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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rubicon: "The Outsider"

Illustration for article titled Rubicon: "The Outsider"
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I've watched "The Outsider" three times now, and I like it a little better every time. Considering I likely would have given it an A- after my first watch, that's an encouraging sign. This is the episode where it really feels like Henry Brommell and his new writing team have started to make the show they want to make instead of clumsily trying to keep up with whatever show Jason Horwitch was making. The conspiracy stuff is still there, but it's shifted to the very back burner, and the two main plotlines - involving Will and one of his bosses going to Washington, D.C., and the rest of the team trying to decide whether or not a terrorist should be killed - are both deeply compelling. I mentioned last week that I'd almost love if the show completely ditched the conspiracy stuff and focused on the human cost of this kind of intelligence work, and this episode is making that argument far more persuasively than I ever could.

The best thing about this episode is that it clearly lays out just who everyone in the think tank is and how important Will is to them. He's the guy who holds them together, the glue that keeps them functional, and without him, they have a lot more trouble deciding whether or not the terrorist needs to die (I'm not even going to try to spell the terrorist's name). Beard Guy becomes Miles, a man who nearly crumbles under the weight of responsibility. Quirky Brunette becomes Tanya, a woman who likes to have a few drinks but is clearly not certain of where the line is. Grant, we knew already. These scenes are genius because they suggest the human toll without coming right out and saying what it is. The three agonize over their decision, and when Will comes back, he's able to just say, "Yeah, you guys made a good call, and we'll know if your decision to kill that guy resulted in success or not in a while." It's a wonderful way to show how the people at Will's level and above are capable of compartmentalizing and just how alien that can seem.

What I love about this episode is the texture of it. It feels, for lack of a better word, lived in. Grant tries to rub a stain off of his shirt when he goes to drop off the report. Tanya and Single Mom have a run-in in the bathroom that feels like an actual conversation between coworkers and not strained exposition. Will's boss (whose name is TRUXTON SPANGLER, good Lord) can't read his cell phone readout because his eyes are failing him. Will spends his morning making himself breakfast, then looks at a woman who stands across the alley in her apartment and smiles at him. Katherine unpacks a box of her dead husband's effects and loses her cool when she sees all of the blood. And when she begins her first significant investigations into his death, prompted by a cell phone message she wasn't meant to hear, she gets her first lead from a Chinese restaurant takeout menu.

None of these are huge, significant moments. None of them are big revelations. They're just the sorts of little character moments you might expect people living in this world, living this life, to have. The problem with so many conspiracy stories is that it eventually comes to seem as though the entirety of the world is wrapped up in an impossible conspiracy and everybody is in on it. For all I know, Will's across-the-alley neighbor will eventually become a part of the main storyline, but in this episode, she's just a friendly face he sees every morning, a person that he doesn't know, but knows all the same. "The Outsider" is great at capturing these little moments, these places where the giant, inhuman machines that these people live and work in give way to little moments of connection that fade almost as quickly as they spark.

As much as I liked everything at the office, though, I was even more enamored with what happened down in Washington. Sure, Will gave a list of the names from David's code to a colleague and found out that they had all worked in the same Middle East office back in the 1980s,but the conspiracy stuff took a back seat to Truxton and Will trying to butter up various Washingtonians, all the better to keep the government from poking around in the think tank's business. Truxton has been your basic, shadowy figure on the show up until this point, but this episode did a good job of humanizing the guy. He has a daughter and a son. He has father issues. He gives a great speech to the men he and Will meet with about a tie. He may be a member of an elaborate, shadowy conspiracy to undermine the U.S. government (or whatever the conspiracy's ultimate aims and Truxton's ultimate allegiances end up being), but he's also a man, a man whose eyes sometimes fail him and who's capable of saying just the right thing at just the right time.

Meanwhile, Katherine is beginning to figure out that her husband's death wasn't a simple suicide, thanks to a cell phone message she hears where a man named James tells Tom that if he keeps doing what he's doing, he knows what's going to happen. Miranda Richardson spends most of the episode wordless, wandering her giant house and trying to put the pieces together. Somehow, it's the best the series has used her so far, and when she goes to that Chinese restaurant to begin unraveling some of these pieces all by herself, it feels like a significant moment for the show, like things are going to start coming back together and start doing so quickly. (Another moment like this is when Miles hands Will the photo of the man from the list of names, and Will is surprised to find that the man is in New York.)


There are times early in a show's development when it becomes crystal clear to both the show's staff and the people watching it that the show is not really focusing on the right things. I don't begrudge Rubicon the conspiracy stuff, since I suspect that's what got the show sold in the first place, but it's clear that what Brommell and company are more comfortable writing - and what makes the show more interesting when they do - is this stuff about who these people are when they're not in the midst of a giant, global conspiracy to turn the world over to a group of shadowy elites. The central question of Rubicon so far has been a little muddled. The central question of "The Outsider," and the one I hope the show embraces going forward, is "Just who are these people we entrust with our safety?" That suggests to me an immensely more compelling show.

Stray observations:

  • One moment I could have done without: Tanya looking out the window at the little line of schoolchildren. A bit too over-obvious.
  • On the other hand, I loved when Grant said, immediately preceding this, that he was just trying to find a way to make it easier to kill these people. That seems the central question of American foreign policy for the last ten years, and the show found a way to put it in words simply and handily.
  • Truxton's obsession with the right briefcase was just another nice little humanizing moment for him. I hope he doesn't turn out to be a bad guy. I kinda like him.