It’s tough work being an analyst. The long, pressure-filled hours. The terrible lighting. The solitude. The ordering of catastrophic air strikes. All of this was brought to the fore in this week’s mostly standalone episode of Rubicon. It’s also tough launching a television show for many of the same reasons (minus the air strikes), particularly one that aspires to be about people who think about things rather than people who do things and for that our sympathies are with the producers, especially in light of last week’s lousy hour which mistook Ambien for ambiance. (We grew even more forgiving when we learned that series creator Jason Horwich was replaced as show-runner sometime around the filming of that problematic episode.) As Kanye West might tweet: #ITSAPROCESS. And hey! That’s (segue!) exactly what “The Outsider” is about: process. Well, process and Chinese takeout.
One of the major tests of any TV show featuring an overarching “mythology” plot is seeing whether it can also pull of a standalone story. This is something Twin Peaks couldn’t do, and Lost didn’t bother trying to do, although, strangely, The X-Files was actually better at standalone episodes than it was at unfolding its ludicrously complicated backstory. (So the black oil was a bad thing? And the faceless aliens were angry about what now?) And so, after last week’s 60 minute exercise in monotonous wheel-spinning, Rubicon smartly takes a step back. After all, what good is wheel spinning if we barely know the gerbils spinning it? (METAPHOR.) So, this week Will travels to Washington, getting to know his ornery boss, Spangler. Meanwhile, back at HQ, the Super Team must decide whether to recommend the targeted assassination-by-missile of a reported Al Qaeda leader. Whoa, this is something the API does? And they do this using only Bic pens, newspapers and stacks of Xeroxes? Wow! We can’t decide if this is bad-ass, terrifying, or merely highly unlikely, but it does put Miles’s twitchy mania in a new, more sympathetic light.
We appreciated seeing the Super Team left to its own devices even if we still don’t quite understand what it is that they’re supposed to be doing. Told by Kale to “put Yuri Beck aside for the moment” (great idea! How about forever?), Grant, Miles and Tanya spend the next day and a half agonizing manfully (and womanfully) about whether taking out a purported Al Qaeda bigshot is worth the potential collateral damage such a strike might cause. There is much angst and rubbing of temples, as they are, for some reason, required to be unanimous about this. Miles is twitchy and humanist about it. Grant is stiff and declarative. While Tanya — who is still mysteriously popping pills and yakking in the bathroom — provides the show’s first actual joke (four hours in!) by cracking up at a separatist group’s nickname: MILF. Anyway, they approve the hit and in a nice show of backbone we actually learn that their advice was taken and a missile was launched. Target status? Unknown. Pretty big stakes for a bunch of nerds in a ratty office down by South Street Seaport, no?
Meanwhile, Will and the socially-challenged Spangler Acela it down to DC to lobby for the API’s continued independence from the political whims of Washington. You’d think the two would have more to talk about considering they are Planet Earth’s last two remaining dedicated newspaper readers, but no. Spangler instead gives a long soliloquy about the importance of a good briefcase. (Newspapers! Briefcases! Next week: why telegrams are better than emails, cassettes are underrated and, hey!, get off our lawn!) Basically, the two guys move from shadowy meeting to shadowy meeting, pressing the flesh with stereotypical military men (played by Kate nemesis, Marshal Mars, from Lost!) who actually say things like “financial sodomizing” and “bra-burning congresswoman.” Spangler ultimately scores some points with a long analogy about how the API is valuable to Congress because it has the independence to tell the truth about an ugly purple tie. The reason? The politicians don’t know Will. Will doesn’t know them. And more important: he doesn’t care. (But what if he likes purple ties?)
If the point was to give us a better sense of the scope of the API’s work — and the potential danger involved for Will if he continues to go rogue in search of answers — then mission accomplished. But once again Rubicon has chosen a difficult tightrope act: Will is our eyes and ears and throughout his trip to DC he’s frozen out by Spangler — even asked to leave the room so he and a nameless Silver Fox spy crony can catch up. Fair enough: Will is an outsider. Things are spooky. But at a certain point, just hearing ominous whispers isn’t going to cut it any more. We need specifics!
And so does Will — but slapping on a Newsies cap and actually having a secret rendezvous with (another!) anonymous twitchy white guy in the basement of a parking garage is a little weak. I mean, really? A parking garage? In DC? Was Hal Holbrook unavailable? Anyway, Will finds out that two of the names from last week’s baseball code are still active, both former CIA. One might even be in New York! Okay!
The less said about the Miranda Richardson plot the better. For the fourth straight week her dramatic arc involves mooning about a luxurious townhouse. Every so often she — wait for it! — OPENS A DRAWER! Or even (this is crazy, we know) WALKS DOWN A DARK HALLWAY. She also receives a box from the police containing her husband’s bloody suicide bathrobe which is super considerate of the Nassau County cops. Oh, and then she puts her Encyclopedia Brown hat on and goes to a Chinese restaurant. Where she orders (dun-DUN!) Mushu Pork! And also a side of intrigue, please! Because it turns out her husband and his buddy James got takeout together the night before he died. Chicken with cashews! Shrimp with broccoli! But Jim never has
a second cup of coffee shrimp with broccoli at home!
So, all in all an improvement over last week. The things we like (Will, the music, the direction, the overall sense of looming disaster) are all present and accounted for. But there’s still a lingering feeling that it might not pay off, that the gambit of making a show about process rather than action might be too hard to pull off. But we’ll keep watching. After all, what other kinds of takeout did Miranda Richardson’s husband order?!? Thai? Korean? Indonesian rijsttafel?!? The mind reels.
What We Know:
• The API is a non-partisan, high-level organization that has access to the intelligence gathered by all branches of government. And those branches can’t make sense of what they gather without the API.
• Clasps are more becoming on a spy’s briefcase than zippers.
• Tanya definitely enjoys a drink or twelve. Is this why she can’t keep her breakfast down?
What We Don’t Know:
• What is the message David was trying to communicate to Will? And what does it have to do with a bunch of ex-CIA guys, including a best-selling author?
• Who is the lovely painter that lives across an alleyway from Will and why is she allergic to curtains?
• Was a casting agency running some sort of white guy promotion when Rubicon was starting up? It seems downright bizarre that absolutely every person on this show outside of wise, Magical Recluse Ed — including guest stars and day players — looks alike. Maybe some color — or at least some personality to spice things up?