Saturday, December 4, 2010

What Price Sincerity?

When I heard that AMC had cancelled Rubicon a few weeks back, I felt more than a twinge of disappointment. While the plot—which tracks intelligence analyst Will Travers’s attempt to uncover a criminal conspiracy led by his agency’s chief, Truxton Spangler, and a shadowy company called Atlas MacDowell—breaks no new ground, I admire the writers’ willingness to eschew action-heavy sequences for taut exchanges whose true import often surfaced only episodes later. However, the show’s failings often overwhelm its merits. Many of the key characters never come into focus—I can’t bring myself to care about Grant’s failing marriage or Tanya’s drug problem because the writers spent so little time showing the damage these problems inflicted. And even I (an intellectual snob if there ever was one) have grown irritated by the writers’ insistence on cramming as many literary references as possible into each forty-five minute segment. Worst of all, Rubicon lacks a sense of humor. It’s like the writers think cracking a joke from time to time would rupture the show’s patina of erudition and high moral seriousness. If the staff of The New Republic sat down to dream up a thriller television series, it would probably look a bit like Rubicon.

One of the show’s most frustrating aspects is Will’s incompetence at clandestine investigation. He smashes an electric bug to pieces, although this will alert the Atlas MacDowell goons that he’s discovered their surveillance. He goes to visit Katherine Rhumor (widow of an Atlas MacDowell executive) in broad daylight, knowing he could be followed. Of course, Will has spent his previous professional life behind a desk, so you wouldn’t expect him to instantly morph into a super-spy. The problem is that Will doesn’t learn over the course of the season. As late at Episode 12, he makes a confidential phone call to his colleague Kale Ingram on an undoubtedly bugged office phone.

Why would Rubicon’s creators make the show’s protagonist look like an idiot? I suspect that their true aim is not to demonstrate Will’s stupidity, but his aversion to duplicity. Driven by moral fervor and impatient for answers, he can’t pretend ignorance of the bugs, or that he has ceased contact with Katherine. The writers may view Will’s allergy to deceit as a weakness (more on that anon) but they also laud it as a rare virtue. The show envisions an America corrupted by the military-industrial complex and tottering on the brink of catastrophe (the title, as anyone familiar with Roman history knows, evokes a point of no return heralding the triumph of tyranny and imperialism). The writers suggest that the nation’s moral decay manifests itself through the erosion of truthfulness and transparency. Three of the show’s thirteen episodes bear titles that foreground this anxiety: “The Truth Will Out” (Episode 7), “No Honesty in Men” (Episode 9), and “In Whom We Trust” (Episode 10). Within this iniquitous fictional universe, Will’s guilelessness testifies to his pureness of heart.

Rubicon’s antipathy toward pretense hearkens back to the sentimentalist tradition. By “sentimentalist,” I don’t mean mere mawkishness, but rather a specific literary mode developed during the eighteenth century. Locating morality’s source in the emotions rather than measured rationality, sentimental literature glorifies sincerity as a chief virtue. Playwrights such as Cibber, Steele, and even the more convivial Sheridan and Goldsmith take as their hero the “man of feeling,” who experiences ardent emotions and expresses them openly. Eighteenth century literary protagonists are forthright to point of artlessness—think of School for Scandal’s Charles Surface, Fielding’s Tom Jones, or even the infuriating Pamela. (Kate Hardwood’s adept role-playing provides an exception to the rule). By contrast, the period’s villains—Joseph Surface and Master Blifil (conniving brothers to Charles and Tom), along with Millwood in The London Merchant—prove consummate performers, gleefully enacting personas antithetical to their true natures. Sentimental writers recognize the need to exercise some measure of restraint over emotions; the transgressions of Romanticism remain some decades in the future. But whatever the hazards of impetuous sincerity, they see it as infinitely preferable to artifice.

Although no one would mistake Rubicon for a sentimental drama, it participates in the sentimentalist cult of sincerity. Almost all the virtuous character share Will’s inability to dissemble. In “The Truth Will Out,” an FBI team forces all agency employees to take a polygraph in hopes of uncovering the source of a leaked file. During the test, Will’s subordinates—Grant, Miles, and Tanya—quickly reveal their darkest personal secrets. Maggie, whom Kale Ingram has hired to spy on the other team members, exhibits such anxiety and guilt that anyone but Will would suspect something was wrong. By contrast, Rubicon’s villains, like their eighteenth century counterparts, lie prolifically and well. After a terrorist blows up an oil tanker in Galveston Bay, Spangler, in passionate but measured tones, asks his employees to find out “the truth—just the truth” behind the explosion—all the while hiding the truth that Atlas MacDowell set the attack in motion. Spangler’s co-conspirator James Wheeler also appears convincing as he reminds Katherine Rhumor of his affection for her dead husband (and Wheeler’s friend) Tom, whom Wheeler and other Atlas MacDowell executives had ordered to commit suicide. Significantly, Wheeler loses his ability to lie persuasively the moment he succumbs to doubts about Atlas MacDowell’s actions; when he assures the other conspirators in Episode 8 that Katherine Rhumor has stopped asking questions and “moved on,” his words ring hollow, failing to convince his auditors. Rubicon suggests that not only the act of deception but the talent for it indicates moral turpitude.

The character of Kale Ingram disrupts the show’s otherwise polarized moral universe. A former CIA hit man who drinks ginseng tea and lives with his long-term boyfriend, Ingram defies categorization. While the writers hint that he was once (and perhaps even recently) involved with Atlas MacDowell, Ingram spends the season feeding information to Will and attempting to protect the latter from MacDowell operatives. This is a man who shows apparently genuine concern for Maggie even while using her, who can reminisce pensively about the assassin and (perhaps) former lover whose body he had previously ordered dismembered and thrown into the East River.

Ingram is also a master of subterfuge. Faced with the polygraph, Ingram insinuates that he is more than capable of beating the test—an assertion borne out when he successfully deflects questions about his sexuality and the existence of covert operations within the agency. In his verbal sparring matches with Spangler, Ingram, as played with meticulous restraint by Arliss Howard, masks even his fear behind a crafty intelligence. Ingram is the only character to employ deceit in a noble cause; he covers for Will when the latter breaks into Spangler’s office and finds a safe house for Katherine after her life is threatened. In fact, the dénouement of Katherine’s subplot underscores both the ethical merit of Ingram’s actions and the danger posed by his colleague’s heedlessness. Having installed Katherine in the safe house, Ingram instructs Maggie to stay with her no matter what. Shortly thereafter, Will phones Maggie, begging her to bring him important documents; he also tells Katherine that, although he wants her to stay put, he also needs to view a clue-containing video owned by her dead husband, which only she knows the location of. Maggie abandons her post and Katherine opts to leave the safe house and bring Will the video, getting murdered in the process. Will, Maggie and Katherine’s actions are nothing if not sincere, driven by a deep loyalty to each other and to their dead friends and family members. But their recklessness inadvertently leads to Katherine’s death—a death that proves pointless as well as unnecessary: Maggie delivers the files too late to stop the Houston tanker explosion, and Will, distraught over Katherine’s murder, fails to notice that she dropped the video as she collapsed.

Although Rubicon’s creators creep toward a more nuanced ethical calculus, they retain their suspicion of artifice, even when it serves altruistic ends. They undercut Ingram’s growing moral stature by painting his caution and cool-headedness as evidence that he lacks human warmth. During the rooftop confrontation in Episode 13, Ingram urges Will to temporarily suspend his investigation and regroup, telling him that “intelligence is largely a failure business.” Will responds heatedly that the investigation is not “business” but “my life—David Hadas’s life. This is not a score-sheet—there are dead bodies here!” The characters’ contrasting vocabulary is telling—Ingram views their work as a series of calculations; Will agonizes over its effect on other people. The writers suggest that, useful as Ingram’s capacity for detachment may be, it marks him as untrustworthy. Rubicon may expose the flaws in sentimentalist ethics, but it never abandons their fundamental premises. This commitment generates missteps that undermine the show’s considerable promise.

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