It's a few hours into a June day of shooting on the New York set of AMC's Rubicon. The set is breathlessly quiet, and the show's star, James Badge Dale, is staring at a photograph.
The quiet is finally broken when Dale's character, Will Travers, begins jotting down notes on index cards with a Sharpie. That's right: With four episodes of the conspiracy thriller's first season left to shoot, there are no car bombs, no sniper fire, no creepy phone calls — just the squeak of the marker moving over paper.
Rubicon's James Badge Dale: "Our show is not for everybody"
"We're spinning a yarn. We're trying to do something different than what's normally done on television, and it's not going to be for everybody," Dale tells TVGuide.com during a break. "We want to do something subtle. ... We're asking people to sit down and be taken on a ride, albeit not a very fast one. There's a certain sense of trust required in our sense of pace and sense of tone. But there's payoff in the end."
Says executive producer Henry Bromell: "At no point does this thing become 24 or Lost."
At the center of what Bromell calls a character-driven story is Travers, a bookish intelligence analyst who is locked in grief following the death of his wife and child during 9/11. During his work at the American Policy Institute, he uncovers a crossword puzzle pattern in some of the nation's largest newspapers, and sharing that information with his boss gets his boss killed, leaving Will as the new team leader.
"[These analysts] do a lot of different things and a lot of it is actually quite mundane," Dale says. "I think that's what excites Will so much about finding the pattern in the crossword puzzle. That's the great white whale for a lot of these people. And I think that keeps them going."
Check out photos of the Rubicon cast
Bromell, whose father worked in the CIA for 30 years, says the series takes its inspiration from the political conspiracy films of the '70s, such as The Parallax View and All the President's Men. But he says the drama of Rubicon comes from how the characters react to similar situations given their post-9/11 sensibilities.
"The more I thought about the parallels between the late '60s and '70s and now, I realized that in both cases, you have a country going through a mood of pretty intense and vocal distrust of government and big business," Bromell says. "There's a lot of paranoia about all sorts of cockamamie theories.
"It matters so much to these characters that they do a good job," Bromell says. "Their nightmare is that they'll miss something, and that because they miss something we'll have the next 9/11. That's a lot of pressure. Those are big stakes and they're very, very real."
Because of that, Bromell says the show will spend equal time watching the characters do their work, rather than follow Will's chase of a faceless enemy. In Sunday's episode, Will and API bigwig Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) head to Washington to convince other government agencies of API's importance. Meanwhile, Will's fellow analysts, Miles (Dallas Roberts), Grant (Christopher Evan Welch) and Tanya (Lauren Hodges), must sort through shaky information to decide whether the government should eliminate a possible threat.
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"When our enemies became terrorists and we realized that terrorists were transnational, the job of our analysts became mapping the world," Bromell says. "It wasn't just, 'What's that bump in the desert outside Tehran?' It was, 'Why's that guy getting into a cab in London? And what's that got to do with the high school teacher in Pakistan? And what's that got to do with the nuclear physicist in Berlin?' It's really quite complex what they have to do."
Still, the conspiracy will remain present, particularly through Miranda Richardson's character, Katherine Rhumor, who, like Will, is looking for answers after her husband committed suicide in the pilot. "She's coming at it from a very personal regard — it's not a mystery for her in abstract sense," Bromell says. "It is simply, 'Why did my husband kill himself?' She slowly begins to put together a story, and we realize watching at a certain point that she and Will are working at different ends of the same thing."
"Everything on our show is connected," Dale adds. "There's not a wasted week, not a wasted moment. Everything is there for a reason. People know if it's right for them from the beginning, and it's to those people I say stick with us. We're not going to let you down."
But Bromell's concern isn't really with solving the mystery. "It's not just any old conspiracy and it's not just a plot hook. It eventually takes us to the way this country really works," he says. "We're making a point: Democracy is a very fragile vessel."
Rubicon airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.