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Quick Hits: Rubicon E1.04 — “The Outsider”

August 19th, 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 1.04, “The Outsider.”

The episode provided no new insights into the "clover" conspiracy, but did feature Miranda Richardson (as Katherine Rhumor) to a greater degree.

There are some distinct disconnects with the character of Will Travers, who he wants to be and where he actually is. These were made readily apparent in the most recent episode. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet, as this is a show that is still trying to find its voice and the nature of its characters.  Even the characters themselves are trying to make sense of things, as reflected by the competing, book-ended unrequited smiles from Travers and his across-the-courtyard neighbor-lady.  Both are trying to see who they are, and who the other is.  In doing so, each commits somewhat of a gaffe.

Indeed, there are maddeningly simple screw-ups in Rubicon, so far. These may simply be situations where accuracy in settings don’t matter that much to the producers, but easy errors belie the idea that Rubicon is a show that, like Mad Men, seeks to nail the details. It certainly has the feel of a top notch period piece set in a very pen-and-paper intelligence community. There is also a great focus, at least early on, at paying attention to the details in developing characters.

And yet there are so many careless errors. From a set design perspective, we have three in this very episode that were hard to miss. The first was that Travers and Spangler travel by Acela to Washington DC. Except instead of shooting at Penn Station (where the Acela operates), they shot in Grand Central Station at the Metro-North hub and platforms. Fine, middle America might not notice the difference and might find Grand Central more elegant than the linoleum of Penn Station. That doesn’t mean it isn’t deliberately sloppy.

Click on through to keep reading.

The other two appear, quite simply, to be continuity issues. The team operates out of a conference room in which the light always streams during day hours. The windows look out over the elevated FDR drive just south of South Street Seaport, in an Easterly direction, so one would expect a morning sunbeam; however, the show consistently lights from the exterior windows without regard to time, making afternoon and evening scenes conflict.

In another sloppy move, we are presented with Travers as a quiet, classical-listening morning person, ready to depart for Washington. He uses a French press coffee maker and espresso cup for his cup of joe, which press and cup he leaves on his table as he walks out of his apartment. When he returns thirty-some hours later, the press and cup are gone from his table. While, yes, Travers could have a maid, but that again conflicts with the personality they have been establishing for him, as well as most people’s sensibilities when they live in a 400 square foot, one room studio apartment.  Furthermore, his bed was still somewhat disheveled.

The grossly inaccurate Mercator map (which greatly overstates the size of areas north of central America and the Indian Sub-Continent, behind the core members of Travers' team.

And this gets back to the concept of conflicts. This has occurred beyond the production and into the writing. Much as the intelligence agency that focuses on the brass tacks and not the digital age – the team that brings an element of sophistication to its analysis – proudly adorns its walls with utilitarian maps of the world and yet somehow chooses to have, as its full-wall world map, a grossly inaccurate Mercator projection map, so many of the elements of character development don’t add up. Putting up a Mercator map might be a nice looking touch with antiquity, but a Gail-Peters projection would be far more likely for an intelligence agency.

In episode one, it’s discussed that Travers has not been late to anything since his wife died in the September 11th attacks. One episode (and several months) later, he misses his first intake meeting with team heads. This compounds the continuity errors of a) the lack of sense in the September 11th story and b) the fact that Travers is Team F in that second episode and another person heads Team F when Kale hands out tasks in this episode. On the September 11th story, it has continued to bug me that Travers supposedly was meeting his wife and daughter for a surprise when the first plane hit at 8:46 a.m. The observation deck and platform in the South tower were not to open for another 45 minutes. And those who lost someone at the conference taking place at Windows on the World in the North tower know that a wife and child would not have been in the building unless on business. It’s a macabre concept that is unnecessarily and inaccurately specific. Further, the story claims that Travers was late and exiting the subway on impact. What on earth is Travers doing getting out of the subway at 8:46 instead of taking it together with his family.

While the Mercator reeks of poor research and cultural bias, things like the decision to utilize a word like Marsilea quadrifolia as the Latin for four leaf clover, when trifolium is the proper name and the Marsilea is merely a plant falsely marketed as a clover. While that was an acceptable and perhaps intentional error, as I hinted in my first Rubicon recap, there have been enough issues that perhaps it’s time to admit we’re not dealing with a show that has everything figured out.  Wired points this out in a blog post about the Rubicon crossword puzzle with glaring errors all over the print, including grossly misnumbered and illegal, two-letter answers.

Above all else, this episode provided a looking glass into Truxton Spangler, the boss of API.

Notwithstanding my concerns regarding accuracies (a few more of which are mentioned below), I actually quite enjoyed the episode.  From lines such as “I wanted to feel good about killing this guy” (from Miles in regard to the proposed interdiction of a terrorist) to the interaction between Travers and Spangler, there was very much to appreciate about this episode.

  • While avoiding the distractions of a serialized, episode-reload dramas in which stories are self contained, Kale, Miles, Grant and Tanya were kept busy in Travers’ absence with the analysis of and decision as to whether or not to act on information provided by an Indonesian Mujahadeen informant on the upcoming location of a prominent al-Qaeda operative known only as Kateb.  Kateb was a terrorist who, although never directly attacking the U.S., was a definite threat in the worldwide war against Terrorism.  Kale tasked the trio with coming to a uniform decision on whether or not to use an air strike to kill Kateb.
  • Try as he might, Grant cant get the yellow stain off his shirt prior to handing in a report recommending interdiction of Kateb.

    The debate among Grant, Miles and Tanya was rather striking.  Beginning with Tanya’s flippancy, Grant’s determination and Miles indigestion, the evolution of the argument and seeing Grant and Miles’ analysis techniques was an effective mirror into their personalities.  With Tanya, however, the exercise was actually a little frustrating.  We didn’t see much other than her gain experience.  Further, we didn’t really get anything but more questions as to whether or not she’s a drunk, pregnant or on radiation or other cancer treatments (we can probably assume she’s not pregnant, thanks to her active drinking in the episode).   All that said, the way the three came together was very important in creating a cohesive idea of a team for the viewers.  Additionally, it emphasized the degree to which Travers is regarded by the three.

  • Again, the show displayed a lack of attention to detail with respect to the terrorist strike. In the Kateb strike, the weapon of choice was alternately explained by to involve a Hellfire missile, and then cautioned by Miles to Tanya of the consequences of a thermobaric weapon capable of leveling a city block. While I’m no weapons expert, it’s not too much to ask that the show hire enough researchers to know that an anti-tank missile is very different from a fuel-air bomb.
  • Eventually, the three settled on moving forward with the hit.  In true Rubicon fashion, the show skipped most of the action and the whole process seemed anti-climactic, even to team member Tanya.  We learn of the post-strike resolution (or lack thereof) and result with Travers briefing the team before directing their attention back to Yuri the arms dealer.  Though Grant can’t wipe the stain from his shirt (better a stain than an overt reference to bloody hands, I suppose), the team moves on to their normal course of business.
  • Back to the good, the dog-and-pony show in DC was great. The two started with the Acela train and a great little give and take on a Thomas Friedman piece on the Sudan in the Times, through the closing dinner to celebrate its completion, the trip was a treasure trove of information on Truxton Spangler.  Staying in what I assumed to be a stand in for the Hay-Adams, Spangler and Travers took in an interesting tag-team series of meetings, in addition to very insightful interactions. Although some of that insight was into Travers, it was Spangler, in particular, who we got to see. The discussion of his family (and his decision to not pick up his daughter’s call) was a remarkable contrast to the pain and compassion exhibited by David in the pilot.  Gone are the ideas of running free into the world, apart from the world of intelligence.  Instead, Spangler spoke to the great isolation and solitude afforded to the intelligence agent.

Spangler was reading the Journal, to Travers' Times. But he made quite clear that he'd already dispensed with the Grey Lady that morning.

  • The dichotomy of the paternal figures of Spangler and David Hadas was striking in and of itself.  It goes further, though, in the recipient of the lecture.  Travers was a family man before September 11, 2001, but with the death of his wife and daughter, he became introverted, segmented and isolated from society.  In the pilot, David almost begs him to take off and reenter the world.  This after Travers expressed concern over his desire to stay in the field and the fact that the problem with the job was that he couldn’t talk about it to anyone after walking out of the shop’s doors.  Yet we’ve yet to see Travers have any interaction with a true civilian.  The closest, in fact, was his window stares with a mysterious, peeping-Tom of a neighbor.  Travers both years for the family that Spangler has, while living in the isolated world that Spanger celebrates.  Spangler spoke of this isolation as a gift, misunderstood by outsiders.  Upon saying this, Spangler digs in, buying into his own belief-set with a glass of wine and a knifing of his steak.  Travers smiles, and reaches beyond the feast before him, to his water glass.
  • Spangler’s lecture on briefcases was brilliant.  It was almost an appeal to Travers to remain in the spirit of the 1970s spy dramas.  The single clasp, handcuffs-on-the-handle satchel is the antithesis of the digital, new age era of spies.  That Spangler presented Travers with a replica of his own briefcase was a both a testament to his dogmatic belief in doing things the old way (I’m still struck that Spangler was on foot when traveling to meet the cabal in the pilot episode) and his desire to bring Travers into the fold.  Travers accepted the gift with pleasure, though he immediately hid it behind David’s globe (given by Bancroft) upon returning to his office.  A colleague assumes (quite astutely) that the gift might be more than just a nice gesture, and might be bugged.  That remains to be seen.
  • The actual meetings with intelligence / government agents and entities (presumably who had influence over budgets and oversight) were a bit tough to actually grasp as realistic.  In the first meeting, you had Travers and Spangler functionally lecturing CIA/NSA types over their inability to interpret data.  The lecturing wasn’t the troubling part.  It’s that they expected the other side of the table to thank them for how wonderful they were and for gracing them with their pompous presence — almost like LeBron expected Cleveland fans to be happy for and thank him after LeBron decided to “take his talents to South Beach” and greener pastures.  The second meeting involved what amounted to outright bribes through the granting of information that the Army INSCOM would not otherwise have ready access to.  The final meeting ended with a reach of an appeal to the logic that an uninterested third party would provide a superior with better information than an internal employee (of course, API can be segregated all it wants, but it’s still an employee, internal or not, as proven by the dog shows itself).   And all of that is not even to get into the nameless man, who lacks even a codename.
  • Katherine Rhumor seems almost certain to be intertwined with the API team soon, but how is the question.

    Travers meeting with his CIA friend in DC was a bit too Deep Throat cliché. Beyond Travers rather ridiculous outfit (exemplified by the bike messenger bag and 50’s-tough style leather cap), meeting in a parking lot just seemed ridiculous. There’s no way one would pick P2 over a bar, restaurant or other, less discreet location, particularly when Travers was made aware that he had recently been followed by the FBI — in fact, it was the name of that FBI agent that Travers had Miles check up on in this episode. The actual information provided in the report was of little import and insight. Although we learned that two were still cogent and around and that six of the seven were CIA men stationed in the Middle East division in the 1980s, the most intriguing tidbit was undoubtedly that one name didn’t hit at all. That’s going to come back at some point. And the notation that the CIA pal was going to fail his next polygraph was a nice close to the scene. Travers’ return from the meeting and subsequent hallway encounter with Spangler was also a nice capper.

  • The show seemed to go quiet more than I can recall in past episodes. They tend not to run too much sound over dialogue, but the elegant score is something that ought to be emphasized and the show would do well to keep a subtle hint of it to keep the show going and moving. The only show I can recall to keep a solid pace without scoring is The Wire. Though I really enjoy it, Rubicon is nowhere near The Wire, as of yet. Building off the still stellar opening credits, the producers would do well to keep the orchestra at work.
  • The scene in the townhouse was again gripping. As Katherine, Miranda Richardson is showing off her award-winning acting chops and presence. While she returned to live in the long island estate where Tom killed himself, her receipt of her husbands possessions led her to return to the townhouse.  I’m not sure why the police would return to her as evidence the blood stained bathrobe in which her husband killed himself, but the scene afforded her the opportunity and curiosity to return to the townhouse and investigate a bit more.  In particular, she is struck by a voice mail left for Tom by his best friend, James Wheeler: “Tom, its James. If you keep this up, you know what’s going to happen.”  The scene that followed hinted as to how she’s going to be weaved more deeply into investigating the conspiracies.
  • Back at the townhouse, which is showed in the above-embedded GoogleMap, Katherine discovers a Chinese takeout menu.  Notwithstanding two further errors in the show revealed by her subsequent travel to the restaurant, her sleuthing was detective-worthy.  The two errors were in naming the townhouse’s address as 51-81 East 73rd Street.  This would be across the street from the townhouse, which is either at 48, 50 or 52 East 73rd Street.  In fact, the second episode actually showed the awning across the street from the townhouse as 51-53 East 73rd Street.  The second error was less technical, but more cringe worthy.  There isn’t a Chinese restaurant on the Upper East Side that would offer rice (instead of pancakes) as the accompaniment to Moo Shu Pork, the dish Katherine orders.

The episode itself was pretty solid.  Maybe not great and certainly not action packed enough to state with glee that the show has picked up, but this was a solid start.  It departed a bit from the overarching conspiracy, but gave us a solid grounding in several core characters, notably Katherine Rhumor and Truxton Spangler.

AMC’s “Most Talked About Scene” (The Art of Espionage)

AMC’s “Most Talked About Scene” (A Vote to Kill)

AMC’s Episode Summary

  1. August 19th, 2010 at 23:03 | #1

    Dang, this is an in depth review. You planning to write this much about each episode? I love Mad Men and Breaking Bad but haven’t had a chance to start watching Rubicon. Sounds like you enjoy it, I’ll have to check it out.

  2. admin
    August 20th, 2010 at 11:13 | #2

    Yeah, no. I think after taking as long to write this one as I did, I’m going to cut back in the future and gun for 2/3rds to half this length. These are, after all, supposed to be “quick hits.” Rubicon does still have the potential to be the LOST type of show that earns and deserves this level of discussion. Right now, I’m providing it on faith. I do really like the show and the fact that they’re taking their time to develop the characters, rather than just delving into “conspiracy”.

    PS. The new shows to really look out for this fall are “The Walking Dead” on AMC (October) and “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO (9/19), with “The Event” on NBC (9/20) being talked about as a show that could be a possible heir to LOST… or fail miserably like The Nine.

  3. gt40 lover
    August 25th, 2010 at 12:42 | #3

    Being a blogger is like being in charge of your own personal insane asylum.

    Sent from my Android phone

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