I was talking with a friend this week about how much we both like Rubicon (and if you guys think I'm insane in my love of this show, he loves it EVEN MORE, comparing it to The Shield in its ability to mix standalone plots and overarching serialized stories), and one of the things we talked about was the conspiracy arc. At first, I was arguing that the conspiracy stuff drags the show down. Every time we stop in to see Katherine Rhumor or have Will flip through old newspaper clippings, the show drags to a halt as Miranda Richardson and James Badge Dale try to find a new way to stare at stuff compellingly. Initially, my friend agreed with me on this point. Yet as the conversation went on and we talked more and more, the more we realized that one of the things that makes the show work is the fact that the conspiracy stuff is so non-specific and generic.
Now, don't get me wrong. I still think that the scenes where Will tries to pull all of the threads together and figure out just where this conspiracy goes are the weakest in the show's repertoire. There's only so many ways you can play the Badge Dale squint, compelling though it may be, and the show has cycled through all of them. Furthermore, the conspiracy stuff hasn't really led to anything interesting. At the same time, though, I think the series has been able to get away with the interesting character stories it's been telling in every episode because of the fact that the conspiracy stuff hasn't really led to anything interesting. Look at what we know about the Atlas McDowell conspiracy: There are some rich and powerful white men. They knew each other as kids. They have done very bad things, and we have some vague ideas of what they've done (Nigeria pops up a lot).
Really, that's all we need to know. If you go back and look at the closing moments of the Rubicon pilot, the series is clearly setting us up for a storyline where the Atlas gang controls EVERYthing, like the goofy scene in that X-Files episode where the Cigarette Smoking Man insists the Buffalo Bills never be allowed to win the Super Bowl. Yet the series has backpedaled from that as quickly as possible. Most real-world conspiracies are a little clumsy or have so few members that keeping things a secret is easy. (And even then, there was ample intelligence that SOMEthing was going to happen in the biggest small group conspiracy of our time - the plot that led to Sept. 11.) Most real world conspiracies are conducted right out in the open, in places that wealthy Westerners really don't care about. I mean, if the heads of Wal-mart and Microsoft were causing political unrest that led to the death of thousands in Nigeria, would YOU really give a shit about it? Would you even KNOW about it?
"In Whom We Trust" isn't as strong as the series very finest hours because it turns its gaze more thoroughly to closing off the loose ends of the conspiracy. There are some fantastic scenes in it and some very good storylines. But there's also a sense of the show trying to bring definition to something that works best when it's undefined. For example, I love that scene where Bloom shows up at the park to talk to Katherine about how she needs to stop meeting with Will, lest the both of them be killed (particularly when he points out how strange it is that she spells her last name with an "H"). But that's a scene that's completely non-specific. The conspiracy is just behaving as a conspiracy of powerful, evil men would act. We don't need to know their ultimate goals to know that they'll make good on their threat.
Similarly, I really enjoy everything Kale does in this episode, which he seems to spend diligently making sure that all his bases are covered for when the shit inevitably goes down. (And I think it's cool that the show is now drawing explicit parallels between him and Will, what with the both of them doubting their lovers after discovering suspicious items.) Kale's the best man Truxton Spangler has got. That also means that he can pretty much ditch the people Truxton has following him at will to do … God knows what. It's the doubt that leaves Truxton worried, but Kale is essentially going about his day to day business. He's even willing to give you a little spending money for magazines and snacks to make the bus ride to Denver go more smoothly.
At the same time, though, the show is bumping up against the fact that we've gotten barely any hints as to what the ultimate goal of the conspiracy is in this context. That's fine when the show is starting out and even in the mid-season, but as we head toward the end point, it becomes less and less possible to just roll with the nebulousness. For the most part, I'm going with it because Will and Miles and Tanya and especially Kale are all fantastically drawn characters. But it cuts some of the teeth out of Truxton's frustration when we don't really know what the stakes are of Kale constantly disappearing. Just what is he endangering that Truxton's working on? We've gotten hints here and there, but not enough to draw a picture, should we really want to. The dots we have to connect are simply all over the place.
But Rubicon can turn some of this on a dime when it wants to. I'll admit that the stuff with Qateb from week to week was not my favorite storyline, but I loved the way this episode tied together a bunch of seemingly random data points and then gave us the one piece of information that make it all stick: Every time the terrorist bombs a target, he's doing it at the same time, which is 4:20 p.m. in New York City. Now, Miles says, they just have to sit back and wait for more information to appear, to try and figure out just why Qateb is bumping off everybody he worked with, just what operation is in progress that they don't already know about. From a bunch of pieces of random information, Rubicon is somehow able to assemble intense dread.
Maybe that's because the city of New York has become as much a character in this thing as any of the actual characters. "In Whom We Trust" has any number of establishing shots that don't find the usual New York City landmarks (even the one shot that does - of that park where Katherine and Will meet overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge - is filmed from a different angle than the bridge usually is) and seem to be there simply to capture the flavor of where this story takes place. If Qateb and his band of terrorists strike the city, it's not just bad because the characters have failed at their job or because we generally understand terrorist attacks to be a Very Bad Thing but because we've seen enough of this city that Rubicon takes place in to be able to orient ourselves in it (and all of the characters). Geography can be so important to a series like this, and Rubicon is taking an actual place and laying its own geography over the top of it.
- Andy's back, and she still seems sorta crazy! But at least she sticks up for herself, which suggests she's not a stark, raving loon.
- I'm starting to really like the music on this show. That cue that played over the establishing shot of the guy pushing the cart full of trash bags was really moody and nice.
- Tanya being relegated to the filing room was a fun little side plot, particularly when Grant went down to help her with her filing. (I liked the weary sarcasm of Lauren Hodges' delivery of the line about where she had to file the papers on Azerbaijan and China.)
- Maggie's kid being abandoned in the hotel room was less interesting, however, except for when Kale Ingram wandered through to make everything all better.
- Another very good scene: Will and the librarian discovering the papers Will wanted had all been checked out by David. I liked that the scene eventually abandoned the "David Haddis" bit of dialogue and just turned to the librarian looking at Will as if to say, "Who do you THINK checked it out last?"
- I really enjoy every moment where we get to meet some of the other people who work at API and seem to have no clue that it's part of a multinational conspiracy to do … something. Tonight's new character: the filing lady who's the pride of her family.
- Maybe I'm just appreciating the New York flavor because I was there this week, but I do think the show does a good job of capturing the city at street level and not as a collection of landmarks you may be familiar with.