James Badge Dale plays Will Travers, an intelligence analyst who uncovers clues that suggest a high-level conspiracy driven by U.S. government and business interests.
James Badge Dale plays Will Travers, an intelligence analyst who uncovers clues that suggest a high-level conspiracy driven by U.S. government and business interests. Matthew Welch/AMC
Will Travers solves puzzles. He sees patterns that most people never knew existed. That's what makes him good at his job.
Travers, played by James Badge Dale, is the intelligence analyst at the heart of the AMC television series Rubicon, a show that critics have praised for its tension, intrigue and looming paranoia. It's intricately plotted and deliberately paced. Clues trickle in week after week as Travers chases leads linked to a string of intelligence-community deaths that began in the season premiere, in the wake of a coded message delivered via newspaper crossword puzzles.
Henry Bromell, the show's Peabody Award-winning executive producer and himself the son of a spy, tells NPR's Guy Raz that the style is a conscious homage to an earlier era.
"The whole show is rooted in the feel and the look and the pacing of early '70s American filmmaking in general," he says, and "specifically, some of the paranoid political thrillers of the time, like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View and The Conversation."
The aim, Bromell says, is less amusement-park ride than puzzle, from the point of view of the guy putting the pieces together: "a lot of little false alleys and finally getting to what he wants to know."
In the first season's next-to-last episode, which aired Oct. 10, an al-Qaida operative — fair warning, there are spoilers ahead — plots to blow up an oil tanker in Galveston Bay, near Houston. The idea is that it'll cause a bottleneck in the petroleum supply chain and cripple the nation. Travers is on the case, but he's ultimately too late — in part because behind the show's vast conspiracy is a cabal of powerful Americans, manipulating the U.S. intelligence establishment to slow investigations down and allow terrorist actions to succeed.
Their motives? Mixed, in the show's mythology.
"If we gathered 10 of them in a room and asked them what they were up to, they would say they were doing their best to protect the interests of America," Bromell says. "That they doubted the ability of our cumbersome democracy to do it all by itself, and that they take it upon themselves to act accordingly. That they also often make a lot of money in the process, they would not think was all that important. We probably would."
Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage/Vanity Fair
Executive producer Henry Bromell partly based the show on insight gained as the son of a spy.
Executive producer Henry Bromell partly based the show on insight gained as the son of a spy. Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage/Vanity Fair
'God Knows What He Was Doing'
As an analyst, Travers isn't in exactly the same work as a field operative, but Bromell's father's line of work did help set the direction for Rubicon.
"We grew up all over the world," Bromell says. "God knows what he was doing, but we were with him. He was in the operations side for about 30 years, so I knew more about that — or I saw more, and knew less, about that — than I did about the analytical side. But I knew of course that [the analytical side] existed; it did interest me. And when we were first devising this show and came up with the idea of it's being about analysts, I have to admit there was a little string that went ding inside me."
Bromell wanted to get inside the heads of the men and women — "too many of them, now" — who do the wearying work of connection-hunting amid a storm of daily intelligence data.
"We're as interested in the lives and the workings of these people ... as we are in the conspiracy that Will is trying to unravel — just as interested, if not more so sometimes," Bromell says. "They've been tasked with looking at a great jumble of information and finding a pattern that can help us stop something hideous. I just thought, 'That's a lot of strain on the nerves.' "
Rubicon's focus isn't simply a personal obsession, of course. The complicated plotting and deliberate pace make it a dense show — so dense, maybe, that latecomers may have trouble catching on if they don't watch the season from the start. It's something Bromell and his writing team still worry about.
"Other shows I've done — shows like The Sopranos — you could come in and watch an episode of it and get a lot of out if, even though you've missed stuff that is playing in there somewhere, as opposed to coming into a slice of an ongoing chain of stories and being hopelessly lost."
So that attention to character becomes part of the solution.
"There are a lot of abstract qualities to what these guys do and therefore to stories about them," Bromell says. "We realized early on that if we weren't careful, this abstractness would be just that — nobody could follow the darn thing. So we've tried to be careful and be true to the reality these people have to deal with, but tell stories that can be followed in a fun way."
'Conspiracy Is Just The Way We All Do Business'
Set against the backdrop of post-Sept. 11 paranoia, with a lead character who has lost his wife and daughter in the destruction at ground zero, Rubicon seems almost designed to fan conspiracy-theory flames among those who believe despite all indications that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were an inside job — a government conspiracy. Bromell knows that all too well.
"There are a lot of nuts out there," he says ruefully. "Thomas Pynchon beautifully said in, I think, V, that what we got when we lost religion as a unifying glue in our culture was paranoia. Because we have to have something that suggests there are secret workings going on, and if we decide it's not God, we have to put something in there. And he may be right: It's less terrifying to look out into the world and see conspiracy, no matter how kooky it sounds, than to look out in the world and see nothing."
And frankly, he thinks there are elements of society and the government whose activities could, broadly speaking, be described as conspiracy.
"I do, I do," he says. "I think that conspiracy is really just the way we all do business. I mean, what's the difference between a conspiracy and a lobbyist, really? What do lobbyists do? They're paid to manipulate policy and public opinion to get a certain goal, usually on behalf of very powerful interests, be it corporations or countries or unions. And this is all in the open. It's considered our [First Amendment] right to be able to lobby. And so lobby we do."
Bromell does try to stay on the rational side of the tinfoil-hat line, though.
"I don't think it's four guys with mustaches," he deadpans. "I don't think it's easy to keep secrets."
But consider the ease with which powerful people move through the revolving door that connects government, multinational corporations and the educational establishment, he says, and the picture is pretty clear.
"I do think there are groups of people who can gather and have a dinner party, in the course of which policy is made."