You can tell that Rubicon is a realistic espionage thriller because the entire cast speaks in hushed whispers while the ambient sounds of New York City nearly drown them out. It’s an old trick that director William Friedkin used in The French Connection and The Exorcist to subtly convince audiences that the story took place in the “real” world, not the stylized world of movies and TV. But in truth, this reality is as contrived, if not more so, than that of a glossy MGM musical. It’s hyperreal and achieves the desired effect of keeping the viewer quietly on edge.
“Quietly on edge” is also good way to describe Rubicon’s protagonist, Will Travers (James Badge Dale). A brilliant young intelligence analyst, Travers is a man whose screws seem wound a little too tight. Everything is internalized. It’s a good thing too, since his job requires the utmost secrecy. Travers works for the American Policy Institute, which is a foreign policy think tank located on a nondescript street in NYC. Along with a handful of others, he is responsible for going through stacks of intelligence data and helping to form opinions for the best course of action for the U.S. For the most part, their advice has little consequence, but this changes one morning when Travers stumbles onto a strange code hidden across several newspaper crossword puzzles. It all relates to the image of a four-leaf clover, with three of the leaves representing the major branches of power in the U.S. government. What the fourth represents is unknown to Travers, but it’s this branch that initiates the series of mysterious deaths and shadowy intrigue that keeps the analyst quietly on edge.
Rubicon spends more time sustaining a mood of building paranoia than it does on more modern trends of mind-blowing plot twists and jaw-dropping cliffhangers. Stylistically, it owes a great deal to slow-burn ’70s conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. In fact, the show’s fine cinematography is nothing if not an outright homage to the work of the great Gordon Willis, whose off-kilter, modernist framings created paranoid urban landscapes of steel and glass in both The Parallax View and Rubicon’s other major influence, All the President’s Men. One scene in episode four, “The Outsider,” even presents a clandestine conversation in a dark Washington D.C. parking garage, immediately bringing to mind Bob Woodward’s secret meetings with Deep Throat in the classic Alan J. Pakula film. And the images are driven by an insistent minimalist score by Peter Nashel that is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work for Friedkin’s Sorcerer.
However, the influence of ’70s cinema goes even deeper than mere style. The world of Rubicon seems completely trapped in the mid ’70s. It clearly takes place today and there are references to modern technology, but these are mostly glossed over. The data analysis is done by reading reports in manila folders, not on Google. There are blackboards, and most of the work is done in pencil. The eccentric head of the office, Truxton Spangler (playwright and filmmaker Michael Cristofer), still obsesses over handcuffed briefcases like an agent on Get Smart.
There’s a casual sexism to the show as well. Women are second-class citizens almost in the manner they were in season one of Mad Men. New team member Tanya (Lauren Hodges) is actually castigated by a male colleague for not getting them doughnuts. “Getting the doughnuts is the most important part of your job,” he yells. Their secretary, Maggie (Jessica Collins), seems to be “owned” by the sinister Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), who has her spy on his team. The only exception is Katherine Rhumor, played by Miranda Richardson: Following the suicide of her wealthy husband, she begins to look into his secrets and discovers he was living (at the very least) a double life. But it’s her wealth that makes a difference, not her character.
It’s obvious that Katherine and Travers are both headed in the same direction, but the fact that their stories only tangentially overlap at this early stage is illustrative of the show’s risky, measured pacing. The story unfolds very slowly while impressionistic details accumulate. Such a subtle approach would be risky enough for the movies, but with commercial interruptions and the often passive nature of TV viewers in general, Rubicon may find it hard to achieve the same success as flashier AMC shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
That said, the show creates a fascinating and wonderful hyperreal world of shadowy figures, secrets hidden in codes, and perhaps even the revelation of a giant conspiracy. It’s not completely original, but there’s currently nothing on TV even remotely like it.