In short: I totally enjoyed the pilot based on atmosphere and pace alone, but thought that the first episode took enough steps to hit a few character beats along the road as a way to show that the series isn’t going to be all about the web of conspiracies.
The second episode, “The First Day of School,” is much of the same, perhaps only more fine-tuned.
Though there are still a number of kinks to be worked out here including sharpening the characters and really selling us on why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling instead of just blowing through it in dialogue and solidifying the unbelievably vague conspiracy that’s driving Will Travers crazy, Rubicon gets a whole lot of mileage out of its icy cold sense of paranoia and low-fi atmosphere full of grays, browns and off-whites.
We don’t know much about Will’s life outside of his family’s death in 9/11, nor do we know just how much his relationship to the now-deceased David, but “The First Day of School” makes the most of the aftermath of David’s death and Will’s first day in a leadership position, all of which is dipped in a nice sheen of paranoia. The atmosphere here gives us the sense that Will’s profession tends to drive people insane in general as no one working at the think-tank feels totally “right,” but the culmination of the crossword clues, David’s death and the new job seem to quickly push Will into brand new levels of stress and tension. James Badge Dale plays just-about-to-go-insane very well and so while Will spends just a little too much time looking over his shoulder, breathing in the dark and assuming that it’s all about to crumble down, he sells it all. Oddly, these moments aren’t necessarily character-building or totally revealing because the story isn’t telling us much about Will as a person aside from he’s stressed, misses his friend/mentor and didn’t really want the new position at work. On paper, that’s fairly flimsy, but again, the shadows, ugly colors, long shots and extended pauses from the actors bring it all together.
In general, I also find myself invested in the office and its operations, if only for the oddity of it all. We’ve been so lambasted with technology-powered government agent products that it’s totally refreshing to watch people figure things out with pencils and their brains. And while the typewriter seems even too out of touch for this office — I can’t imagine Microsoft Word really hurting someone’s chances to deciphering code — I’m willing to go with it.
Moreover, Miranda Richardson’s character deals with her own paranoia after learning that her dead husband (who committed suicide in the pilot, in case you forgot) shockingly had a secret townhouse that was clearly used on a regular basis. She assumes cheating, digs for information from another sketchy-feeling friend and ends up with a whole ‘lotta nothing — except for a damn four-leaf clover.
The clover, the return of the wise old black man with knowledge about the crosswords — he created a prototype! for David! — and lots of creepy, vague dialog from Kale all hint at the larger conspiracy at hand, without saying a damn thing. Will figures out another code he finds in David’s office that says “they” hide in plain sight, but all that really leads to is more paranoia. Of course, I would never expect a series to open up its mythology in episode two, but I don’t recall watching a series that’s been so obtuse about what it’s about, even in the most general sense than Rubicon. I’m able to hang on and watch the mysteries get dragged along if the characters — or in this case, the tone and atmosphere — are good enough, but despite my enjoyment of it, “First Day” didn’t come close to attempting to clear things up. I’m assuming that the intent is to make the audience feel much like Will Travers in our paranoia and distrust of the things around us, but unlike the character of Will, we have no investment in this supposed larger picture. Our friend didn’t die, no one is chasing us — I think — so I’m interested to see how the series keeps the small amounts of story it has moving forward. Oddly, I’m more perplexed now than I was after the pilot as to how the series will tell stories on a weekly basis. Moving from one level of secretive white guys to another doesn’t really sound that intriguing and despite the workplace setting allow for a certain degree of ambiguity and distrust, eventually something has to give and someone has to talk. I think.
Or Rubicon will continue to give us ominous music, cinematography and art direction. So far, that’s been enough for me. But that giant hole where a plot should go needs to be filled. It’s kind of wild that I’m complaining about a lack of plot when most series about conspiracies feature waaaay too much of it and not enough character moments, but Rubicon doesn’t have enough of anything.