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Quick Hits: Rubicon E1.02 — “The First Day of School”

August 7th, 2010

I think Rubicon might have what it takes to be a real winner and a hit. As such, I’m putting some faith in it and am anointing it with instant recap status.  To read prior Quick Hits for the show, click here on my posts tagged #Rubicon.  Here are my Quick Hits for Episode 1.02, “The First Day of School.”

The second episode of Rubicon kept up with the promise of the first.

There’s always a bit of a worry that episode two will not follow up to the excellence of a well run pilot.  This is because it is often the case that a pilot sees far more production glare and refinement.  I think Rubicon may avoid that problem as the season moves on, in part because the pilot was not so ambitious as to overreach.  Many pilots are designed to be able to operate independent of a greater story; they attempt to create an experience which is fulfilling so as to guarantee their good stead.  The producers here did not seem to sacrifice the story-telling methodology I’ve identified to date.

“Gone in the Teeth” served a role of introducing certain characters and themes without opening up too much or being too aggressive.  “The First Day of School” followed in that tradition.  We continued to see a bit more into the character of Travers, while getting a better glimpse of Maggie and our first real look at Katherine Rhumor.

It is with Katherine that the episode really hits home.  In an emerging pattern, the producers do seem to like their dialogue-less, visual storytelling.  In the pilot, we saw this twice with scenes featuring Travers identifying the crossword code and, later, searching David’s office.  In each case, they played the delicate balance well of conveying the dutiful intensity of Travers with enough intrigue to keep the audience intrigued.  Watching someone work a crossword is not exactly what most of America considers entertainment, but the producers were adept enough to make it interesting.

Keep on reading, after the jump.

In “The First Day of School”, the producers struck this chord again with the introduction of Katherine.  While we’d seen her momentarily, playing hide and seek with her child as her husband Tom committed suicide in the pilot’s opening scene.  The real introduction was in this episode at the reading of Tom’s last will and testament.  There, we learned that Katherine was the second wife of a very affluent billionaire and, in her surprise at being left control of a company, a true-stay at home mom at that.

"The First Day of School" gave us our initial glimpse into Katherine Rhumor, a character who promises to be central to the series storyline.

The real moment of the episode, though, starts with the line “What townhouse?” when Katherine is told she’s been left the townhouse on 73rd street in Manhattan.  The subsequent scene in which Katherine roams a home that she had never set foot in, but which had been clearly constructed as a family home was chilling.  Her holding up a monogrammed bathrobe with Tom and Katherine’s names stitched in it, and a wedding photo of them ran chills down my spine.  Here was a woman discovering that her husband seemingly had a second life, yet that life was merely a reflection of her own.  In government terms, the townhouse was to her life with time, less of a shadow government to the legitimate and more analogous to the backup government bunker built into a West Virginia resort that was to serve as a second congressional outpost in the event Washington were evacuated.  This wasn’t a true second life, or so it seemed.  It was more of a replication of their current life, decorated as a family home with all the familial accouterments.

A good part of the episode was Katherine trying to understand why there was this replicated home where her husband entertained, but did not cheat.  Where he sat and read, but read Graham Greene, whom she always thought he hated.  We don’t have the clues to answer what the house was, just yet; however, the more intriguing question is why Tom left Katherine the townhouse and the company (MRQ Alternatives) that accompanied it.

Some more quick hits:

  • The Graham Greene reference is the literary shot of the episode.  Greene was known most for two genres: religion and political espionage.  It remains to be seen if we can ignore the Catholic realm (there haven’t been an inordinate number of hints towards religious themes thusfar), but the political thriller is obviously right up our corner.  Whether its “The Quiet American” or “The Third Man”, that a connection exists is undoubted.  In the event this were LOST, I’d be digging through the books for hints, but I think we can take the whole reference a bit more on face value and explain it as reflective of Katherine’s ignorance of Tom’s dealings.  Her believe that he was merely a captain of industry hid his true activities in the world of political intrigue and espionage.
  • On a side note, the perceived literary reference I picked up to a children’s book in the pilot proved false, as “Down the Road” is clearly shown to be a non-existent travel book that serves as David’s codekey.
  • As for the company left to Katherine, I think I got the name right in it being MRQ Alternatives.  As for what the alternative is for, the most common use of the acronym MRQ is a financial reference to Most Recent Quarter.  Make of that what you will.
  • Maggie's interactions with Travers take on a new depth due to information revealed in this episode.

    Also hiding a secondary life, this time from the viewer, was Maggie’s role as a spy for Kale.  Yes, this is obviously hidden from Team F and Travers in particular, but I must admit that I didn’t see this coming, at all.  I can’t say I’m terribly happy with the twist (or at least that it was revealed so quickly).  The premise that she is doing it to help support her daughter (and possibly for the benefit of this “Walter” who may be Maggie’s father or some other relative) and at the beneficence of Kale seems a bit weak without further explanation.  For example, why would a seemingly highly competent woman choose to support her daughter in a job where she works extremely long hours for what can’t be terribly high pay.  There must be something we’re missing, but the situation doesn’t seem analogous to Vic Massey risking getting caught for malfeasance in order to pay therapy bills for two autistic kids in The Shield.  This just doesn’t seem to fit yet. And Maggie seems to be doing it reluctantly.

  • The episode was very good at beginning to build the team dynamic.  We saw the development of each character on the team both independently and interactively.  With Travers, we saw him assume leadership (including cracking the whip), act with discretion (especially in his interactions with HAL) and, most interestingly, show up late to his first meeting.  I point back to the pilot, in which we were told that he hadn’t shown up late to anything since being late the morning of September 11th, when his wife and daughter were killed at the Trade Center.
  • With Grant and Miles, the characters developed a little more, as expected.  The discussion of not being able to reveal what they do was a nice touch, as was going into the impish Miles’ home life a bit.  He really does represent the guy who’s a bit unsure and in need of protection, a role that the audience begs Travers to assume.  With Grant, we also got what we hoped from Travers, in the manner of a gigantic slap-down. Tanya is a different story as we didn’t really see much into her world, although the episode focused on her early.  Other than her adhering to Grant’s donuts wish and her uncertainty in her first two weeks of work, the biggest reveal was her nausea, which Maggie took to be a drinking problem and I immediately took to be morning sickness.  The team dynamic is starting to take shape and it is doing so effectively.
  • I really enjoyed the character HAL.  Not named “HAL”, but simply referred to as that by Travers, Miles and, seemingly, everyone, the character is a tech analyst who operates the code- and pattern-seeking super-computer.  That the analysts merely refer to the techie by the name of 2001 – A Space Odyssey‘s A.I. computer is just a fun quirk.  Especially given that HAL objects.
  • HAL also provided a few additional tidbits on the crossword code and what it might mean.  The info that the code hit nothing, but the methodology had been used once before, just prior to a revenge hit for the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing was enough to pique our interest and let both us and Travers know that there’s something to follow here.  Travers confirmed some of these details further in conversations with Bancroft and revealed that it was a script belonging to David.  Again, this emphasized the idea that David may have been protecting Travers and, furthermore, that he’s still around.  The great question, then, is what David means when he says “They Hide In Plain Sight.”

As the show has progressed through its initial two hours, details regarding team members have emerged and we've gotten a feel for how their interactions will, as well.

  • Much as with Tanya, Kale and Spangler are a bit hard to gather, in re: their nature.  Certainly Kale still has a dark hint of ominous potential.  And Spangler is a conspirator with the unnamed men in suits (who appeared to be in Connecticut or off Long Island, rather than in D.C. as Spangler reported his travels).  This episode showed Kale more as an executive, rather than a plotter.  Yes, he’s using Maggie to gather intel on his employees and one has a hard time not believing he’s in the know, but the discussion with Spangler made it appear that he was at least plausibly on the up-and-up.  Spangler is a more interesting case, in that he’s just a strange bird.  He doesn’t drive, has a smoke filter ashtray and bizarre habits.  If he ends up being a true mastermind, he’ll be the most clinically dysfunctional I can recall.
  • The great question I have, at this point, is whether or not we’re seeing a setup similar to that used in Alias by JJ Abrams.  There, Sydney Bristow worked for an intelligence agency that was, by all account and appearances, a part of the CIA.  In reality, only a few knew that they were a rogue, criminal enterprise.  Those who thought they were serving their country were, in fact, doing harm.  Is that also the case here?  Are they really working with the CIA and Pentagon?
  • The tale of one of the conspirators ancestors building up a steamship ferry business was really quite clever.  We think immediately of them and assume they are an all-powerful cabal of sorts, including Rhumor’s lawyer and best-friend.  And yet we see one tell the story of how one of their forefathers was doing really well, until that prick Vanderbilt swung in and ruined him.  For those not in the know, the good Commodore was the true robber baron, sweeping in and creating a steamship monopoly that ended in Gibbons v. Ogden.  The idea that, even for these master conspirators, there is always a bigger fish adds depth and a bit of unique perspective to the shadowy figures.
  • James Badge Dale seems to have some acting chops.  He was very good in HBO’s The Pacific, and he’s flashing a ability to deliver on visual cues to impart emotion and purpose.  His sitting in David (now his) office again gave meaning to his character’s thoughts.  His interactions as Travers with Ed Bancroft promise to be quite important in the success of the show.
  • I’m not really sure what they’re getting at with the opening and closing images of David on the roof of the API building.  I do think there’s some symbolic meaning, but there are many different ways it could go.  Given the nature of the episode (it being the “first day” as leader and post-conspiracy hints), it may simply be the image of him bustling up to the edge, getting ready to jump right in.  The meaning also could be derived from the idea of his frustration or being overwhelmed and stepping back from the ledge.  Or, quite simply, it could be the uniqueness of the view.  Travers looks almost iconic on the ledge, surrounded by skyscrapers while he surveys the FDR drive and the lower end of South Street Seaport.  It also gives the ominous opportunity to showcase the degree to which the observer is being observed.  Most interesting, though, is the idea that those who are watching do not even know why.

While Travers continues to focus on the crossword with HAL, the episode takes a measured approach at introducing added detail to the API team.

The episode comforted me in making me believe that we will be getting a production that closer mimics Damages than The X-Files or Fringe.  I feel like the series is destined to stay grounded to reality and a political/conspiracy vibe, eschewing both the dangers of sci-fi mythology and the serialized nature of self-contained episodes.  This is not a programming game for the faint of heart, though.  It readily appears that Rubicon might be the type of show where you not only cannot afford to miss an episode if you want to keep up, but if you take a bathroom break, you better be ready to pause the DVR because the show is one of easily missed clues.

As for the corpus of the current activity, I like the way the show has been structured and streamlined.  I get the sense that there will be some import toward the investigation Travers’ Team F is conducting into Yuri Popovich, but our focus is permitted to be balanced and to take in all that is thrown at us.  Right now, the investigation is on all fronts and it is the viewers who are at the heart of the team.

All in all, I continue to be excited for Rubicon.  AMC has 12 episodes on order or in the can for this season.  I can only hope they re-up immediately for a second season.  In the event they do renew, continue to make stellar seasons of Mad Men and Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead ends up as good as I feel it can be, AMC may replace HBO as my new favorite home for TV.

AMC’s “Most Talked About Scene” (Katherine and Wheeler discuss Tom Rhumor)

AMC’s Episode Summary

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