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Intersection of Life and Faith

Rubicon: They Really Are Out to Get You—Again

  • Alex Wainer theFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 17 Sep
<i>Rubicon</i>: They Really Are Out to Get You—Again


How old is the conspiracy thriller genre?  Was it born out of the theories that the truth had never really been revealed about President Kennedy's assassination?  Did it start in the post-Viet Nam/Watergate years when the public learned of nasty behavior by the White House and the CIA?  In the ‘70's We got films like The Parallax View and The Three Days of the Condor where handsome leading men like Warren Beatty and Robert Redford faced shadowy threats as they pursued a hidden cabal of scheming from usually "rogue" US intelligence operatives in high places.  Or perhaps the father of the genre was Alfred Hitchcock with his "wrong man" thrillers like The 39 Steps and North by Northwest wherein an ordinary man, wrongly accused of murder, is chased by both the police and the real killer.  Regardless, the modern conspiracy thriller is characterized by an almost despairing sense of paranoia with multiple levels of complexity and a pervading sense that, as the joke goes, "you're not paranoid if they really are out to get you." 

 Each cycle of conspiracy thrillers seems to arise out of a sense that we're not being told the whole truth by the powers that be. In the1990s, the success of The X-Files, arose out of the cult of belief that the government had been hiding the truth about UFOs and other paranormal phenomena.  Believing "the truth is out there," FBI agent Fox Mulder doggedly pursued clues in an increasingly convoluted and deadly scheme to conceal alien activity.  He learned to "trust no one" since almost anyone he met could be part of the labyrinthine conspiracy.  Now that we live in a post-9/11 era, is there another conspiracy thriller waiting to be told?

That's the idea behind Rubicon, the new series from AMC, the folks who brought us the acclaimed series Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  In an online video at the AMC site, one of the producers states that the new series is meant to recall the types of movies I've mentioned but set in an era where the gathering and interpretation of intelligence in the war on terrorism may be itself a dangerous game, given the consequences when the US invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence that the country had weapons of mass destruction. 

The pilot episode begins with a mystery as a wealthy man opens his morning paper to find a four-leaf clover leading him to pull out a gun and shoot himself.  We then meet the series hero, Will Travers (James Badge Dale), a researcher at a government intelligence agency.  His melancholy manner stems from his survivor's guilt when he was late to meet his family at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Travers and his colleagues are charged with combing through oceans of data culled from diverse sources such as satellite surveillance photos, financial data and media content.

Travers discovers a striking pattern in some newspapers' daily crossword puzzles that seems to suggest a larger meaning for those who would detect it.  He shares it with his superstitious boss and former father-in-law, David (Peter Gerety). David seems to dismiss it but shares it with the agency's head, Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), who asks if anyone else knows about it.  Soon, David is killed in a train accident and Will begins to suspect something is amiss when he finds David's car where he would never park it -- at the 13th space of the train station lot. And there are mysterious men standing around, too.

The pilot's tone is quite understated, almost leisurely, but tries to convey mounting suspense as we get a sense that there is a sinister group of powerful men at work orchestrating events to their own ends.

Now, all this feels pretty familiar if you've seen any of the predecessors mentioned earlier.  The conspiracy thriller presupposes that the hero must feel this rising sense of threat from forces unseen and that just about anyone -- a shadow or, as the first episode suggests, a fourth branch of government -- could be part of the threat to him and to democratic institutions.  The X-Files turned out to be making up its conspiracy as it went along and in nine seasons became too complicated to resolve satisfactorily.  Rubicon is supposed to have a 13-episode season but whether that's the whole story or it's to return for yet more playing out of the internecine plots may depend on its plausibility and the audience's ability to follow its maze of clues.  By nature, conspiracy thrillers are complicated; a feature film, at least, must wrap up its story in less than three hours but an open-ended television series of this complexity could be a harder sell to new viewers as time goes by. 

The opening credits (available at AMC's free sneak peek on their website) captures the "everything is connected" paranoid style of the genre.  Some viewers love tracking the rich details of such complex serial narratives but it's because we're truly intrigued by the mysteries and more importantly, the compelling characters.  Lost had this in spades, for example — even at its lowest point in the wandering third season, the characters kept me coming back. But so far Rubicon lacks compelling characters or anything striking or novel to make us pay attention.  We find no crashed jet on a mysterious island or alien investigations to intrigue us -- just a lot of ambiguity and a vaguely threatening tone.  Perhaps such a series is for those who enjoy the cerebral challenge of solving intricate mind teasers or, in Rubicon's case, crossword puzzles.


Rubicon airs on AMC, Sundays at 9PM eastern/8PM central. 

Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is a regular contributor to theFish.com