‘Rubicon’ – ‘You Can Never Win’: Meet me at Bethesda Fountain

A review of the “Rubicon” season finale coming up just as soon as it pays cash money to watch where I’m going…

“This job… it’s all about not taking care of yourself.” -Will

When this first, and possibly only, season of “Rubicon” began, there were two things I was uncertain about: the glacial pace, and whether the conspiracy storyline would have a satisfactory conclusion, especially since the man who created it wouldn’t be around to finish it.

Three months later, I’ve got no problems whatsoever with the pace. Taking the plot out of the equation for a moment, the tone, look and characterization made “Rubicon” one of my favorite shows of this year, and that slow burn has contributed to that. The American Policy Institute is not a place for the impatient, whether you’re working there or watching it on your TV.

But as for how Henry Bromell (both writing and directing) brought resolution to the story begun a very long time ago by Jason Horwitch? I have to say, I was quite disappointed.

Even factoring in Spangler’s insistence to Will that the conspiracy is much bigger and more complicated than he can imagine, I have to assume that the basic shape is as he explained it to Mrs. Rhumor a couple of weeks ago: Spangler and the rest of the Fishers Island bunch(*) used the intelligence gathered by API to both predict and, at times, manipulate world events so that they  would profit. In this case, the Galveston Bay attack wasn’t about slowing the supply of oil to America, but providing an excuse for an invasion of Iran where there would be many lucrative opportunities for companies like Atlas-McDowell. In other words, it’s one of the many conspiracy theory versions of 9/11.

(*) Here seen meeting in a vast, dark, spotlight-adorned room that couldn’t have been more ’70s if it had a disco ball.

So the show didn’t cheat on that score. It told us who the bad guys were and what they were doing. It’s what it did with those pieces in the finale where I felt let down(**).

(**) And before we get to those pieces, I should say that I’m viewing all of this as if “You Can Never Win” was the last episode of the show ever, and that therefore there won’t be a chance to address some of these issues later. But even if the show gets renewed, I don’t think the promise of later explanation was enough to justify some of my frustration here.

First, the amount of time we spent with Katherine Rhumor turns out to be completely pointless. She dies before she can give Will the DVD (he’s too freaked out to even notice she has it in her hand before he runs off), and she doesn’t even watch it all the way through so we can learn if there was anything new that David had to offer. (I did, though, appreciate how David and Tom Rhumor came back from the dead in this way to bring things full circle from the pilot.) She provided Will a couple of key puzzle pieces earlier, but overall the show never justified the amount of time spent on the character, or the presence of an actress as strong as Miranda Richardson.

Second, I was disappointed to see Kale so inconsequential in the finale. Bromell explained it as Kale taking the soldier’s view of this battle and living to fight another day. I can respect that, but Kale was too vital and important a character to be relegated to the sidelines here.

Third, I wasn’t happy to see Andy revealed to be some kind of player in this, particularly since her exact role was never really explained before she slipped off into the darkness. As I’ve said before, it seemed too implausible, too “24,” that a spy of some sort would be placed in an apartment across the street from Will. If her job was to get close to Will, that’s banking on pretty long odds that he would ever come over to say hi. And if her job was just to be there as a safe haven for Katherine (though I don’t think it was, based on her comments when Mrs. Rhumor showed up), why place her across the street from a key man at API? I liked the idea of Andy much better when she was just an ordinary woman randomly caught up in the maelstrom of Will’s work life. That played to the strengths of the show – the characterization and the portrait of intelligence work as a soul-crushing endeavor – where this plays to the show’s weaker aspects.

Fourth, like Truxton Spangler, I was expecting more brains from Will than he ever displayed. That’s the challenge of doing a show where your hero is defined by an extraordinary talent that he’ll then have to display for viewers to buy into or not. “Studio 60” failed in part because we were told the heroes were comic masterminds and yet their sketches were incredibly lame. Will was introduced to us as an utter genius, yet I never felt like there were many “eureka!” moments from him as the season moved along. Even the scene last week where he figured out Kateb was tied to Atlas-McDowell was a day late and a dollar short, because a lot of viewers at home had figured it out several episodes earlier. Will spent much of the season stumbling along, getting rightfully chewed out by Kale for doing stupid things. And in the finale most of the discovery moments come courtesy of API’s computer specialist, which seems to fly in the face of what the show, and this company, has been about. Obviously, much of the data that Will and Miles and the rest have to analyze come from computers, but my heart sank when I realized that the big climax of Will’s search was going to come as he and Miles watched Hal do a series of database searches. An analog show shouldn’t lean so heavily on the digital in the end.

And yet even with my disappointment at how the plot played out, the parts of “Rubicon” that always worked continued to do so in the finale. As always, the best material was about the toll this job takes on the people at API, up to and including Truxton Spangler himself. They’re all broken in different ways – Spangler’s break just manifested itself as an overdeveloped ego that ultimately led the shadow cabinet to send him one of those fatal four-leaf clovers.

That clover’s arrival was a nice example of how Bromell managed to give us a final scene that felt both ambiguous and yet very much an ending. We don’t know how Truxton’s going to die – by his own hand or Mr. Roy’s – but he and we know it’s coming. We don’t know if anyone in the government will actually care about Will’s findings, especially if Spangler’s dead, but he’s going to put it out there. If the show comes back, there’s more story, but if not, there’s a conclusion.

And that conclusion extended to the little arcs for the other characters. Grant got his promotion, Miles and Julia remained  together (even if he’s twitchier than usual after Will ropes him into the conspiracy), and Tanya wisely realized the time was right to cash out. (And the timing of her announcement, right after Grant’s promotion goes through but ultimately unrelated to it, was a very funny moment in a fairly dark episode.)

I grew to really enjoy “Rubicon,” and I’m going to miss these people and this world if it doesn’t come back. But the finale mainly showed how hard it is to pull this kind of season-long thriller plot, and why Bromell has wisely said that if there were to be a second season, he’d spend more time on stories of life at API. That’s what the heart of the show is, not in crossword puzzles and four-leaf clovers.

What did everybody else think?

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