If Rubicon had debuted with an episode as tense and exciting as "A Good Day's Work," it probably would have received a kinder reception from the ratings and from some of its more critical viewers. But it also wouldn't have been as good. AMC sold the show as a non-stop thrill ride, which is understandable, since selling it as a gradual political thriller, where things happen very slowly and there are long, wordless scenes of people staring at stuff, probably wouldn't have led to even the number of viewers Rubicon has now. All promotional material has to lie a little bit, but the promotional material for Rubicon essentially made the series appear like a different show entirely, angering plenty of viewers who were expecting something as breakneck as Breaking Bad and, instead, got contemplation, punctuated by red, hot workplace drama.
But if there's one thing showrunner Henry Bromell is very good at, it's putting a bunch of pieces in place that don't even seem like they're pieces, then showing how they fit together. He did this back on Brotherhood, and he's worked on several other shows where that design worked to his advantage (including Homicide: Life on the Street and Carnivale). This means that he tends to do shows that are slower than anything on TV for three-quarters of the season and then abruptly shift into series where you see that all this accretion of detail was designed to add up to the final quarter of the season, which shifts into something very near action-packed. "A Good Day's Work" doesn't have car chases or anything. Its major "action" set piece involves two men silently scuffling in an apartment. But the way that it draws together all of the major plot threads so far and reveals them to have at least some relationship with each other is thrilling nonetheless.
One of the bigger problems with the conspiracy investigation storyline has been that Will is doing it all alone. He doesn't have anyone to talk to about it, except for Kale, and Kale makes sure that things are kept to a minimum. So when Will makes a big breakthrough, he simply carries it around with him, rather than rushing into the next room to tell his colleagues (because of where he works, he can't). But now he has Katherine, and even though he's been warned not to see her again, he has to tell someone what he's figured out - that the board of Atlas McDowell has been manipulating tragedy for profits and he suspects they've moved on to causing those tragedies using analysis of various countries' security weaknesses in API white papers - and so he tells Katherine. As an ultimate revelation of what the conspiracy is up to, I suspect this is going to strike some people as lame, since it doesn't involve anything bigger than the sorts of mundane things powerful countries and corporations have always done to weaker individuals and groups throughout history. But it fits all of the pieces, and it suggests whatever Kateb is up to may have more far-reaching implications than just some terrorist plot.
And just what's Kateb up to? API still doesn't know, but the group is closing in on who he is, at least. They realize, abruptly, that he simply arrives on the scene in 2004 and starts wreaking havoc, though no one had ever heard of him before that. Grant has a pretty great idea: What if Kateb isn't actually named Kateb but has adopted that name to obscure his true identity? And the more that they start looking at people who might have joined the terrorists' cause, the more they run across an American named Joseph Purcell, who went to Yemen and then rather dropped off the map. Could he be Kateb? And if so, what the hell is he up to? And will they have time to stop it? The sequences where the team is figuring this stuff out are as suspenseful as anything the show has done, especially considering they largely feature a guy who's been off-screen all season and a variety of other players the characters only talk about. That the show is able to weave a tense portrait of intelligence analysts realizing they may be too late to stop something without leaving a single office building is impressive.
At the same time, Will makes a pretty boneheaded mistake - one I don't totally buy that he would make - and calls the library in the town where Truxton grew up from his office phone. Naturally, Truxton figures out what's happened (by dialing the most recently dialed number on Will's phone in a scene that's terrifically acted by Michael Cristofer), and this leads to Truxton taking out a hit on Will, a hit that should be made to look like an accidental overdose. The back half of the episode plays out with the knowledge that Will is a dead man walking but doesn't seem to know it, even when Truxton shows up to talk with him about how much the both of them miss David, then tells Will he's done a lot of good work at API. I'm not sure I buy the initial phone call Will makes, but the rest of the storyline is so exciting that it buries those concerns pretty quickly, and those scenes between Truxton and Will and Truxton and Grant are both tense for scenes that consist entirely of mere conversation.
This, of course, all leads to the episode's centerpiece, a lengthy struggle between Will and Donald Bloom in Will's apartment that Will somehow wins. The best thing about this is how well it's all set up. Bloom sets up drug paraphernalia around the apartment, then situates himself in the bathroom to wait. Will comes home - having had a fight with Andy that ensures he's sleeping at home tonight - and then putzes around for a while, looking out the window at Andy's place, the audience silently screaming at him to go across the way and make his peace with her just for tonight. And then he sits down on his couch and sees the spoon with drugs in it and the shadow looms over his shoulder. At all times in this, the camera has kept the bathroom's proximity to Will in its eye, and that makes things even worse, because we know Bloom really only needs Will to step within about 50 feet. Is it believable that Will wins the fight? Not really, maybe, but the way he dispatches Bloom - a single bullet through the head - is terrific, as is his shock after it's all over. (I actually thought for a while that the drugs were really in his system and slowing his reaction times.)
So, of course, he calls Kale, who pops on over, shuts Will in the bathroom and turns on the loud music. And then come the power tools. This might be my favorite wordless sequence in the series to this point, as Will sits on the toilet, shaking from shock and the sounds of saws in the other room fill the soundtrack. Of course, laying over all of this is the fact that we know that Kale and Bloom were once lovers, that Kale has been rather protective of Bloom in the past but has finally cast his lot with Will for good in this sequence. And at the same time, Julia gets a brief that she hands over to Miles, who takes it to Truxton: Joseph Purcell is in the country, and who knows where he's headed next.
There's so much stuff that goes on in "A Good Day's Work" that it's easy to forget it takes place over the course of about 18 hours. It's by far the most active episode the series has produced so far (and I haven't even touched on the stuff featuring Andy), but it makes that active stuff work because it involves the show pulling together little pieces the viewer figured were throwaway bits of information from earlier episodes. There's been an assumption throughout most of the season that since Bromell and his team were throwing out large portions of the characterization from the first few episodes, they were throwing out large portions of the conspiracy as well. But now it seems more likely that we just weren't quite grasping how all of the pieces fit together. As the show begins to pull back the curtain and it all begins to make sense, the trick becomes very impressive indeed.
- I know some of you didn't like Andy so much as a character, but that last scene where she shows up at Will's place with the tomato is pretty sad.
- As episode closing images go, Will trying to rub the drop of blood off of the wall in his apartment leaves a bit to be desired. Not a huge deal, but could have been a little more poignant or something.
- After watching this one, I had pretty much no choice but to watch next week's episode, and it's almost as action-packed. Even if the show isn't renewed, it's going to go out of its way to make this first season end as well as it can.