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The Time Is Right to Rediscover Rubicon

Photo: AMC

Nine years ago, AMC was riding an original programming high. After trying to compete with Turner Classic Movies at its own game for over two decades, the veteran cable channel developed two flagship original dramas that would define their era of television. Mad Men and Breaking Bad were well on their way to cresting their creative peaks in 2010, which meant it was time for AMC to expand its programming lineup in hopes of a three-peat. What would be its next groundbreaking series?

Enter Rubicon, an espionage drama inspired by ’70s conspiracy thrillers—The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation, and All the President’s Men are the big influences — with updated post-9/11 anxiety. Created by Jason Horwitch, the series follows Everyman intelligence analyst Will Travers (James Badge Dale) whose investigation into the mysterious death of his mentor David Hadas (Peter Gerety) leads him to discover a shadowy cabal of elites who use data from his employer, private intelligence agency API (the American Policy Institute), to manipulate global events for profit. Rubicon immersed its viewers in an all-too-familiar paranoid environment. Someone is always watching. Danger lurks behind every corner. No one can be trusted.

AMC promoted the hell out of Rubicon that summer with vague trailers promising mystery and action. It aired the pilot three times over a span of three months: once after Breaking Bad’s third-season finale, again following the fourth-season premiere of Mad Men, and finally in a two-hour broadcast of the first two episodes in August. Though the series had its share of critical champions, Rubicon was dogged by low ratings that can be partially attributed to its combination of chilly tone, measured pacing, and complicated political plot. The series concluded its first and only season on October 17. Two weeks later, AMC premiered its new post-apocalyptic series The Walking Dead, whose pilot episode netted 5.3 million viewers. Ten days after that, Rubicon was quietly canceled. The Walking Dead will air its tenth season this fall.

Correlation doesn’t imply causality, so it would be inaccurate to definitively claim that The Walking Dead’s success sealed Rubicon’s fate, but it did signal the limits of AMC’s commitment to niche visions. Despite Rubicon’s admirable trust in its audience to follow its various threads, there just weren’t enough people watching for AMC to commit to another season, especially when it had a ratings juggernaut on its hands. It’s frustrating yet understandable that zombies were ultimately the better bet than government conspiracy.

Yet that doesn’t explain Rubicon’s commercial unavailability for the better part of this decade. After its departure from the iTunes store, one could neither purchase nor stream Rubicon in any legal capacity. The series subsequently faded from collective memory save for a handful of obsessives who soon began to sound like Rubicon characters whenever they talked about the series. Now, AMC has righted this wrong and added the series to its subscription-based service AMC Premiere, finally allowing old fans to rewatch the series and potential new ones to experience it for the first time.

Truth be told, Rubicon slightly stumbled out of the gate due to a behind-the-scenes shake-up. Horwitch left the series after writing and producing the pilot, citing creative differences with the network. TV veteran Henry Bromell took over as showrunner and retooled the series in a few key ways. API evolved from a civilian think tank to an intelligence firm connected to, but independent from, the United States government. Bromell placed greater emphasis on API’s workplace dynamics, expanding the roles of Travers’s analyst team — wiry Miles Fielder (Dallas Roberts), newcomer Tanya MacGaffin (Lauren Hodges), and stubborn stalwart Grant Test (the late Christopher Evan Welch) — who advise the government on key foreign-policy decisions. As a result, Rubicon moved away from its narrow focus on the central conspiracy, which dominated the first three episodes, toward a broader examination of the intelligence community.

Though Horwitch’s original plan for a labyrinthine, Alan J. Pakula–esque conspiracy fell by the wayside, Bromell actually splits the difference between Rubicon’s two sides quite well. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Bromell persuasively argues that the series wouldn’t work if it were even “80 percent about the conspiracy,” because then “you’re gonna be chasing that story all the time and it will lead you.” It’s easy to imagine a much less successful version of Rubicon that led viewers down an endless rabbit hole of missed connections and dead ends, drawing out a narrative that would eventually be forced to produce manufactured, disappointing results. Instead, Bromell created a compelling world beyond Will Travers’s adventures that not only gave the series a longer runway, but also provided more points of intersection between the larger conspiracy and API. Everything and everyone is still connected, just not in the same way as originally envisioned.

Bromell’s retooling ultimately made Rubicon more successful, less of a film tailored to television’s demands and more of a full-fledged hour-long drama with a compelling ensemble cast. In the interim decade, the API story lines have proved more memorable than the conspiracy plot. Take episode four, “The Outsider,” the series’ first home run, which partially follows Miles, Tanya, and Grant as they have 48 hours to advise the CIA on whether to conduct a drone strike against a member of Al Qaeda. They have incomplete intelligence and it’s likely the strike will be ineffective, potentially totaling a residential neighborhood to take out one man. When asked if the pilot is a good shot, Miles snarks, “Can you really call him a pilot when he’s 3,000 miles away operating a joystick?”

Written by Richard E. Robbins, “The Outsider” neatly captures the psychological toll these types of assignments take on the lowly analysis team. Bromell constantly emphasizes the fundamental unsexiness of API: the drab, nondescript office building, the fact that API’s entrance is literally a door tucked away in an alley, the “war room” that mostly consists of a long conference table in a basement. But the decisions API analysts make have wide-reaching effects on countless lives, and it’s never clear if the intelligence provided to them has been designed or manipulated to produce a predetermined result. As the trio have an after-work drink, they contemplate if they made the right decision by giving the go order. Later in the season, they discover the strike was unsuccessful and that their target survived long enough to be tortured in a black site. It’s no wonder that the group’s coping mechanisms for the job are either denial or, in the case of Tanya, drug dependency.

While Rubicon’s workplace elements help ground the series, its conspiracy story line also proves very effective, especially as the dots are connected in the back half of the season. Badge Dale excels as a suspicious, manic personality convinced he’s on the precipice of answers while surrounded by a maze of questions. His descent into Harry Caul–esque paranoia over the course of the series remains a highlight: In between skipping work to investigate his own whims, he frequently tears apart his apartment looking for bugs and constantly looks over his shoulder to find tails, both real and imaginary. Rubicon acutely understands that obsession acts like a virus that can spread to multiple people. In the case of Will’s superior, Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), a former black-ops agent who was once tasked with performing assassinations at the behest of the CIA, the conspiracy is just another drop in the bucket. It confirms that American progress has been and will continue to be under siege by enemies from within. But when Will finally spills his crazy theory about the insidious nature of API to Miles, you can see how he’s unintentionally ruining his colleague’s life by bringing him into his madness. The truth doesn’t always set you free. Sometimes it’s just another prison.

Bromell also pulls off a stellar structural gambit by chronicling a parallel narrative involving widower Katherine Rhumor (Miranda Richardson) and her own investigation into her wealthy husband’s suicide, which opens the series. For most of the series, it’s almost entirely separate from Will’s investigation and API, but remains in conversation with the main story line. Symbols and names recur between the two, but Bromell maintains enough distance to make Rhumor’s story feel like its own show. This creative decision undoubtedly frustrated many loyal viewers, as they wondered how her story would eventually tie into the main action. At the series’ weakest moments, the Rhumor material does feel like a stall, but it’s truly all worth it for the crystallizing moments when Rhumor’s paranoia intersects with Will’s as they team up to uncover the truth. Only serialized television can produce that particular brand of payoff.

However, Rubicon’s most lasting legacy might be its chief villain, the impeccably named Truxton Spangler, played by character actor and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Michael Cristofer. The head of API, Spangler resides at the center of the show’s conspiracy, but for most of the series’ run, he’s just an eccentric, fastidious boss. Cristofer’s raspy voice and clipped pronunciation gives Spangler the gravitas of a powerful man who’s seen a lot and has allowed none of it to faze him. His office on API’s top floor screams “ivory tower,” literally holed up away from the consequences of his actions. His motives remain forever shrouded in mystery, and yet his enigmatic nature compels on its own merits.

While Spangler’s puppet-master tactics are chilling, especially when he’s orchestrating various murders, his best moments reside in lighter, throwaway scenes. When asked by the FBI to take a polygraph, he hilariously shoots back, “If I’m your leak, this country implodes. Crumbles. In its entirety. From the inside out.” As Spangler vets Grant for a leadership position, he makes him stay after hours while waxing nostalgic over scotch about pulling all-nighters in the old days, blissfully unaware that he’s keeping this man from his family. But his shining moment remains the “tie speech,” where he convinces a D.C. intelligence official to support API’s bid to remain outside of Congress’s purview. It’s one of the best TV moments this decade has produced.

Rubicon’s series finale left the door open for a second season that would never come. It was frustrating at the time, but time has been kind to the episode, which wraps up 90 percent of the narrative while leaving just enough room for a viewer’s imagination to run wild with the rest. It’s admirable that the conspiracy never beggared belief — “wealthy elites front a corporation to capitalize off global catastrophe” scans as just another headline — and yet Rubicon never shirked away from the moral damage such a dastardly plot leaves in its wake. Will ultimately learns that his good intentions were exploited by those who don’t care about solutions at all.

There’s no telling if Rubicon would have found an audience in our current media environment. Maybe if it premiered on Netflix or Amazon it would have run for a few seasons. Maybe it would have bottomed out just like it did nine years ago. Still, there might not be a better time for this series to be rediscovered. Paranoia and fear now ripple through every facet of the culture, rightfully affecting everything and everyone. What better way to exorcise such emotions than revisiting the most paranoid show of the decade?

The Time Is Right to Rediscover Rubicon