio. But Charlie is nowhere to be found when the League meets and neither, tellingly, is Truxton. In a wordless scene, the fellows put down their brandy snifters long enough to vote silently on something which is quite clearly “resolving” their particular Spangler problem. Now, this is sort of interesting! Because later, Spangler receives a lovely bouquet of flowers in his office and the card contains — wait for it — a four-leaf clover! So does this mean the League is actually some sort of privileged death cult? Every voting member has a right to profit off of tragedy but the trade-off is your buddies can also vote to have you kill yourself? Harsh!

But while the world burns around him, Will is fiddling around in Williamsburg. More specifically: in Bloom’s incredibly nice and tasteful apartment, which is chock-full of screamingly expensive modernist furniture and, oh, the windows are all newspapered over — definitely not sketchy. A burly landlord lets Will in because ... why? Bloom isn’t “officially” dead or anything, so what about this makes sense? But no time to dwell on logic, because Will quite easily locates a handgun and then, behind some fake vinyl, a safe. And this is the most mind-boggling thing of all: If you’re going to hide something in Williamsburg, you should keep it as far away from the vinyl as possible. That’s always where the hipsters go first! Regardless, Will proves to be very good at spying, mainly because he remembers Hal, the forgotten computers analyst who can do magically convenient things, like teach Will how to open a safe over a cell phone, definitively prove that Donald Bloom was flying to Galveston on Atlas-McDowell’s dime, and, most impressive, teach him how to get from Williamsburg to Central Park in less than an hour.

Why Central Park, you ask? Because that’s where he’s set to meet Katherine. Could he have met her in her current apartment, since he’s been there twice in the last day? Sure! But this is more dramatic. Plus, she’s decided to start taking advice from her dead husband and head to (yet another) safe house. And who is waiting for her there? Why, it’s Andy, the world’s weirdest painter/hookup artist! No, really! She’s totally sleeper cell: claiming that she’s “one of the people protecting” Katherine. Also, she has a gun and, judging by her “methods” of protecting Will, we’re going to go ahead and assume that she’s a proud graduate of the Kevin Costner Academy of Bodyguarding and General Life Skills.

“Mrs. Rhumor, if you’re not with me you’re dead,” Andy declares, purposefully. Also? Not true! Because Andy is either (a) lying or (b) worse at protecting people than she is at seeming sane and trustworthy. Because as soon as they get to Central Park, she lets Katherine wander into a crowd where she is helpfully injected with fast-acting poison by Mr. Roy. (That’s how you do murder, Donald Bloom!) Andy does nothing to stop this. In fact, she recedes into the background while Katherine (whom she is “protecting”) dies in the arms of Will, Andy’s sort-of boyfriend. So Katherine dies. Excellent. She accomplished so very much in her time on this show, from wandering hallways to sitting down on the floor occasionally. And in the end, she didn’t even give Will the DVD! Some nominal Internet research suggests that Miranda Richardson’s agent is Paul Lyon-Maris of the Independent Talent Group in London. After this ridiculous waste of her talents, we humbly suggest she seek out new representation. And fast.

Back at API, everyone is in a tizzy. Spangler promotes Grant to team leader. Tanya quits because Amy Winehouse called her back she can’t take it anymore. “Why do I torture myself?” she asks before saying she’d rather write books, which, by the way, is totally torturous. Will and Maggie have another one of their patented bizarre interactions where he spazzes and she tells him to take care of himself, and then he rests his head on her bosom in a totally professional manner. And then he embarks on his endgame: to do his job and present the facts to his superior. So it’s back up to the roof for one last hurrah, where Spangler is busy almost but not quite killing himself.

This final confrontation between our boring hero and his hammy nemesis is well-played. With Will stridently declaring that his “full report” is ready, but there remains “one flaw” in the analysis: motive. Michael Cristofer uses his eyelids to bat away Will’s blunt accusations as if they were an irritating fly: “The reasons [were] bigger than David. Or you. Or me.” Will points out that it makes no sense to kill innocents on a train just to get one man — true! They could have just Katherine Rhumor–ed him! But before any of this gets too intense, Spangler tells Will to go ahead and make his report. “Knock ’em dead,” he hisses. “Do you really think anyone is going to give a shit?” (Us: no!) And then he walks away — to ignominy? To a bullet in his head? To a comforting bowl of Weetabix? And Will is left out on the ledge staring a a four-leaf clover. Scene.

We have to admit: It’s a pretty ballsy move to make the final beat of a frustrating, purposeless show be about the hopelessness and pointlessness of everything. We suppose we could take it as a powerful reflection of the nihilism and rudderless narrative of our own post-9/11 world. The wheels keep spinning. Little guys like Will who try to do the right thing are crushed under the boots of more powerful interests. The truth is never preferable to a “clean” story.

But we’re not going to take it like that. Because, honestly, Rubicon didn’t do anything to merit such a high-minded interpretation. The ending was a cop-out. Will’s quest meant nothing and led to nothing. It was a folder of crazy papers, and Will himself didn’t even have a cute bathrobe or eccentric addiction to Earl Grey tea to make it interesting. It still seems to us that creator Jason Horwich’s initial idea for the show was a good one: a texturally rich, stylish conspiracy thriller inspired by the great films of the seventies. But making a show about smart people is incredibly hard work: The characters need constantly to be doing smart things (à la the crossword puzzle-puzzle in the pilot), or else it gets ridiculous fast and you end up with taped-over DVDs and a computer genius in a cage who can pick locks via text message. The underseasoned, season-long mush we were left with in its place — jammed with bizarre “character-building” moments like Kale’s coming-out dinner and tackily spackled with tasteless images of actual torture and terrorism — was at first frustrating and then, ultimately, depressing.

But enough. It’s over. Thanks to everyone who read along and commented. While we rarely agreed, it warmed the jokey, occasionally jaded heart of this particular analyst to read well-reasoned, impassioned arguments in favor of the show. Our recommendation to you all: Instead of waiting for the unlikely event of a second season, why not join us in enjoying a cocktail we’ve invented to remind us of all the good times we spent with the API gang. It’s called the “Katherine Rhumor” and making it is a cinch: simply fill a juice glass to the brim with vodka. Then muddle yourself.

Cheers!

Photo: AMC