How ‘Rubicon’ became much more than a conspiracy thriller

“I want to know what it all means,” insists “Rubicon” hero Will Travers (James Badge Dale) late in the conspiracy thriller’s next episode (Sunday at 9 p.m., AMC).

“It means you’re getting closer,” Will is told.

Ordinarily, that kind of exchange on a puzzle show like this would drive me nuts. (It reminded me of half the conversations Jack and Juliet had while he was a prisoner at the start of “Lost” season three.) The more we see of series that are built around withholding information from the main characters and the audience, the less patience I have for them.

And yet even though I’m still not sure if “Rubicon” knows where it’s going, it’s quickly become one of my favorite dramas on television. And before I get too bogged down in the launch of all the broadcast network shows, I wanted to throw a little love at “Rubicon” for the benefit of those of you not reading the weekly episode reviews (because you’re likely not watching), after the jump…

Like I said, this show should be setting off alarm bells left and right for me. The creator, Jason Horwitch, left after the pilot over creative differences, which generally doesn’t sound like a recipe for success for a show as story-driven as this one. The pace is incredibly slow – like one of the ’70s films like “The Parallax View” or “The Conversation” that inspired it, only with the plot stretched out over 13 hours – and there’s one subplot in particular, involving Miranda Richardson as a wealthy widow looking into the circumstances of her husband’s suicide, that moves even more glacially, and only occasionally feels connected to the rest of the series. Eight episodes in (counting Sunday’s episode), I’m as in the dark about what the big conspiracy is about as Will is, and I have a more omniscient view of this world than he does.

But Henry Bromell, who took over as showrunner from Horwitch, has done a lot of very smart things. First, he reconceived the show’s workplace setting, the American Policy Institute, from an amorphous think tank into an independent part of the American intelligence community, which considerably raises the stakes of the conspiracy, and which allows some of the show’s non-conspiracy stories to have greater weight. One of the more memorable episodes of the season saw the members of Will’s team – Grant (Christopher Evan Welch), Miles (Dallas Roberts) and Tanya (Lauren Hodges) – having to issue a ruling on whether a terror suspect should be assassinated with a remote drone, and Sunday’s episode sees Miles and Tanya conscripted into a related operation taking place in an undisclosed location where another terrorist is suffering through an “enhanced interrogation.” By making API a part of the larger spy world, Bromell has created the framework for the series to easily tell compelling stories that don’t have anything to do with the main arc (or at least don’t seem to), and to keep the series going whenever Will finally unravels the big mystery.

Along similar lines, those standalone stories have helped make all the characters deeper and more engaging. Where a lot of these shows (I’m looking in your direction, “FlashForward”) fall down is in dwelling so much on the mechanics of the big story that they give us no reason to care about any of the people trapped inside it. James Badge Dale stood out even in the pilot – he’s so good at looking twitchy and/or angry that he’s the perfect leading man for this kind of story (someone ought to clone him to appear in future versions of it many decades from now) – but through the course of watching them work, we’ve gotten to know the other people at API very well. As Kale Ingram, the boss who claims to be helping Will but whose motives remain unclear, Arliss Howard has been fantastic, all casual menace and unexpected charm. (Sunday’s episode is a big one for Kale.) The three members of the team are all illustrating in different ways how this kind of work can easily drive anyone crazy, and I relish every carefully-chosen pause in the dialogue of API’s Dick Cheney-esque leader, Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer).

Third, Bromell brought in Michael Slovis, the genius director of photography of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” and Slovis has turned the show’s lower Manhattan setting (including the API building itself, which is a real office building overlooking the East River that the production took over) into a disturbing character itself. As with “Breaking Bad,” this is a show that looks so good I’d watch it even if the actual storytelling was a snooze – which it thankfully isn’t.

Again, the key to making this kind of show work is to make sure that the parts that have nothing to do with the mystery are so strong on their own that viewers won’t feel ripped off if the solution isn’t wholly satisfactory. I didn’t love the direction “Lost” went in its final season, but that series had so much to offer – the characters, the action and suspense, the imagery and comedy and more – that I never felt like I had just wasted six years watching it.

I’m fully prepared for “Rubicon” to not stick this landing. I have no idea if Bromell knows what Horwitch’s plan was, or if he cares, or if I’ll ultimately care when I find out what Spangler and his shadow cabinet are up to. But I’ve come to enjoy this world – the characters and the look and the atmosphere – so much that I’ll accept it if the whole crossword puzzle thing is ultimately a bust.

And I’ll hope that AMC can overlook the so-so ratings and order a second season. The parts of “Rubicon” that work are too good to give up on out of fear over the parts that might not.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at