‘Rubicon’ Pilot Recap: A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

The AMC network may be slow to develop original programming, but its track record thus far with ‘Mad Men‘ and ‘Breaking Bad’ is enviable by any standard. (Let’s all do ourselves a favor and pretend that the misguided miniseries remake of ‘The Prisoner’ never happened, shall we?) This week, the network has rolled out its latest offering, the conspiracy thriller ‘Rubicon’. Based on the first two episodes, the show seems pretty promising.

Technically, the first episode ‘Gone in the Teeth’ debuted with a “Preview Event” back on June 13th. AMC re-aired it this past Sunday, along with a second episode called ‘The First Day of School.’

James Badge Dale (Chase from the third season of ’24’) stars as Will Travers, an intelligence analyst working for an organization with the blandly innocuous name of The American Policy Institute. Will is a very troubled man. “He’s not mopey; he’s introspective,” says one of his co-workers. But he has plenty of reason to be mopey. His wife and daughter both died in 9/11. He was supposed to meet them at the top of the World Trade Center that day, but was running late and stepped out of the subway just in time to see the first plane hit. That’s the kind of thing that messes a person up for life.

Now Will spends his days digging for patterns in books, magazines and newspapers. Most of what he finds is useless, but he has a skill for absorbing reams of information and leaping to make incredibly convoluted connections. In the pilot episode, he discovers a recurring clue pertaining to the Latin name for a four-leaf clover in the crossword puzzles of seven major newspapers. It’s too obscure to be a coincidence. He brings this to his superior, David (Peter Gerety from ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’), who is also his father-in-law. David brushes it off as likely an in-joke among the puzzle writers. But as soon as Will leaves the room, he immediately reports this to his superiors. This clue is much more significant than he wants Will to know.

Unbeknownst to either of them, that morning, a wealthy man named Tom Rhumor (Harris Yulin from the second season of ’24’) received a message with a four-leaf clover in it and promptly shot himself. (The news reports that he died in his sleep.) Over the course of the two episodes that have aired so far, these two storylines do not yet intersect, but they’re clearly connected in ways yet to be discovered. In the meantime, Rhumor’s widow (Miranda Richardson) learns that her husband left her a townhouse that she knew nothing about. This leads her to realize that he had a second life she never suspected.

When David is killed in a train crash on his way to work, Will is offered his job. He refuses at first, and contemplates quitting the business altogether. But something isn’t adding up. David was a deeply superstitious man with serious OCD issues. Chief among his phobias was an overwhelming fear of the number 13. And yet Will finds his car parked at the train station in spot #13, something he knows David would never do. Was David’s car placed there by someone else, or did he park it there on purpose as a message because he knew he was going to die?

Will accepts the job. When his bosses (who include Arliss Howard from ‘Medium’) order him to ignore the crossword puzzle angle, he assigns one of his analysts to work on it in secret, and also seeks help from an old friend of David’s who had once been a legendary analyst until the job eventually burned him out.

‘Rubicon’ is a very moody, slow-burn mystery. It clearly calls back to the famous conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, with especially notable parallels to ‘Three Days of the Condor.’ It’s also reminiscent in structure to FX’s legal drama ‘Damages,’ in the way that multiple disconnected storylines slowly converge on one another.

The first two episodes are pretty interesting. The characters are well-drawn, and the mystery is intriguing. However, the show hasn’t really grabbed me by the throat the way that ‘Damages’ did. This seems like the type of series that will play best in a marathon of back-to-back viewings. At this point, most of the clues are so vague that, to be honest, not a lot seems to happen in any individual episode. The pilot has a fair number of things going on to set up the storyline, but not so much with ‘First Day of School.’ Still, I look forward to seeing where this goes.

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