All the attention paid to the season finale of "Mad Men," last Sunday night more or less eclipsed the finale of AMC’s other Sunday-night drama, "Rubicon." It’s not clear yet whether Rubicon will be back for another season—it hasn’t exactly gotten rave reviews (New York Magazine’s verdict: “A promising show that started with a train crash ends up kind of a train wreck.” But complaints about the series’ slow narrative pace and uneven performances shouldn’t be allowed to obscure what made "Rubicon" so fascinating: its subversion, even deconstruction, of the very spy-thriller clichés it was built on.
When it started out, Rubicon seemed to be a straightforward homage to the Hollywoodparanoid-conspiracy classics of the 1970s. Like All the President’s Men, it featured an everyman hero—Will Travers, played by James Badge Dale—who doggedly uncovers a conspiracy at the highest levels of power. Like The Parallax View, it posited a secret organization that has the power to make people commit murder or even suicide on cue—the series opened with a distinguished-looking businessman receiving a four-leaf clover in the mail and promptly blowing his brains out.
Like The Conversation, it created a world in which everyone is under surveillance—a scene in which Will tears his apartment to pieces looking for bugs evoked Gene Hackman’s breakdown at the end of the Coppola movie. Most important, like Three Days of the Condor, it was set in a think tank—the American Policy Institute, Will’s employer—that turns out to be a government front. In the movie, the CIA ruthlessly orders the massacre of its own employees when Robert Redford accidentally uncovers a high-level conspiracy; in "Rubicon," it is Will’s discovery of a code hidden in a newspaper crossword puzzle that results in the murder of his superior, David Hadas (played by Peter Gerety), and sets the series’ plot in motion.
Yet as that last detail shows, it’s not easy to credibly imagine a '70s-style conspiracy taking place in the 2010s. At a time when the very survival of newspapers is in doubt, the idea that an all-powerful military-industrial cabal would use newspaper crosswords to send a signal feels laughably out of date. Likewise, the show’s attempt to recreate the mise-en-scene of those '70s films meant that practically no one at API—supposedly the most clued-in and powerful part of the intelligence community—is ever seen sending an e-mail or consulting a database; instead, they check out printed reports from a library, or make calls on an (easily traced) landline. When it turns out that the murdered David Hadas has left behind a clue for Will, it’s not an encrypted USB stick, but a document stuffed into the seat of a motorcycle.
This highly conventional premise and stylized setting help to explain why, when "Rubicon" began to change course in the middle of the season, it became so much more provocative. The plot involving Will Travers, while still at the series’ forefront, became less absorbing than the subplots dealing with his subordinates at API—low-level analysts played by Dallas Roberts, Christopher Evan Welch, and Lauren Hodges.
While Will was running around Manhattan dodging assassins, these characters were shown doing something plausibly like real intelligence work in the year 2010: sitting around a conference table, poring over mountains of useless transcripts and reports, trying to figure out the identity and plans of a Muslim terrorist known as Kateb. As the search for Kateb heated up, "Rubicon" showed how the intense pressure and secrecy of intelligence work takes its toll—not in showy, Conversation-style breakdowns, but in mundane forms like alcoholism and divorce. (As interviews like this one show, the change in focus was owed to a new producer, Henry Bromell, who has written about growing up with a father who was a career CIA agent.)
In the series’ best single episode, the characters played by Roberts and Hodges were flown to an unnamed location, to help question a suspect undergoing “enhanced interrogation.” All at once, "Rubicon" showed how these well-intentioned office drones were complicit in kidnapping, torture, and assassination, the real-life consequences of their analyses and reports. It was a pointed critique of torture-happy network shows like "24," which pandered to the post-9/11 appetite for vengeance. Yet "Rubicon" was by no means simplistic in its treatment of violence: When the analysts decided, after much soul-searching, to recommend a drone strike to assassinate Kateb, the viewer was left agreeing with the hard choice. And when, in the following episode, we learned that the strike had missed Kateb, but killed civilians instead, the real price of the war on terrorism was made concrete.
In staging this conflict between two styles of storytelling, "Rubicon" became a definitive spy story for our moment. The Will Travers plot repeated the old clichés of post-Watergate paranoia: a corrupt, all-powerful group of rich white men secretly run history from behind the scenes. In the secondary Kateb plot, we see how the official intelligence community is actually made up of flawed, limited human beings, who always remain two steps behind the enemies they are trying to fight. This is emphatically a post-9/11 vision, in which it is not the government’s power that frightens, but its impotence. In the end, Rubicon backed away from this provocative and honest view by tying Kateb to the same conspirators who were persecuting Will, a shadowy mega-corporation called Atlas Macdowell. You could see this development coming, but it still seemed to betray the interest in realism that had increasingly come to be "Rubicon"’s strongest suit. It will be interesting to see how Bromell and the show’s writers can manage this delicate balance in the show’s next season—if there is one.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.