From the ‘cancelled after one season’ file comes Rubicon, an intricate conspiracy thriller series set in the world of private intelligence. In this episode I review the series, analyse its subversive depiction of the intelligence agencies and upper class criminality, and discuss the reasons why it never made it to a second season. I also discuss the conflict between conspiracy-based and incompetence-based worldviews, and how Rubicon synthesises this apparent conflict.
Rubicon is probably the TV show that I have received the most emails about over the years, and thus the most-requested topic for an episode. I did watch the one season of the show back in the day, when it was popular, but I’m not sure if I ever finished the season and I certainly didn’t rewatch it until recently.
It is not the easiest thing to watch or the easiest thing to write about, but I like a challenge so I’ll be reviewing and analysing the first and only season of Rubicon, before looking at the question of why it got cancelled.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, or possibly hasn’t even heard of it, Rubicon was a 2010 conspiracy thriller series that was broadcast on AMC, the same network that brought us Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Hell on Wheels and The Walking Dead. Keep that in mind for later.
The protagonist is a guy called Will Travers, played excellently by James Badge Dale, an analyst working for a private intelligence agency called API – the American Policy Institute. Originally it was going to be a think tank but after the show’s creator, Jason Horwitch left the series due to some creative differences, API became a private intelligence company much like Stratfor. Throughout the season, Travers discovers and unravels a powerful conspiracy after his boss dies in a mysterious train crash.
Much like Condor, this is an attempt to take the premise of 70s conspiracy thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor (a.k.a. the best spy film ever made) and The Parallax View and stretch it out into a long form TV drama. Unlike Condor, Rubicon is actually good, and they cast someone in the main role who can actually act, and who actually looks like an analyst rather than an ex Navy SEAL.
Now, Rubicon has some problems, which may account for why its viewing numbers dropped after a very promising two-hour debut on AMC. It is a slow burner, like The Wire it takes time for the pieces to come together so for anyone looking for a more episodic hit and run style conspiracy show, such as The X-Files, they found something quite different.
It’s also an atypical mystery box thriller, so the watching audience hasn’t a fucking clue what’s going on half of the time. I normally hate mystery box shows, I detested Lost and realised very early on that it was going nowhere and gave up on it quickly. I also had major problems with HBO’s Watchmen for the same reasons. The way this sort of storytelling works – and this is true whether we’re talking detective fiction or something more esoteric – is that the audience has to know a bit more than the characters.
That way, the audience can figure stuff out before the characters do, and can enjoy the anticipation of ‘are they going to figure it out?’ ‘when are they going to figure it out?’ ‘are they going to tell the others?’ ‘who is going to figure it out first?’. While I find all this relatively pointless, without this dramatic irony it is very difficult to make a mystery box story work. Like Hitchcock said, if you have a woman sitting in a restaurant with a friend and a bomb explodes, you’ve given the audience 15 seconds of shock. If you show the audience the bomb, show it is set to go off at one o’clock and then show a clock on the wall showing a quarter to one, you’ve got 15 minutes of suspense.
Somewhere along the line, Rubicon decided to abandon this convention of screenwriting to go full mystery box – there are very few moments when we, the audience, know more than Will does. This does help us feel how he must be feeling, hence sympathy and empathy for the protagonist, but it makes it difficult to watch. At many times I found myself going off on a tangent in my mind, as Will spends half the show doing, then realising I hadn’t been watching for 10 minutes and had no idea what was happening. I am certain I am not the only person who had this sort of experience watching Rubicon.
Thus, it’s a challenging story told in an unconventional way. Where things get really interesting is that after Horwitch left the show, it was taken over by Henry Bromell, the son of a CIA officer who went on to work on Homeland, where he got a lot of material from his CIA contacts. And Rubicon is basically Homeland meets Three Days of the Condor. Like Carrie Mathieson in Homeland, Will is traumatised by 9/11 and clearly suffering from depression and other emotional distress, but he’s brilliant and determined. He has a string of older men who act as mentors. Like Joe Turner in Three Days of the Condor, he suffers the loss of colleagues in mysterious circumstances, which sparks off a lengthy search for the truth and a battle against hidden forces.
I’m sure you can see why, despite its dramatic problems, I really quite enjoyed Rubicon, or at least found it a very provocative experiment, an attempt to do something differently to the usual conspiracy-themed thriller series. But of course, the bigger question is how subversive was Rubicon?
Intelligence Analysts Lead Miserable Lives
While Rubicon is very different to The X-Files, it does have an episodic, procedural villain of the week element mixed in with a longer story of investigation and revelation of the big conspiracy. After Will’s boss is killed in the train crash, Will is promoted and put in charge of that particular team. Within API there are numerous teams of investigators and analysts – Team A, Team B, Team C and so on.
This is obviously a reference to the Team B experiment in competitive intelligence analysis in the 70s, where a highly politicised group of analysts concluded that the CIA were vastly underestimating Soviet technological capabilities and intentions. Almost all of Team B’s conclusions were wrong but it helped establish the now quite common practice of competitive analysis, where you get different teams to try to come up with different analyses and conclusions.
However, API is presented not as a competitor for the CIA and NSA and FBI, but an adjunct to them, a kind of A-Team that the CIA turn to when no one else can help. Even though everyone who works there is a somewhat dysfunctional oddball, they are shown to be very good at their jobs. Will is traumatised, all the members of his team are neurotic and frustrated, one has a problem with pills and alcohol, another is avoiding and likely cheating on his wife, these aren’t traditional heroes in any sense.
On top of this we have the API leadership, where Will’s superior encourages him to explore his investigation into a shadowy organisation called Atlas, but his boss, who runs the company, is actually part of the conspiracy Will is investigating. The big boss is named Truxton Spangler, which is very much a name only a screenwriter would come up with, played by Michael Cristofer, who viewers may remember playing the quiet CIA guy in the van in Die Hard with a Vengeance. In Hollywood, all roads lead to Die Hard.
In fact, the entire cast is great, but I found the Truxton character the most interesting of all, because he has a weird sense of humour and is very much the strange old man upstairs. Not quite as strange as William Hurt in season one of Goliath, but not far off.
This is important because most of the emotional content of the story is about these central characters, rather than Will’s self-appointed mission to uncover what’s going on with Atlas. It quickly emerges that everyone at API is under surveillance – either co-workers spying on them for the man upstairs, or some sort of bugging, photography, physical surveillance. They live and work in a paranoid institution, contracted to other paranoid institutions.
Also, they’re often working in the dark, sifting through vast amounts of information dumped on them by the CIA, but without including what the CIA really knows about the people it’s asking API to analyse or identify. There’s one line where Miles, one of the analysts on Will’s team, saying he’s up to his eyes in ‘uncollated CIA bullshit’, which made me smile, because that’s how I feel when I read news media.
I want to draw out a couple of interesting parts of the story that really bring home how depressing it must be to work in intelligence analysis. One of the through-lines in the various cases they work on in different episodes is a terrorist called Khatteb, and they get information about his whereabout so the CIA want to kill him with an airstrike. The API team have to do a bomb damage assessment – i.e. try to calculate the likelihood of killing the target versus the likely scale of civilians being killed and come to a conclusion as to whether to approve the strike. And it proves very difficult for them.
I found all of this quite realistic – it’s easy to think that the people in these positions are so detached from what they’re doing that they just don’t care what happens when the bomb hits the ground, they don’t care who it kills. But some of them will, in every corrupt, sociopathic institution there are people who are decent, and trying to cling onto their decency.
At the same time, they are employed to do this, their job is at risk if they don’t comply. In the neoliberal capitalist period, where work and productivity are everything, people frequently use ‘it’s my job’ as an excuse for treating people badly, as though if someone’s paying you and gives you a uniform or an ID card you cease to be a human. So many of us are so dehumanised that we know what we’re doing is wrong, but our excuse is that we’re just a cog in the machine.
I don’t think that’s good enough, I don’t just accept that and cease to blame people for their actions or hold them responsible, but I do understand the emotional, psychic burden placed on people, which turns them into the sorts of people I’m describing. And Rubicon, to its credit, doesn’t forgive our characters for this, they all suffer in one way or another, especially when they find out that Khatteb wasn’t killed in the strike and in all likelihood was never in the building in the first place.
Later on in the season, two of our analysts are sent to a CIA black site where a terror suspect is being tortured – dogs, loud music to deprive sleep, electric shocks and so on. One of our analysts asks ‘didn’t we outlaw enhanced interrogation?’ to which a CIA officer responds ‘we’re not the ones interrogating them’, because, it turns out, it’s actually Jordanian military officers doing the torturing.
This is interesting to me because while it’s true that Obama outlawed the use of torture very soon after coming into office, I don’t believe that the program was shut down. Indeed, it’s not as though the only time the CIA tortured people was in post-9/11 black sites, they’ve had manuals on torture methods going back to the 50s, they trained other intelligence agencies (the Savak in Iran, the GID in Saudi Arabia) in these methods, and they were using extraordinary rendition long before 9/11. Basically, you sent the prisoner to Jordan or Egypt or Libya or Pakistan or wherever, let them do the torturing, then you get the prisoner back and do what you want with him.
So the notion that this no longer happens because Obama outlawed it is a notion I find quite dubious, and I was impressed to see that Rubicon was very upfront about this. And again, they’re torturing the guy to try to find out where Khatteb is, but the guy clearly doesn’t know where he is, so he just makes stuff up. And then when the analysts point out he’s lying or making stuff up, they just start all over again.
It turns out that the whole thing was some kind of CIA mindfuck to try to confirm that one of their agents was feeding them false information, and that this had nothing to do with stopping an attack or getting information of immediate value. So this isn’t just one of the first depictions of a CIA black site, it’s also a cutting display of just how stupid and futile torture is as an interrogation method, and how evil the CIA are capable of being.
The Rubicon – Atlas Conspiracy
This leads us to the other part of Rubicon – the big, overarching conspiracy that Will uncovers through the whole season. It begins with his boss, David, dying in the train crash and Will realises that David left his car in spot number 13, which he obsessively avoided doing. He takes this as a coded signal that something was wrong, and starts digging into what David was looking into, as well as the death of another man associated with API which was written off as a suicide.
The whole fake suicide murder scenario is explored quite thoroughly in Rubicon – at one point, Truxton Spangler puts a hit out on Will to try to stop him finding out what’s going on, but says he wants it to look like a depressed guy who overdosed. This show pulls very few punches, but what I especially enjoyed is that it remained grounded – there’s nothing ridiculous or outlandish about any of what happens.
Will’s investigation leads him to a guy called Donald Bloom, a former CIA-employed assassin now working for the conspirators, including Spangler. Bloom is based on a real CIA operative, but I won’t name them because I’m sure you can figure it out for yourself. Bloom is a psychopath who enjoys killing, but he’s also fairly incompetent at covering his tracks.
Struggling to make sense of the information he is putting together, Will enlists the help of a former API analyst, Ed, whose genius exceeds his own, but who is emotionally damaged and prone to compulsions and nervous breakdowns. Ed and Will dig in and figure out that there’s some sort of crossover and connection between Bloom and various world events and covert organisations and corporations, but they lack the overall picture, which sends Ed over the edge.
What I love about this is that Ed shouting ‘what’s the narrative?’ is exactly how I felt for the first 8 or 9 episodes of this 13 episode season. The deliberate lack of signposting and dramatic irony makes it very difficult to see where this is all going.
Without taking you through all the investigative steps I will say that I liked the relatively low-tech nature of the investigation, it’s largely photographs and the papertrail. Despite this, it didn’t feel dated at all, unlike when I watch old episodes of Spooks, for example. I enjoyed the pattern-spotting, secret message decoding, puzzle solving nature of the unfolding plot. And unlike every Christopher Nolan film, the puzzle is actually meaningful, not just a way to try to pretend Christopher Nolan is smarter than he really is.
At its simplest, the Atlas conspiracy is a group of capitalists who use API’s research to predict or engineer major world events – industrial accidents, terrorist attacks and so on – so they can profit from them. All of these events are fictional, or at least fictionalised versions of real events, but nonetheless this is a capitalistic conspiracy on a grand scale, but without being inherently implausible or ridiculous. It’s basically the same plot as in Casino Royale, except there it is an easily-defeated lone terrorist financier and gambler who is playing the stock market while sponsoring terrorist attacks.
In Rubicon, as in The Boys and other more subversive shows, the enemy is much bigger and more difficult to overcome, and by the end of season one all Will has been able to do is map out the conspiracy while avoiding attempts on his life. He hasn’t actually accomplished anything in terms of challenging or opposing the conspiracy.
I assume this is where the second season would have picked up – the second phase, Will’s attempts to do something about what he has discovered. That’s often more difficult than the investigative part – it certainly is in my own work. While it’s been a struggle to get all the information and the massive document archive I now have, the more difficult step is knowing what to do with all this. So I make podcasts and videos and publish articles and try to put all of these documents up on my site for free.
That alone is an accomplishment, and one that I’m very proud of, let alone the books and journals and media coverage. Part of my thinking behind focusing on my specialist area was that I intuitively knew this was a chink in the armour that had never been exploited before, so there was a good chance of being able to change the landscape, even in a small way. Especially when compared to doing the sort of research and making the sort of content that lots of other people are already doing.
Naturally, I did identify with Will and find him very relatable, since I am the same sort of person – a bit damaged and crazy, but also very smart, imaginative and stubborn. And not sure if I’m making the best use of my talents and my knowledge, but I’m trying.
As to the conspiracy theory laid out in Rubicon, I suspect that things like this do go on, and that some of the major events of recent decades were orchestrated by small, powerful groups operating in secret. I know, we were told Al Qaeda was a small, powerful group operating in secret but I also know that you realise that’s not what I’m referring to.
My only real objection to the capitalist conspiracy theory, either in a limited sense or a broad sense, is that it assumes it’s all about money, that what matters to the conspirators is becoming even richer. While that can drive some people, after a certain point having more money makes no real difference to your life. I do not think the driving force behind 9/11 was international banksters and insider trading. Frankly that all smacks of a bunch of recycled anti-semitic conspiracy theory and is often peddled by the same people who say Israel were behind 9/11, because when Jews do suspicious things that’s somehow more suspicious than when Alec Station and the Saudi embassy do much more suspicious things.
Therefore, there are problems with this conspiracy theory that I think are the result of indoctrinated ideological capitalism, something imposed on us by people who themselves are not ideological capitalists. They are capitalists in practice, but at heart I think they are a mixture of sadists, psychopaths and megalomaniacs, i.e. money is not the end for them, it’s a means to an end.
Incompetence vs Conspiracy
Where Rubicon truly excels is in its worldview – which, despite everything, is not especially conspiratorial. The CIA are not a formal part of the Atlas conspiracy, nor are the State Department, NSA, FBI or any other part of the security state. This isn’t a show that lazily draws up an all-encompassing conspiracy that has infiltrated every part of our society. This isn’t the Communist conspiracy theory peddled by cold warriors like G Edward Griffin.
Indeed, incompetence and dysfunction are a frequent part of the unfolding drama. The CIA are depicted as liars and manipulators, but the FBI in particular are total morons, just like in real life. At one point they raid the API offices and put all our analysts through polygraph interrogations, which accomplish absolutely nothing except wasting time and resources.
The underlying theme is that it is because the intelligence and law enforcement agencies are incompetent that the conspirators are able to do what they do, which is a synthesis of the opposing worldviews of conspiracism vs incompetence. Indeed, these aren’t really worldviews because very few people think that everything is a conspiracy or everything is incompetence, but it is a general mindset or attitude that people apply to most things they encounter.
Hence the endless debate over ‘intelligence failures’ and the like – some people find it more comforting to believe it’s all just mistakes and bureaucracy and missed opportunities. Some find it more comforting to think that MI5, MI6 and so on are almost omniscient. This dialectical opposition between general mentalities has been in conflict for a long time, but from my perspective it’s not really an opposition between different ideas of the world so much as mutual small-mindedness.
To reiterate: it is because the security and justice institutions are incompetently managed that it becomes not just possible, but quite easy, for conspirators to infiltrate, manipulate or otherwise bypass them on their way to committing major crimes. I am not denying that corruption, bias, and sheer bad luck are also factors, among other factors. But the idea that you have to choose between cock up and conspiracy is a misconception, and one that Rubicon highlights in an often quite amusing way.
Spoiler alert – the big scheme by the conspirators is to sink an oil tanker in Galveston Bay, thus shutting down the port where around a quarter of oil enters the US. This in turn cripples the refineries in Texas, sends oil prices soaring, and damages the US economy, but also provides a great opportunity for insider trading and massive profits.
It is quite clever, I have to say, and I’m not sure where this attack scenario came from. It isn’t entirely true that it would have the stark consequences outlined in Rubicon, but it would cause a lot of trouble and expense and difficulty. Nonetheless, I’m sure this has been identified somewhere along the line as something Al Qaeda would do – and in Rubicon the attack is carried out by Khatteb, who is of course working for Atlas, whether he realises it or not. Exactly how the CIA-connected showrunner and writer of Rubicon got this idea, I will leave it for you to guess.
After the attack, API (just like everyone else) rushes to try to figure out who was responsible, and all the early evidence points to Iran, because the evidence was deliberately left by Atlas to get the US government to attack Iran.
I won’t give away everything that happens in the final episode but overall I think this is politically a very subversive series, and perhaps the most realistic depiction of espionage that I have seen. Intelligence analysis involves all the same skills as investigative journalism so while I have never worked in that industry, I recognised a lot in Rubicon from my own life.
Why Was Rubicon Cancelled?
To round off, we should broach the question of why Rubicon was cancelled. The industrial reason is that AMC were struggling in the ratings – The Walking Dead was going very well, but Mad Men and Breaking Bad were not, and nor was Rubicon. It’s strange to think that two of the most-referenced, popular TV shows of the last decade got off to such an inauspicious start, but the first seasons of both shows did not grab the attention of large audiences.
Rubicon also got positive, but not runaway positive reviews, while Breaking Bad and Mad Men got a glowing reception from critics. Networks care about ratings, but they also care about prestige products because it enhances the brand, and helps them build a reputation which helps secure long-term and future audiences. They want to win awards as well as advertising revenue.
So when it came down to the decision at executive level I’m not sure if the politics of the show really came into the discussion. They’ll have looked at the numbers, seen three underperforming series and cut the one that was doing least well in order to focus on the other two.
That being said, there is definitely an issue with politically controversial or complex TV series being cancelled after one season – The Brink and Braindead are two that I really enjoyed, and which had legs in them, but which disappeared after a single season. It is harder to market these shows, even when they’re comedies, because how do you target the politically disaffected demographic? It’s not even a demographic, because people of all ages, races and genders are disillusioned with democracy, capitalism, neoliberalism and so on, often for entirely legitimate reasons.
Likewise, how do you deliver this demographic to advertisers, even if you can define it? Who is selling products to that audience?
On top of that, there’s the issue of audience responses and critical responses, which are partly driven by politics. The most popular shows are either apolitical, at least on the surface, or offer some version of mainstream politics. While there is a big audience for more subversive products, it’s much harder to reach them via a conventional TV network with schedules and advertisers than it is with a streaming service. So the total potential audience for Rubicon was much higher than the audience it achieved, in part because it didn’t flatter its audiences pre-existing politics but also because it came out five years too early.
Ditto reviewers – they like a nice, safe story that fits in with the political correctness of the moment so they can talk about ‘social relevance’ and ‘issues’ and other such buzzwords and signals. More politically subversive products don’t get as good reviews, because the reviewer doesn’t want to take the risk of heavily endorsing something that might provoke a backlash, or associate them with something risky or controversial.
All of which contributed to the decision to cancel Rubicon, albeit mostly in an indirect way. I think this was a show that was scuppered by being too ambitious, both dramatically and politically. If it came out in 2018 on Netflix I am sure it would have done better, and likely would have been given a second season (before then getting cancelled, since two and done is Netflix’s modus operandi).
We could draw comparisons with Messiah, another series that I’ve reviewed and which combined unusual politics with an unconventional approach to storytelling. It too, got cancelled after one season despite solid audience numbers and very positive reviews. That’s partly because it’s a international production and with Covid and lockdowns and travel restrictions it would have been a logistical nightmare, and likely caused a PR backlash for ‘putting us all at risk’ and so on. It seems that only massive popularity can truly protect a subversive show from being ditched – as has happened with The Boys, which is not only getting a third and likely a fourth season, but also its own spin-off.
Interestingly, I did look around for a legal way to watch Rubicon – you can buy it on DVD, and it was available on Prime for a while but currently it seems no streaming service has added the show to its catalogue. It is available quite widely on free streaming sites and P2P downloads, but aside from buying a copy on a dying technology you cannot legally watch Rubicon.
Which is a somewhat sad ending for such an interesting and ambitious piece of TV. But clearly it hasn’t been forgotten – I’ve had emails for years asking me to review and analyse Rubicon. That is testament to the impact it had, even on the relatively small number of people who saw it.