Too bad it won't live! Then again, endings are hard.
promotional image by AMC
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I’m about two-thirds of the way through Rubicon, an AMC spy drama that aired for only one season and which seems to exist only on the Microsoft Store. It’s an office drama-meets-espionage thriller starring James Badge Dale and a tremendous ensemble of brilliant character actors finally being handed juicy roles.
It owes a lot of Three Days of the Condor—my all-time favorite spy movie—but its paranoia and cynicism is balanced against an effective workplace drama where the small stakes of office politics are weighed against the greater stakes of counter-terrorism and hegemonic violence. But the main action is about an analyst who uncovers something slightly out of place and accidentally attracts the attention of a massive, dangerous conspiracy within the government. By the end of the pilot episode, his boss-mentor is killed in a freak accident, and he’s at once under close surveillance, isolated from his coworkers, and working directly for one of the prime conspirators.
As the story unfolds and more detail emerges about each of the major characters, and the shadows lengthen over their lives, Rubicon seems to be on track to become a classic of the postmodern espionage story that writers like John le Carré made so popular. It captures everything that defines the genre: the creeping paranoia of the job and the social estrangement that results, the confusion and horror visited on ordinary people who stumble into the middles of these games, the growing certainty that nothing is private, and the slow, dreadful dawning of awareness about whose interests your work is really serving. In one depressing moment late in the series, after entering a paranoid spiral and interrogating his new girlfriend, a character says, "I'm sorry. I wasn't always like this." Unsaid but implied is the admission that he's not going to be able to stop being like this. There's no going back.
It’s made all the sadder, of course, by the knowledge that Rubicon never got to tell the rest of its story. The endgame that’s coming into view in the late stages of season one, as the conspiracy begins to take its most overt and irreversible steps yet, will leave the characters forever dangling on a cliffhanger.
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Yet I don’t regret getting involved in this series, however late I am to this particular party. The truth is, a show that never ends is scarcely any worse and arguably is even better than one that outlives its own inspiration. A dozen great episodes full of tension and atmosphere and a consistent identity are a hell of a lot better than a strong opening followed by years of gradual decline into incoherence or, far worse, into rote formula. The tragic spooks of the American Policy Institute may never reveal their real enemies, nor find peace with their divided lives, but they also aren’t ever going to be mired in a stale “case of the week” story. They’re never going to be stuck in Homeland, for instance, bereft of its animating premise but unable to find a conclusion to its would-be short story. It sure isn’t going to The Blacklist.
Still, I’m going to be sad that this is all the time with these characters that I’m going to get, and I sure would have liked to see what this show would have looked like as the secret war between the conspirators’ and their enemies began to explode into open conflict. There are so many great conflicts that this show sets up, and I just know that few if any of them will ever be resolved. But I’m glad I at least got to go on this journey for a little while.
What about you? What are your favorite abandoned series and franchises?