An enthusiastic fan of AMC drama series, I eagerly dove into the sneak peak episode of AMC’s “Rubicon” that followed the season three premiere of “Mad Men.” What I viewed was an endless sweep of Manhattan cityscape running behind several characters that are so brilliant in their jobs as intelligence analysts that they are doomed to either death or madness. This viewer is rooting for death, and a quick one.
Set in a government think tank, a painfully anticipated turn in the plot arrived shortly before the “mysterious” death of Will Travers’ best buddy, David, in a train accident. Intelligence savant Will, a phlegmatic fount of useless information, has discovered that a certain crossword puzzle has appeared in several different newspapers of late. His deep powers of analysis peel back layers of meaning in the clues—which he does not share with us. In fact, nothing is shared with us, and I am amazed that I’ve stayed with the show this long. But hope surfaces when Will shares these newspapers with David, who casually blows it off in Will’s presence, then in private, knits his brow as a signal to us that he is actually deeply troubled by this information. Whatever it is. We don’t know why it is so significant. We don’t know why anything is significant. We are beginning to wonder why AMC fell for the pitch for this series.
After David’s death by train derailment, Will brings the same newspapers to David’s chess-playing friend, Ben, a retired analyst who has gone round the bend. With palpable gravitas, Will hands over the newspaper puzzles to Ben.
“Have you ever seen this kind of thing before?” Will asks Ben in a hushed voice. Ben gives the puzzles a cursory glance.
“Hm, the same puzzle appears in several different papers,” Ben says. “No, that’s a new one on me.”
At this point, my partner, Mark, turns to me and says: “Um, isn’t that called syndication?” We are thinking the same thing and we can’t help snickering. Will Shortz, a highly respected puzzle master, whose crosswords appear in many newspapers, may be the mastermind of the next terrorist attack on America! It’s all there in front of us, why can’t we see it? Worse still, every Sunday morning on NPR, Will Shortz and his cohort, Liane Hansen, brainwash us with word challenges across the airwaves! What a triumph for the educated elite-hating conservatives! They’ve tried to tell us for years how reading the dictionary would corrupt our minds! Finally, proof!
One is immediately reminded of John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” who, in a paranoid schizophrenic haze, filled his rooms with inked up newspaper articles, reporting his analyses of Cold War communist conspiracies to ghostly Ed Harris. But it wasn’t real. He was crazy. Still, deconstructing news items seemed more rational in that film than in “Rubicon.” Nash used the technology of his time, the 1950s, when print reigned supreme. “Rubicon” takes place in the present, but this policy institute prefers rifling through dusty books and periodicals to hacking into classified electronic files. It is not a story of psychotic fantasy. Will Travers has been presented as a reliable narrator. But his reliability is only as good as what the show’s producers share with the audience. In this age of disappearing print media, as newspapers phase out paper and ink and go online, will this towering genius finally enter the late 20th century and register for an electronic subscription to the New York Times?
This retro approach might gain some ground in atmospheric effect, but it left me thinking that the plodding revelations Will uncovers through these means might leave him (and us) far behind Caesar's marching legions, stranding us all on the banks of the Rubicon after the ship has sailed.