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Dead Tree Alert: Rubicon's Intelligent Intelligence

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Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME; Rubicon: Craig Blankenhorn / AMC

My column in this week’s TIME looks at the new AMC conspiracy drama Rubicon, debuting Sunday night, and its sudden timeliness. Depicting an intelligence analyst (James Badge Dale) who discovers a shadowy network while working for a private intelligence firm, Rubicon almost seems like a screen adaptation of the Washington Post’s Top Secret America investigation series.

The Post series explored how intelligence, post-9/11, has become handled by a sprawling, largely unaccountable and privatized shadow bureaucracy, with hundreds of thousands of contractors receiving security clearances. Rubicon—in which the fictional American Policy Institute wields great power by synthesizing raw intel for the government—likewise asks whether the means of security have themselves become a danger. Whereas 24 concerned itself with a few bad apples infiltrating an essentially good system, Rubicon, hearkening back to post-Watergate drama, wonders if the system is rotting from within.

The column looks more at the ideas of Rubicon than the review-y aspects. As for those: Watch it. I’ve seen four episodes, and while it demands patience, it’s worth it.

It’s a special trick for a thriller serial to avoid giving away too much too soon without feeling stagnant. But while after four episodes of Rubicon I know few particulars of the deadly conspiracy that Dale’s Will Travers is investigating, it doesn’t feel like a show where nothing is happening.

Part of the reason is the refreshingly different picture it draws of the intelligence business. There’s something Wire-like about Rubicon, which is not to say it’s in the same league as The Wire or that its vision is as sweeping (yet). But its patient approach to its subject reminds me of The Wire’s to police work. Before The Wire expanded to be a broad picture of the life and problems of cities, it was first a different kind of cop show: one that demonstrated that good police work is not about electron microscopes and chases that capture a suspect in 42 minutes. On The Wire, policing was a painstaking process—a case took a whole season—and it involved puzzle-solving, paper-chasing and, often, watching and waiting.

Likewise with Rubicon’s subject. Ever notice how little espionage there is on TV spy shows? The structure of most TV spy shows is really not much different from a cop show: someone travels to a location, maybe they wear a costume, they ask some questions, get into some fights, sneak into some rooms to find a USB stick, and bang, problem solved. The desk drones of API, on the other hand, aren’t even really spies per se. They hunch over dossiers in grey, cramped offices. But as the series makes explicit—not just in the main storyline but in its weekly subplots—they’re definitely in the espionage business, and in fact may be the most important part. The government is deluged with data, but without them to connect the dots, it’s all just useless noise. The skills Will and his colleagues bring—not combat, but high-order math and logic geekery—make them valuable assets.

So Rubicon’s slowness doesn’t play tediously; rather, it’s the sustained pleasure of puzzle-solving. (And, indeed, Will stumbles across the first hint of the big conspiracy through a clue simultaneously placed in several international newspapers.) The way the series shows the labor of thought, the satisfaction of finding a solution—and the reality that some “answers” will never be certain—makes the punch-a-number-into-the-computer insta-answers of a show like 24 seem hollow and unearned.

And Rubicon’s well-conceived aesthetics complement its slow-burn dramatics. Its cinematographer is Michael Slovis, who created Breaking Bad’s palette of briiliant color, but he takes Rubicon in exactly the opposite direction, to a purpose. Where the visual message of Breaking Bad’s desert blues and whites is exposure, Rubicon’s gray and beige signify enclosure. The visual scheme recalls the 1970s movies with which it shares an attitude, but it also accentuates API’s academic mustiness and—underscoring the eyes-everywhere conspiracy theme—claustrophobia. Also claustrophobic: the sets, which Rubicon accomplished by not shooting on a traditional soundset but instead leasing a cramped, six-story Lower Manhattan office building.

Inside API, those sets play off both the ’70s vibe and the notion of Rubicon as the anti-24. Rubicon is set in the present—when the action shifts to Washington, you see portraits of President Obama in the offices—but in some scenes you have to strain to find a computer in the offices. Instead, the camera lavishes attention on old-school trappings: world maps, globes, stacks and stacks of books. There is no other show on TV with a paper fetish like Rubicon has, and that both gives the series a feeling of timelessness and conveys a theme: that the most powerful and dangerous computers are between our ears.

Of course, a lot of action happened on 24 for a reason: that keeps people watching. At some point, Rubicon could exhaust our patience if it doesn’t develop the conspiracy storyline further. (One thread of that story involves Miranda Richardson, who’s investigating the suicide of her husband, which is evidently related to the conspiracy; but she’s so far removed from the rest of the action that she almost seems to be in a different show.)

But so far, it’s engrossing, both for the pursuit and for the picture of the people doing the brainwork at API: Will’s analyst colleagues, a bullpen of brilliant, stressed-out grad-student types, and the wrung-out, gray men who run the business, especially API head Truxton Spangler (well played by Michael Cristofer) whose commitment to the shadow world of espionage seems to have turned him into a walking wraith. And Dale (ironically, a 24 alum) does the tough job of conveying command without obvious explosive drama moments, capturing the commitment and intensity of a driven data nerd whose work often involves being alone and staring at things really hard.

Rubicon is not a show for the impatience, and it has the kind of ambitions that could set viewers up for a letdown. But so far, I admire its intelligence.

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