Movie theaters in the 1970s were positively overflowing with conspiracy films, from the real-life Watergate scandal of All the President’s Men to thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, Klute, and The Parallax View. But while these films captured the public’s distrust of public officials in the years following President Kennedy’s assassination, Richard Nixon’s resignation, and the Vietnam War, our own modern society seems more primed than ever for such paranoid dramas.
Enter AMC’s latest series, Rubicon, which launches Sunday evening with a two-hour installment (including the sneak peek of the pilot that aired earlier this summer). It seems to pick up the torch laid down by the aforementioned films and carries its paranoid flame into the 21st century, setting it down among the ashes of a post-9/11 society that thrives on the immediacy of information in the social networking age, the pervasive stink of scandal, and the omnipresence of CCTV cameras.
“It’s always hard being the youngest,” said star James Badge Dale. “ Mad Men and Breaking Bad have just raised the bar, almost to the point that it’s unattainable.”
It’s that culture of distrust and fear that Rubicon taps into, casting as its hero not the tireless journalists of All the President’s Men but rather an astute intelligence analyst, Will Travers, played by 24’s James Badge Dale ( The Pacific), who uncovers a global conspiracy that stretches beyond the walls of the American Policy Institute where he works and into the three branches of government—and beyond.
In the first episode, a four-leaf clover, acting as a symbol of a hidden fourth branch of the government, turns up as a clue in a series of crossword puzzles in major newspapers around the world. Its appearance causes a wealthy man to promptly kill himself in response, leaving behind a widow (Miranda Richardson) with too many questions.
“Everything is public property but there are still things which are incredibly hidden and incredibly private but then you find that maybe they’re not and they’ve been on show the whole time,” said Richardson regarding the situation in which her character, the appropriately named Katherine Rhumor, finds herself.
Just how Katherine’s story connects to Will’s investigation remains a tantalizing puzzle to be solved, much like the onslaught of information that has to be deciphered, analyzed, and assessed each day by the API staffers.
• This Week’s Culture Feast: 21 Essential Picks “Can you trust the immediacy of that information,” said Dale, speaking to The Daily Beast from the show’s New York set. “The idea that you can turn on cable news right now and get information right away should make you ask, who’s putting out the press releases, who’s giving you the real story? Someone orchestrates these things. There are men in rooms who sit down and decide what is our main story today and what is going to be our spin on it?”
It’s only fitting that Dale should be the one to ask these questions of the media. His character is a man who has given his entire life to the intelligence agency he works for, having lost his entire family in the World Trade Center attacks. Set and shot in Manhattan, the specter of 9/11 hovers uneasily over the action of Rubicon, a constant reminder of both the dangerous nature of the world and what can happen when such attacks aren’t averted.
“This was something that he was powerless to have control over, something that affected so many people’s lives,” said Dale. “It was instantaneous and felt random but yet someone had been planning it for years. One of Will’s biggest struggles is dealing with staying in the present and dealing with why things happen. He spends too much time in the past.”
Still, said Dale, Rubicon isn’t a 9/11 show.
“I’m hesitant to talk about it,” he said. “I’m a New Yorker and I lost someone very close to me on that day. I don’t think that it’s as important to Will and the show as much as it is to the implications of the randomness and violence of it.”
Even so, it represents a point of no return for Will Travers and the show itself.
The road to bringing Rubicon to the screen was not an easy one. Following an arduous development process, AMC granted a pilot order to Jason Horwitch’s as-of-then-untitled project, which revolved around the researchers at a government-sponsored think tank. But after the project was finally ordered to series about a year later, Horwitch left the project—allegedly due to creative differences—and was replaced by Brotherhood’s Henry Bromell, who took over as showrunner.
The American Policy Institute was altered to become an actual intelligence agency, though it’s one that’s vastly different from 24’s technologically advanced CTU, where Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer often barked orders to Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to call up CCTV footage with a few flicks of the keyboard.
It’s not the case with Rubicon’s API, where the emphasis is more on the human intelligence gathered by analysts, connections made by the firing of synapses rather than computer keystrokes. “We’re super low-tech, man,” said Dale, who admitted that Three Days of the Condor was one of his favorite films. “Like square wheel-type low tech… We ask the audience to forgive us a bit for not using Google.”
The effect grants Rubicon both a realistic aspect (no huge touch-screen monitors here!) but also connects it back to those early forerunners of paranoia cinema, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. “I wanted to use the series to approximate films like [those],” said Bromell. But he was quick to point out that “conspiracy is not just five guys in a room.” He sought to give Rubicon an intense feel as the overarching plot unfolds not just over the course of the season but several seasons.
Bromell is also no stranger to the inner workings of the intelligence community; his father worked for the CIA for 35 years. Ask him about the state of intelligence-gathering today and he’ll mention things like “pattern recognition,” “trans-national terrorism,” “centralized information,” and “human intelligence.”
It’s that last comment that connects most clearly with Rubicon’s overworked analysts. “They are there for idealistic reasons,” said Bromell, “but the job makes them wary and weary.” It also makes them deeply suspicious of each other, and for good reason. An early plot twist—when Will’s mentor is killed in a train collision—pushes him into a position of authority, one that doesn’t sit well with him. And, as always, there are eyes watching, even within these corridors of power.
“It’s hard to fill a dead man’s shoes,” said Dale, “especially when that man was a member of your family. Will is very unsure of what he’s doing and where he is going but there is no going back at this point… He’s had a personal Rubicon, another one.”
But it’s AMC who is also facing its own point of no return. Rubicon marks the third original series the cable network has launched, after the critical successes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The common thread among the three, said Bromell, is the high quality of each of the productions. “Each is the best at what they’re doing,” he said, "whether that’s period drama, taut drug-fueled adrenaline ride, or conspiracy thriller.”
But it also means the stakes are high and everyone is indeed watching.
“It’s always hard being the youngest,” said Dale. “ Mad Men and Breaking Bad have just raised the bar, almost to the point that it’s unattainable… But it puts us in a position to really swing for the fences. Either this works or we fall completely on our faces. I think it’s a wonderful way to work. And a wonderful way to live.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.