Rubicon: A Post-mortem, or The Power of Uncertainty
I've been putting this off since the final episode. I think I've been waiting until I knew whether or not there would be a second season. Unfortunately, I now know that there won't be, so this post becomes a post-mortem of both season and series. Note that while for the most part I try to be vague about important plot elements, this is obviously very spoiler heavy.
There was a recent blog post following the cancellation of Caprica about the challenges facing an entire genre, and while I didn't comment on it because I have never seen an episode of that show, I can certainly sympathize with its author. Part of me wants this, like the Caprica post, to be a discussion of why Rubicon didn't catch on. Why it wasn't popular. But such a discussion would rapidly become self-indulgent, because I think by its nature Rubicon was only ever going to appeal to a very small demographic. One that is patient, enjoys putting pieces of the show's puzzle together themselves, and finds the idea of a 'conspiracy thriller,' with few conventional thrills and a conspiracy that can only shape events at a great distance over a lengthy span of time a great way to spend an hour every Sunday.
Instead, I wanted to consider why I like it so much. I have watched many seasons of very good television shows, from The Wire to every single episode in the run of Buffy. Why did this subdued little office drama leave such a mark on me that I'm telling everyone I know about it, and forsaking a chance to watch the rarely televised San Jose Sharks to instead write a blog post?
On a simple level, it's easiest to say I like Rubicon because it is a good show. Outside of some stumbles out of the gate, the show is well written. Though it features significantly less dialogue than is normal for an hour long drama, what's there is often memorable. Kale Ingram explaining why he does this job, what he believes in even though it exposes him to the very worst of the society he seeks to defend. Truxton Spangler explaining to a group of government officials why they should trust, in Will, a man they don't know. Even the very last line of the series, "Do you really think anyone will give a ****?" sums up the moral dilemma at the show's core succinctly. Beyond that, the technical aspects are of the calibre you would expect from an AMC drama. In particular, the Bethesda Fountain scene from the finale (if you're curious I believe it is still viewable on the show's website) is simply a breathtaking sequence of cinematography. On a deeper level, the show is rich in atmosphere. From the background music to the choice of camera angles, the show harbours a palpable feeling of paranoia. And this touches on what I consider the show's greatest success.
Watching television and movies has given me the impression that working in the intelligence sector is exciting. Full of endless dangers, interesting people, and the sexiest men and women in the world. Having little personal exposure to CSIS or the CIA or the FBI, I can't say if this is true or not. But of all the visions I've seen, I'm willing to bet Rubicon's comes closest to being true. At the very least, it's the most believable. Far from the most exciting though. Were Jack Bauer working for API, Truxton Spangler's brains would have painted the walls of his office somewhere around episode 4. No, with the possible exception of Kale, the cast of Rubicon aren't superheroes. In some ways, they're barely functional.
Consider Miles. He is a genius, who like the rest of his co-workers is able to see patterns in evens and information that most people would never be able to connect. But when it comes to connecting with other people, he struggles. Not because he is cold and distant, but because the stress of his job is slowly eroding the qualities that make him kind and lovable, leaving a stressed, bitter shell. Two examples most clearly show what the job has done to Miles. First, he speaks regularly with pride of his wife and children. But because of its nature he cannot discuss his work at home. He has no outlet for all of the stress and moral dilemmas he faces as a day-to-day consequence of his job as an intelligence analysts. So, as he claims to his co-workers, he tells them that he is a videogame programmer. But this too is proven to be a lie, at least within the context of recent conversation. Though his family life is never shown except for a single telephone conversation, from the tone of his voice, the tone of his wife's voice, and his body language, it is clear they are seperated, in large part because the stress of his job has changed Miles.
These changes, and the stress which produced them, are most clearly shown in one of Rubicon's most memorable moments. As much as I enjoyed the final product, the show got off to an inauspicious start. After writing and filming the first episode, the show's creator and original show runner left. The new head writer ended up taking the show in a very different direction, even though he was left with the original pilot. Thus for the first few episodes the show struggled between two separate visions. With its remarkable fourth episode, the show clearly found its identity.
While Will is away, Miles and the team must examine intelligence reports, compare it to information they have on file, and then make a recommendation about a potential missile strike against Kateb, a high profile target. The situation is complicated by several factors. First, the information itself may not be accurate, it comes from what is later proven to be an unreliable source. Even if the information can be trusted, it does not guarantee that Kateb is at the target location- only that there is a high probability that he may be there. Also, the target location is a residential area. If executed, the strike will kill numerous civilians, including children.
What follows is one of the most compelling sequences I have ever seen on television. The team attack the information from numerous angles, searching for faults, considering the cost of lives, against the risk of an attack orchestrated by Kateb. From the beginning Miles expresses his distaste with the assignment. While he acknowledges that Kateb is a threat, he also emphasizes the fact that 'surgical strike,' implies a greater degree of precision than is bourne out in reality, and that for the strike to be legal they must prove Kateb is actively involved in a current threat against the United States. Later, when they find evidence that children live in the target building, Miles says, "I don't remember it being this hard the last time." When a co-worker expresses concern for a new member of the team working on an attack assessment for the first time he says, 'she must hate us,' to which Miles replies, "I hate us." Ultimately, the team approves the strike, deciding that the threat posed by Kateb exceeds the cost. None of them are happy about the decision. We are not shown the attack, and its results are not revealed until much later in the season. What is made clear is the toll taken on Miles and the others, the consequence of reducing human life to a 'cost-benefit analysis.' The toll of making decisions that will change- and end- lives without knowing they are correct. The power of uncertainty. Already poignant, the sequence is made even more devastating in retrospect when it is revealed that the attack was not successful.
I love Rubicon because these last few paragraphs could have been written about any of its major characters, included a variety of scenes and plot lines, and it would still make my point. One of the fundamental challenges in writing is in deciding what information should be told, and what shown. Rubicon works for me, and I love it, as an exercise in showing character through small details. When Will is forced to take a life, the show does not include a grand monologue. He does not see a therapist, tell his girlfriend, or ever discuss what he has done, beyond calling Kale for assistance. Later, there is no evidence left save a single bloodstain on his wall. He scrubs at it vigorously- showing rather than telling that his action has left a mark on him, forever changing him even if no one else learns his secret. Likewise, at no point does Kale say anything like 'I can make problems disappear.' He just calmly walks Will into a room, locks the door, and turns on music to hide the sound of a drill as he disposes of the body. We are not told that Miles is separated from his wife, it is shown in their conversation.
And in the end, we are not told why Truxton Spangler has orchestrated events the way he has. We are simply left to consider what he's said and done. It would not have been difficult, in the final scene of the series, for Truxton to explain himself. He could have, as one popular theory goes, spoken of the danger of relying on oil, and claimed he merely sought to limit the reliance of the United States on foreign states for fuel, and that he championed the cause of alternative fuel sources. Or he could have claimed he wanted to incite panic, so that the public would be willing to put more power in the hands of the military/intelligence agency, thus increasing his influence. Or he may have just been in it for the money. Any of those options works fine, and I suspect any other series would have picked one of them, or something similar. Instead, Rubicon merely shows Truxton's words and actions, and invites the viewer to imagine their own cause. As with the attempted strike on Kateb, nothing is certain, the information is incomplete. Even if Will is able to bring Truxton down will it make the world a better place? Will it matter? Will anyone outside a very select few even know? In that regards, sad as I am to see it go Rubicon had a fitting end. Sometimes the best information is that which is never revealed to a reader, and instead leaves them to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
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