Code Dread: AMC's 'Rubicon' crosses into delectably dangerous territory

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Rubicon," AMC's morose new drama about a team of code crackers that works in a blandly clandestine Manhattan wonk outfit ("the American Policy Institute"), has a quiet and almost sublime way of laying out its intricate premise. It takes its chances against all of the other television espionage dramas that are too loud and explosive.

Instead of bombs, "Rubicon" has brooding. Instead of car chases and karate ballets executed in form-fitting leather, it has . . . crossword puzzles.

This is not entirely surprising. In a way, "Rubicon" fits nicely alongside AMC's two other deliberate forays into slow-cooked dramas that have a cinematic excellence to them: "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

Most engagingly, "Rubicon" has James Badge Dale (recently seen in HBO's "The Pacific" as Pfc. Robert Leckie), with the saddest blue eyes in the world, as Will Travers, one of the institute's top analysts. Dale's performance is as puzzling and delightfully deceptive as "Rubicon" itself, one of those rare times when a role and an actor find instant tonal sync.

Will works on a team of four disheveled nerds who spend their days analyzing the un-analyzable. In a conference room each morning they are handed a new stack of mysteries ("the intake" -- intercepted messages, encrypted data, photos of known assassins having coffee) that various federal intelligence branches need solved or illuminated.

It's weird work done by pale, unhappy people -- of whom Will is the glummest.

"He walks around every day looking like his favorite cat just died," remarks the team's newest hire.

"Try wife and child. Try 9/11," replies another colleague.


Aside from the untucked shirttails and hipster messenger bags, this is our first indication that "Rubicon" is set in the relative present, with all its attendant fixations on conspiracy, deceit, terror and notions of shadow governments of the Code Orange era.

But this is not a Jack Bauer world. It's been noted that "Rubicon's" vibe seems descended from those cerebral "Parallax"-y and "Condor"-esque thrillers of the 1970s. "Rubicon" also has the beige-and-gray, washed-out feel of those times; it smartly references the ways (economic, political, cultural) the past decade can frequently bear an eerie resemblance to the '70s of parking garages, concrete and dourness.

But enough about mood; what about the story? It's dense -- and intentionally so. If you miss the first couple of episodes, you may as well not bother.

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