Mark Watches ‘Rubicon’

What would you do if you suspected that the stories you were being told were not real? What if you thought a conspiracy theory was no longer a theory but actual reality? What if you began to realize that you were a small cog in a destructive machine? If you’re intrigued, then you should watch Rubicon.

Once I knew that I was going to liveblog Razor and delay my start of the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica so I could suffer for a bit, I wondered what one-off reviews I could provide for this fabulous community. I thought about doing a movie, but I think those should be saved for a liveblog so that my reaction can be documented. I don’t think what I do here necessarily works for something that can be seen in one sitting, though that does remain to be seen. IT COULD TOTALLY WORK.

Sort of like how Mark Reads works like a book club, Mark Watches feels like a television club to me. We have a main focus for what we’re discussing, but I wanted to experiment with finding a way to both recommend something I love and to give a platform of discussion for those of us who have seen it. I don’t expect there will be a whole lot of these in the future, but I think it’s an interesting way to fill in scheduling gaps and to talk about television shows that might be flying under your radar!

Note: This review will be free of all major spoilers and most minor spoilers as well. I will include a few spoiler points that I want to talk about in the comments and they will be cyphered with rot13. But I don’t want to spoil anyone for the shit-that-gets-real in this show because it is a beautiful thing to witness.

I started watching Rubicon at the insistence of my roommate way back in January. The easiest way for any human being to get me to watch a television show is to say, “It’s like watching a novel.” DONE. WATCHING IT. It’s how I got into The Wire years ago as well. (Side note: I cannot and will not reduce any opinion of that show to a single post. It is impossible. It is offensive. That show deserves all the goddamn books written about it.) But my roommate warned me: This show would end and I would be saddened by it.

Rubicon was only given one season and it’s the tragic nature of the television industry that caused it, which is unfortunate. So, know going into this: while the main story is indeed wrapped up and you will feel an immense emotional satisfaction by it, there are a lot of things left unsaid and unanswered, and you will never find out what they are. At the same time, the fact that Rubicon only gets one full season gives it a mystique that highlights just how special it is. It is a snapshot of the post-9/11 world, of America in a time that is both politically fragile and volatile; it gives us a slice of the reality that most people never even consider, that a group of highly powerful and highly rich white men control things we will never have a single say in. Without any defined ending to this, the show becomes less about the intricate plot and more about the bleak state of international affairs.

At the center of Rubicon is Will Travers, an intelligence analyst at the American Policy Institute. If you’re already confused, that’s perfectly fine. Confusion will happen when you watch this show. It’s a constant sensation, but it’s one that becomes familiar and welcomed. Rubicon does a fine job of distilling the unfamiliar and foreign nature of intelligence work and explaining it to the audience without every simplifying it to a point that it stops feeling realistic. By the fourth or fifth episode, it becomes very clear what the analysts in this show do, why they exist, and how very important their work is to the fate of the entire world.

And let me just state this openly because it needs to be said: Rubicon is like reading a long, fulfilling novel. The first four episodes or so are extremely slow for modern television, and that is half of the appeal of it. It might be a weird thing to say, and I acknowledge that. Why would you be attracted to a trudging plot? Well, that’s slightly ingenuous; a lot does happen happen on this show, but it is extremely rare that the music swells during particularly shocking plot reveals, or that the camera pans perfectly to show a character’s reaction to some new development. That’s not to say that other shows are inferior because of this! But it reminds me of shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad; moments that are integral to the entire plot of an episode or a whole season are treated as fleeting events of everyday minutia. The show does go to great lengths to be detailed enough so that you can not only eventually understand the full scope of what’s going on, but you can feel as if it doesn’t insult your brain.

In that sense, Rubicon borrows heavily from old political thrillers like The Conversation (one of the finest movies I have ever seen in my whole life) or All The President’s Men. This is about building tension over eleven hours, and then bludgeoning you with shock, terror, and disbelief for the final two episodes of this show. By creating a meticulous and almost impenetrably complex story, the show inherently rewards those who pay attention and stick with things the entire time. Actually, that’s a great way to explain the sensation I felt at the end of the final episode: I felt satisfied and rewarded. This show as exhausting to watch, but once I gave it a second viewing six months later, I appreciated how complete this fictional world was.

It helps that there’s nothing here in the plot that ever seems fantastical. Given the imperialistic and secretive nature of the United States government, there is not a single second of Rubicon that feels fantastical or out-of-place. The analysts at API interpret information from various sources around the world to predict what international figures and political groups and movements will do, and the show never forgets that this is something the government does without accountability. What impresses me about the depiction of API is that it both respects the process and the industry and is highly, highly critical of it; there’s an episode in the show (I won’t say which one) that deals with the doubt and moral implications of ordering a man killed while you sit at a table in sunny New York City.

Yet none of this would work as well as it does if it weren’t for the brilliant way a deeply-complex political thriller injects the very human characters into the narrative. Will Travers’ guilt and curiosity would not be believable if the show did not build out his character so openly. Rubicon constantly switches perspective between the main cast of characters: Will is the main focus; Katherine Rhumor finds herself thrust into the conspiracy by a family tragedy; Maggie must deal with her role at a company that routinely ignores her, both professionally and personally; Miles balances his intellect with his disastrous personal life; Tanya’s guilt over her job, which is not what she expected, causes her to lash out in destructive ways; Grant, a longtime employee of API, navigates his own sense of entitlement to seek out new alliances; and this is just the tip of the iceberg of the complicated and morally grey cast of people this show gives. I haven’t even spoken of the bewildering Kale Ingram; I say “bewildering” because it is a constant source of intrigue and frustration to crack through his stoic exterior, and it makes him the most fascinating character of them all. Is he on Will’s side? Is he a patriotic character, or a villain? A best friend or the worst enemy that one can have?

You’ll notice that at this point, I haven’t really said much about what Rubicon is actually about. I’m hesitant to say much at all beyond the fact that it addresses political hegemony and the idea of a conspiracy theory becoming real because Rubicon is best watched with an open mind and without many preconceived notions of what it’s about. On top of that, there are two gigantic and shocking plot twists in the very first episode that I wasn’t spoiled for and they provide a proper tonal nod for the scope of the whole show. (Seriously, don’t Google this show and read the basic description of it, because most spoil both of these plot points.) Rubicon is about the unexpected, and the suspense that builds over the course of thirteen episodes comes from the fact that it preys on your own sense of paranoia. Just a few episodes in, this show started to affect the way I perceived the events on the screen. It literally feels like you’re being spied on. You start getting nervous about the physical arrangement of space when you see Will’s apartment, or when Miles is alone in his office (as he often is). You can’t anticipate who is involved, what “side” they fall on, or what might happen to any of the characters who become increasingly entangled in the overwhelming web of deceit and horror.

All you can do is watch the inevitable unfold. You can start to feel the hopeless nature of the government creep under your skin. You can start to recognize the same patterns that Will does, and you can start to piece together the details, but you’ll never have that final piece until the end. You’ll sympathize with most of the main characters, desperately wishing to hug them through the screen, and you’ll viciously hate a whole host of other ones. You’ll begin to appreciate just how quiet and understated the music and dialogue is on the show, and then you’ll notice how things get louder, more abrasive, and more blatant as you move from one episode to the next.

And when you figure it all out, it will disturb you in ways you may never have experienced. It terrified me because there is no saying that this isn’t happening now, or that it happened in the past already, or that it’ll all start tomorrow. Rubicon is rooted in a bleak, oppressive reality, and the show takes this idea very seriously. There are a few moments of laughter and adorable smiles, but this is a serious show. (Ultimately, you’ll see why making this a humorous thing is almost offensive as can be.) But it’s worth the time that is spent on it, even if we will only ever see on season of it. It’s one of the most detailed shows I’ve ever seen and, much like The Wire, it is political without ever seeming like the show is jamming its ideas down your throat. It’s a deeply subtle show, and it’s one of the things that makes it so entertaining and so different from what’s on television right now.

Watch Rubicon. It’s worth it.

Note: There is one moment in the second half of the show that has Miles relating a transphobic slur. For a show that never seems to tread even CLOSE to being problematic about most of the content of the stories, it’s really distracting, especially because there’s no other moment like it on the show. The context surrounding it is even more bizarre, as two characters are discussing what sort of scandal would get more attention. So, full disclosure, it’s there. I cannot find which episode it’s in, but I wanted to give a heads up as a trigger warning of sorts.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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19 Responses to Mark Watches ‘Rubicon’

  1. enigmaticagentscully says:

    Oh, this is a really neat idea! I love to read a nice long review of why I should watch a certain show, but it's always so hard to find any without spoilers on the internet…I'm actually pretty excited to see what you choose for the next few days!
    'Rubicon' doesn't sound like the sort of thing I'd usually watch, but since it's only one season long, I might give it a shot when I've got a moment. Sounds intriguing…and I do love me some government conspiracies.

    Incidentally, I'm so with you on the whole 'loving TV that could almost be described as a novel' thing. Though I hate to stan Babylon 5 again (I'm sorry, I know I do it far too often) that phrase always bring B5 to mind. Since it's a show with a 5 year long plot arc with beginning, middle and end planned out beforehand, it really IS like a televisual novel. You can't just jump in and watch any random episode, you have to see it from start to finish to really understand the characters and plot lines.

    • nanceoir says:

      re: B5 — Ha, I totally had that same thought when I reached that part of Mark's post. I think that was something that my brother used to get me to watch the show originally. That and I think comparing it to The West Wing.

      (I just rewatched "The Gathering" the other night, so I'm ready to move onto the series proper again. Yay!)

  2. nanceoir says:

    …there is no saying that this isn’t happening now, or that it happened in the past already, or that it’ll all start tomorrow.

    "All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again."


    I haven't seen Rubicon, but I am intrigued by it now. I think I'll put it on my to-watch list.

  3. xpanasonicyouthx says:


    There will be spoilers here and it is REQUIRED that you rot13 them.

    Go to:

    Type your comment.

    Hit Cypher.

    Paste the nonsense here!

    You can do it in reverse to translate it, too!


    • John Small Berries says:

      Or, if you use Firefox, install LeetKey, then select the text to encrypt or decrypt, right-click and choose LeetKey – Text Transformers – ROT13. Decrypting works right on page text, too, not just in text entry fields.

  4. John Small Berries says:

    Perhaps I'll give this show a second shot, then. I watched the first episode, thought it was a really slow ripoff of Three Days of the Condor, and didn't watch any more of it.

    • xpanasonicyouthx says:

      oh god THAT MOVIE IS SO GOOD. I believe the writers/creator took a lot of inspiration from that movie, but it ultimately departs from how that movie's story unfolds.

  5. Suzannezibar says:

    Iiiiiiinteresting. I have been looking quite desperately for a new television show since Doctor Who ended, and this sounds like it hits a lot of my "Oooh! Show!" buttons. And pitching something as being different from what's on television right now is even more perfectly up my alley, since I am rather uninterested in most of what's on television right now :P. I might just give this a shot!

  6. chikzdigmohawkz says:

    Seriously. I mean, I just saw the other day that one of the creators of CSI has another three cop shows in the works for CBS. Three! It boggles the mind…

  7. Ryan Lohner says:

    I'm calling that tomorrow is season four of Breaking Bad. At least, I hope so.

    • monkeybutter says:

      I think it's something else, but I wouldn't mind going on about Breaking Bad. It's the best drama still airing, and everyone should watch it.

  8. Nightfly says:

    I tried starting this a while back, but I only managed one, maybe two episodes. I don't mind things being slow, but this actually made me fall asleep. Nothing exciting happened. I might try to watch it again, if as you say it picks up after a few episodes, but it isn't high on my list…

  9. ChronicReader91 says:

    Hmmm, sounds interesting. I love the mere idea of a novel in TV form, so that's definitely a good selling point. 😉

    Confession time: I’ve never seen The Wire, and I actually haven’t the slightest idea what it’s about. But after seeing you rave about it so much, I’ve decided to check it out soon.

  10. monkeybutter says:

    Not on netflix or comcast, boo. 🙁 I'll remember your recommendation and give it a shot, though!

  11. Noybusiness says:

    Speaking of B5, your Suggestions page still doesn't reflect the fact that you said you'll watch it…

  12. queenelizthe3rd says:

    Ok, WHERE IS THIS TV SHOW??? No, seriously, I've looked absolutely everywhere– it doesn't seem to be on DVD, in stores, online… curse you Mark, you can't do this thing where you rave about something and give me no way to watch it!

    Anyone have suggestions?

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