Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
In the summer of 2010, AMC seemed to be unstoppable with its original dramatic programming. Though the network was relatively new to the field, their first two forays in this area—Mad Men and Breaking Bad—were immediate hits with critics and awards associations, even if their ratings were relatively modest.
In theory, AMC’s third original drama, Rubicon, was the logical next step for a network with a stellar track record looking to further branch out. Its premise—charting the proceedings of intelligence agency API and team leader Will Travers (an expertly strung-out James Badge Dale) stumbling onto a conspiracy connecting his mentor’s death to a shadowy organization behind major catastrophes—was firmly rooted in paranoia thrillers like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor that defined 1970s American cinema. Like its network peers, it took an intelligent and character-driven approach to its premise and the hour-long dramatic format, forgoing shallow thrills in favor of taking its time and centering on the human lives at the center of its twisty narrative.
Yet, none of the qualities comparable to AMC’s prior successes could save Rubicon from a short lifespan and prompt demise. The series’ slow-burn approach to its central conspiracy led to significant drops in viewership after its then-record-setting premiere numbers. Worse yet, it was never quite a consensus critical darling in quite the same way as Mad Men or Breaking Bad, with only a few vocal critics like Emily St. James and Alan Sepinwall championing the show as it truly found its footing around the middle of the season. That praise, unfortunately, couldn’t do much to turn the tide of the show’s niche appeal. Less than a month after its finale, AMC announced Rubicon would not return, sealing its fate like the series’ own four-leaf clover kiss-of-death.
As a devoted fan of Rubicon when it was airing in 2010, I witnessed all sorts of explanations or rationalizations for the show’s brief lifespan: its pace, its low ratings, its gradual escalation in quality and eventfulness. In rewatching the series in full in 2022, however, it becomes clear that Rubicon’s greatest strengths were there from the beginning and only grew stronger the further it progressed; the show as it stands is full of promise never given a proper chance by its network.
Though much of the early criticism of Rubicon was about its pace, the show settled into a compelling mix of its serialized larger plots and smaller episodic conceits relatively quickly. By the fourth episode, new showrunner Henry Bromell—who shifted focus on the series toward the day-to-day operations of API after creator Jason Horwitch left over creative differences—managed to strike an even balance between the micro and the macro of the season in each hour of television. Take, for example, Episode 7, “The Truth Will Out,” which mostly sidelines the season’s overarching plot in favor of a bottle episode lockdown of API, where the main characters’ polygraph tests provide vital insight into who they truly are when pressed in a crisis.
Episodes like this reveal just how much Bromell’s character-focused mindset defined what Rubicon was beyond Horwitch’s initial premise. Where the pilot relegates characters such as the jittery Miles (Dallas Roberts) or new hire Tanya (Lauren Hodges) to bit players, later episodes sketch them into fully-fledged people with their own arcs across the season. Tanya, especially, leaves quite the impression as a woman grappling with the morality and strain of her line of work, and whose story is one of the only completed arcs in that first season. Badge Dale, too, is well worth singling out as the show’s lead, taking great care to slowly erode Will’s composure over the course of the series, and endowing the man at the end a different personality than the one he began the season with altogether.
By bringing the lives of those working at API to the forefront, Bromell’s retooling of Rubicon complicates the show beyond just its logline, yielding a narrative about the loneliness and burdens that the secrecy and obligations of intelligence work demands. Over the course of Rubicon, marriages are tested, secrets are kept from loved ones, solitude breeds anxiety, and trust is never entirely certain. Spending time with the characters at API makes it clear that the greatest argument for Rubicon’s continuation wouldn’t be seeing more of the conspiracy play out, but rather having more time to mine everything possible from these richly drawn lives. After all, what good is a paranoid thriller if you’re not compelled by the characters at the center of it?
The show’s knack for indelible roles and performances isn’t just restrained to Will’s team, however, as API’s higher-ups are the characters that leave perhaps the largest lasting impact. Character actor Arliss Howard is mesmerizing as Kale Ingram, a man whose calm nature and droll speech masks secret lives and double identities only merely hinted at, possibly left to be explored in a future season. But one player looms larger than anyone else in Rubicon: the delightfully scheming Truxton Spangler, played by playwright Michael Cristofer. As the season’s chief antagonist and mastermind of the central conspiracy, Cristofer relishes every moment he has on screen; he delivers each line with raspy aplomb, gifts his biggest scenes with arresting punctuation and presence, and even makes the act of munching on cereal singularly riveting. Bromell, who chose to cast Cristofer when taking over the show, knew exactly what a gem he had on his hands, which shows in Truxton’s role growing as the season progresses. If nothing else, more Rubicon would have likely meant more Truxton Spangler, a proposition that should have been too good to pass up on the basis of Cristofer’s increasingly electric performance in his final episodes alone.
With how strongly Rubicon closed its first season, the show itself also seemed too promising to be left in the dust. While it becomes consistently great midway through, its closing run of episodes hits a heretofore unseen stride that marks the show finally demonstrating its fullest potential. Long-gestating threats finally boil over, deaths and destruction begin rapidly piling up, and even the season’s literal Chekov’s gun goes off several episodes past its introduction. The finest example of Rubicon reaching the pinnacle of its promise is penultimate episode “Wayward Sons,” a breakneck hour of television that imbues the show with the urgency of an imminent political attack and the haunting fallout of API’s failure to prevent it. With its steadily holding small fanbase, a powerful end to the season, and multiple alluring last-minute conspiracy cliffhangers leaving certain characters’ fates ambiguous, there seemed to be enough goodwill for AMC to grant Rubicon more time to show what it was truly capable of. Except it didn’t.
The major event that happened between Rubicon’s finale and its cancellation commonly pointed to as a possible deciding factor? The Walking Dead’s series premiere in the interim, which aired to record numbers for AMC, greatly exceeding viewership for any of their shows before. Less than two weeks later, the station announced Rubicon’s demise. In all likelihood, AMC saw where they could grow, and Rubicon was not in that picture.
That’s not to say that might be the sole reason Rubicon didn’t live to see another day. The show landed at a particularly precarious moment in the television landscape, still in the shadow of more action-packed jingoistic Bush-era fare like 24 (coincidentally, another show prominently featuring Badge Dale across a single season). Much of the more overtly political plots of Rubicon involving government torture and killings, notably the phenomenal focus on the ethics and civilian casualties of drone strikes in the fourth episode “The Outside,” likely felt too close to ongoing events in 2010 for those led to believe the show was more of an escapist thriller fantasy. In this regard, this is one place where Rubicon might have truly been aired before its time.
There certainly is a case to be made that Rubicon ended exactly where it should have—with an immaculate end to a strong season, definitively closing some arcs while leaving others with enough thread to be satisfyingly open-ended. But, regardless of whether another season would have been in the series’ best interest, the way AMC treated the show even after cancellation only added more salt to the wound. For a long stretch of the 2010s, Rubicon was all but impossible to legally stream anywhere, quietly removed from Amazon Prime around 2013 until the network’s own service AMC Premiere (now AMC+) began carrying it again in 2019. Even worse, 12 years after it first aired, Rubicon has still never been officially released on physical media, keeping fans’ ability to watch and preserve the show tenuous. (For comparison, every other AMC series, even the middlingly received and poorly watched Low Winter Sun, has gotten some form of home media release.) For a show that continued to be lauded nearly a decade after its premiere and was even briefly spotlighted by the network when it returned to streaming, AMC has seemed just as disinterested in the lasting impact of Rubicon as they were when they canceled it.
In an ideal world, AMC could have used its newfound surge in popular entertainment to cut it both ways—building the audience for The Walking Dead while giving Rubicon one more season, in the hopes that the influx of viewers new to the network might help lift the ratings of a show that looked primed to come out the gate strong at the start of Season 2. As it is, Rubicon’s single season remains an impeccable feat of slow-burn storytelling and character building, just as compelling and prescient to revisit now as it was when it aired in 2010. If only AMC recognized what a remarkable entry into the conspiracy thriller genre they had in it.
Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis who has contributed to sites such as Little White Lies and Bitch Media, and previously wrote as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She also regularly appears on the Indieheads Podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.
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