Sometimes, historical accuracy gets in the way of good television. A period drama like Pan Am should be informed by actual events and prevailing attitudes of the period—but there’s always room to bend history a little bit. For instance, by insinuating that the ranks of Pan Am stewardesses included their fair share of government operatives. While we can make allowances for the occasional Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!, there remain facts about Pan Am’s Jet Age/Cold War settings that can’t be written around, like the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.
“Diplomatic Relations” rams a big ol’ jet airliner into that particular obstacle, bringing the Clipper Majestic gang—save for Ted and Maggie, who must attend to their own, New York- and love-based affairs—to a USSR where they’re not allowed to do, well, much of anything. Kate has a mission to carry out, but that would require negotiating around the Soviet schoolmarm assigned to the crew as liason between Pan Am and Nikita Khruschev’s government. The episode struggles against the restraints of history, and it never really frees itself. Even when Bridget and Laura are hauled in by the KGB as suspected spies (they nabbed the sister of a spy and a former spy—but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades used to neutralize your political enemies), “Diplomatic Relations” lies flat. It takes what could be a thrilling premise and locale for the series and allows a half-hearted commitment to accurately depicting the stifling bureaucracy of Soviet-era Russia drain that promise.
Of course, we can’t blame this all on the Russkies. Even when “Diplomatic Relations” makes moves toward ratcheting up its short supply of tension, there’s never a feeling that things won’t be righted by the episode’s end. Perhaps this is the biggest problem with Pan Am’s largely self-contained episode structure: As soon as Bridget and Laura are taken into KGB custody, it’s evident that some amount of discussion and string-pulling (and only discussion and string-pulling; the title of the episode is “Diplomatic Relations,” after all) will get them on the flight back to the Worldport.
The episode seemingly comments on itself through the newly introduced character of George Broyles, Sky God! (Darren Pettie, a.k.a. Mad Men tobacco scion/sexual predator Lee Garner Jr.). Broyles is one of a stable of pilots who flew in World War II and therefore earned free rein from Pan Am chief Juan Trippe, which in Broyles’ case means smuggling cigarettes (not Lucky Strikes, however), booze, and Ray Charles 45s through the Iron Curtain. The smuggling merely suggests Broyles could be some sort of Pan Am Han Solo; his blasé response to the KGB snatching two of his stewardesses confirms it. Yet, while every character surrounding George Broyles, Sky God! simmers at a low-to-mid boil in response to that development, the captain stays calm—and that attitude permeates the proceedings. While Dean and Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! (who, it should be noted, does an excellent job of not being spotted by the KGB) fret about Bridget and Laura’s safety, the Sky God casually pecks away at his dinner, confident everything will eventually be sorted out. And despite being the lone holder of this opinion, it’s this attitude that “Diplomatic Relations” most readily reflects.
While all this political non-intrigue plays out in Moscow, Maggie finds herself behind a set of domestic enemy lines. It takes a lot for an episode to elevate Maggie’s storyline above Kate’s sky-spying, but I found myself genuinely interested in how her cocktail party with the honorable Congressman Chris Rawlings turned out. I can’t say I was surprised that it ended in a chilling of relations between the Republican Party and Greenwich Village (nor was I all that surprised that the situation revealed the truth about Maggie’s involvement in The Village Voice’s savaging of Rawlings), but plots where Maggie gets to indulge in that rebellious streak Pan Am frequently tells us about are always welcome. Christina Ricci manages to stifle some of the twitchier aspects of her performance during Maggie’s argument with a stuffed-shirt Rawlings donor, a back-and-forth that ends with the awesome, refreshingly sharp (and not at all awkward or “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”-like) stinger “You hardly think? Well maybe that’s your problem to begin with, you… ignorant buffoon! Were the argument to take place around a turntable rather than a grand piano, the scene would certainly be punctuated by the sound of needle being swiftly ripped from vinyl—instead, we get the shocked faces of fake Republicans and one disapproving pianist. Their outsized reaction is the best shot of the episode—check out Miss Margaret Dumont 1963 in the floral print. That face just screams “Why I never!”
Unfortunately, Maggie’s incivility in the name of her man’s bedside platform leads to the worst shot of “Diplomatic Relations”: The clandestine kiss between Amanda and Maggie barely registering on Ashley Greene’s face. It is, as the members of Asia would say, the heat of the moment leads Maggie’s lips to meet Amanda’s—though the stink of network desperation seeps from every frame of their brief moment of intimacy. The kiss serves to explain why Amanda—someone who, by all accounts, was previously immune to the charms of Ted Vanderway—is so eager to accept Ted’s marriage proposal. It also serves to explain why Amanda wouldn’t give Ted the time of day when they were younger. And while it adds a new, intriguing shade to her character, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the moment is just the latest in a long line of ratings-grabbing lesbian kisses. (And it’s not even ABC’s first of the season!) How Pan Am treats Greene’s character in the next three episodes will determine how naked of a stunt the kiss is—but that unfortunately means we’ll have to see Greene in another three episodes of the series. The blank stare she gives after revealing the truth behind her whirlwind romance with Ted is more than enough.
Amanda’s secret might actually be a place where history could assist Pan Am, seeing as a subplot involving a different angle of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was one of the few bright spots of The Playboy Club. But if the series delivered something as limp as “Diplomatic Relations” with the whole of the Cold War at its disposal, I can’t imagine it’d achieve anything better less-trod territory like The Playboy Club’s meeting of the Mattachine Society. As the first (and possibly only) season of Pan Am comes to an end, it’s starting to feel like some sort of behind-the-scenes heavy (probably with a thick, Russian accent) is sequestering a better version of the show.
- Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: I’ve had my suspicions that Bridget has flipped sides of the Sky Spy! game, and there were a few moments during “Diplomatic Relations” that suggest she may have gone double agent during her extended leave. I mean, she did appear to have a deep knowledge of how the KGB dealt with suspected spies. (Though that could just be because she’s been detained by the Soviets before.) But if Bridget is now a KGB operative, why did they take Laura instead of Kate? Maybe it was all a ruse to get Kate to contact the CIA double agent in Moscow, therefore flushing out two American assets. Hey, sometimes you need to come up with crazy theories when the only thing getting you through Pan Am is Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!
- “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”:“Take a hike, Mike.”