Rubicon

It’s probably a little bit late for me to urge everyone to start watching AMC’s Rubicon, given that the season finale is this Sunday. But then again, this is the Netflix On Demand era, and maybe a modest boost in online sales will encourage AMC to give it a second season.

TV shows don’t get a lot of time these days to find their footing, and if this week’s episode is Rubicon’s last, that will be why. The pilot had the languid, meandering pacing of a mid-afternoon nap, which would have been fine if any of the characters had come into any sort of focus at all. But there was potential there in the way the lead performers were able to deliver dry exposition with some level of conviction, and in the creeping sense of dread. It was hard to find the show’s pulse, but at least it seemed to have one.

Turns out a lot of that was due to a major personnel switch-up: the lead show-runner (and creator) got swapped out mid-stream, and a conceptual rejiggering ensued. The first three episodes ended up being throat clearing, but the fourth, well. What was originally a fairly generic, if still intriguing, conspiracy thriller turned into a workplace drama-cum-morally ambiguous meditation on the War on Terror. The conspiracy mytharc was still there, but no longer suffocating, and the conspiracy itself started to seem less like an all-powerful Illuminati then a group of very rich, very unscrupulous men who had found that they could get even richer by toying with the lives of millions. That, to me, was a far more plausible and far more unsettling proposition. The banality of evil is always going to be scarier and more interesting than the Dark Side of the Force.

As for the workplace drama side: the supporting cast got fleshed out enormously, and the show finally started to take full advantage of its national security think tank setting. Much is made of the personal sacrifices these characters make, but the big draw for me—and probably for a significant chunk of my readers as well—is how much of the show is kind of porn for national security wonks. Most of our heroes have never fired a gun, but they spend a lot of time debating the relevance of classified documents and fighting the sprawling bureaucracy of the DoD and CIA. Somehow all of this is rendered in a way that’s engaging, suspenseful, even stylish.

Timely, as well. Most episodes remind me of the Washington Post’s Top Secret America at least once. Both draw the same conclusion: national security is a confused, murky business, now more than ever. What makes Rubicon so chilling is how it suggests how easily someone inside the enormous massive security complex to manipulate it to their own advantage and against the interests of the United States. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing not happening on a micro scale with some regularity; Rubicon imagines it in the macro.

(This post was prompted by a well-worth-reading interview the AV Club did with Henry Brommell, the replacement executive producer. Check it out, and then track down and check out the fourth episode.)

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