Pan Am: “Eastern Exposure”
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Pan Am: “Eastern Exposure”

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Pan Am

“Eastern Exposure”

Season 1, Episode 4

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Hey, neat, a reason to care about Ted. Inasmuch as you can care about a male chauvinist born of a rich family who scotched his “last chance” at making the space program by crashing an experimental Navy aircraft. Still, in the wake of three weeks where Michael Mosley was given nothing to do but spit suggestive come ons through perpetually gritted teeth, it’s nice to see the actor get some material with some goddamn pathos—and a subplot that gives the male members of Pan Am their first, honest-to-goodness bit of character development.

As we find out from Ted’s sulky behavior in the presence of two Navy officers (and subsequent flashbacks), our leering co-pilot was once on the fast track to going from flyboy to spaceman—and if there’s anything that can stand in for failed ambitions in the Jet Age, it’s a character’s failure to become an astronaut. What led to Ted watching the launch of Mercury-Atlas 9 from Jakarta, rather than Cape Canaveral? Nothing more than an honorable discharge from the Navy, the result of a long bar tab from the night before Ted’s big crash. Of course, it’s not enough that Ted has this colossal failure and Dean’s recent promotion to captain hanging over his head. He has also has some lingering father issues, illustrated and underlined here by husky-voiced alpha male Jay O. Sanders. (Who, coincidentally just played another fictional aeronautics bigwig in Green Lantern.) Daddy Vanderway is a powerful, older man with a walnut-trimmed study, while Ted is the type of man who sucker punches his friend/pilot over matters of chain of command and corporate seniority. Also, the only reason he’s even working for Pan Am is because the elder Vanderway has some sway at the airline—another issue he’s mighty touchy (read: punchy) about. 

It’s heartening to see Mosley’s character as more than just a leer with co-pilot’s stripes. He’s a capable actor with decent comedic chops—he commits particularly well to his teasing “I murdered a man in Amarillo” confession to Laura—and if Pan Am insists on keeping the cockpit crew around, they may as well start fleshing them out as well as the stewardesses. But “Eastern Exposure” is another indication of a series adrift without its own identity, Ted’s plot is the closest Pan Am has come to pulling a “things aren’t always what they seem” move from the Mad Men playbook. That kind of past trouble is far from revealing that, say, everything we think we’ve learned about Ted’s past is actually an elaborate ruse crafted by the illegitimate son of a prostitute and a man who was kicked to death by a horse—but it definitely steers the series toward “pale imitation” territory. I know most of you think I’m being too alarmist about this, and I probably am, but I’d really hate to see the solid escapist promise of Pan Am’s pilot put aside in order to hook viewers on a watered-down version of another, better show. Of course, if the ratings keep falling the way they did between “We’ll Always Have Paris” and “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” who knows what crazy turns Pan Am might take. By November sweeps, we could flash forward to a 2001: A Space Odyssey homage where a sexagenarian Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! is charged with running some hyper-sensitive information about a mysterious formation discovered on the moon.

Until that happens, however, Kate’s missions are likely to continue involving low-level relays and exciting “waiting for a telegram” action. The goal of the mission isn’t so important this week as how Laura ends up getting entangled in it: The parcel Kate is running from Rangoon to Jakarta is a point-and-shoot camera, the type of object that, when left in Kate’s bag, is subject to being borrowed by her sister and Maggie. When Kate returns to the hotel to find her room ransacked and the camera missing, the show offers the fleeting hint that Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! was in real danger for once, and would therefore have to claw her way through the criminal underworld of Jakarta in search of the camera. Of course, it was revealed that Laura had it the whole time, a fake-out that was almost redeemed when Kate encountered a gnarly-looking man in the city streets—until that dude turned out to be Kate’s Jakarta contact, his “gimme” gesture toward her not a threat of mugging but rather an expression of his disappointment with Kate’s tardiness. In the world of international espionage, punctuality is a virtue second only to discretion.

Because Kate can’t tell Laura why the camera was so important, it becomes the incendiary element which sparks a major blow up between her and her sister. Kate’s treatment of Laura escalates from protective to patronizing in “Eastern Exposure,” an acknowledgment that golden daughter Laura is horning in on the only thing Kate has ever been good at, in addition to the fact that Kate doesn’t treat her sister with any more respect than their mother. Laura ditched her wedding because she no longer wanted Mrs. Cameron interfering in her life; now she has a surrogate mother sharing an apartment with her and accompanying her on international flights. And since Kate can’t yell, “I’m mad at you because of national security” at Laura, she fixates on her bunny slippers, the fuzzy, feet-warming symbol that the stamps in Laura’s passport aren’t tokens of maturity. It’s a sudsy throwdown—one echoed by Ted and Dean’s tiff at the end of the episode—but like most sudsy throwdowns, it reduces the characters at its core to shrill, petty caricatures. I’m fine with Kate and Laura working through their issues in a tawdry manner, but I wish the show didn’t have to make them seem so shrewish in the process.

Especially because what we see from Laura and Maggie in this episode is so one-dimensional, so stereotypically wide-eyed and “American women in a foreign land.” It’s fun to watch the two of them twist the night away with the Jakartans and almost blow their per diem on a cock fight, but did a fear of reptiles really have to be their incitement to leave the hotel? If Maggie freaking out about a snake in the bathroom is the series’ way of showing a chink in her worldly, bohemian façade, I’m okay with it. If it’s just an attempt to get a cheap laugh at a pair of women—even those of the “new breed of women” represented by the Pan Am stewardesses—encountering icky reptiles, it raises some troubling flags. That said, I like the pairing of Laura and Maggie, and hope their further adventures boil down to more than screaming and dancing—maybe Maggie will introduce Laura to Bob Dylan, and we’ll discover that Laura, not Edie Sedgwick, is the true inspiration for “Like A Rolling Stone.” (That’s a few years down the road from Pan Am’s current setting, but hey—those ratings are falling and could use a boost from the musician Colette describes as “that skinny boy who can’t carry a tune.”)

It’s a pity that “Eastern Exposure” gives the worst to the stewardesses when it’s finally giving something worthwhile to the pilots. (Another knock on the episode: an utter lack of Colette.) In making Laura and Maggie go all gawky and “Ew, gross—lizards,” the episode adds another unfavorable comparison to the mix: While Ted’s stuck in the Mad Men zone, Laura and Maggie suddenly feel a bit like refugees from The Playboy Club. As that late, entirely unlamented series discovered, it’s tough to have your cake and eat it, too—while indulging Pan Am’s frothy side, “Eastern Exposure” thankfully doesn’t attempt to overcompensate by making Christina Ricci yell a speech about empowerment over Chubby Checker. And she doesn’t need to, seeing as that sequence, while it diminishes her and Margot Robbie’s characters, successfully makes the type of argument The Playboy Club always flailed at. There they are, two women in an alien environment, getting by on their own and without any help from the men. It’s a slight point, but at least Pan Am manages to make it through a collection of fairly airheaded scenes. Too many more scenes like that, though, and there won’t be much to mourn—even our newly humanized Ted—if Pan Am eventually meets The Playboy Club’s ignoble fate.

Stray observations:

  • Am I the only one who’s disappointed that Colette doesn’t like Dylan?
  • According to Todd, “Eastern Exposure” was intended to be the second episode of the series but was rightfully shelved for a later date. Unfortunately, ABC couldn’t have anticipated the ratings hit Pan Am has taken since its première, so holding a lesser episode until this point might not work out in the long run. Of course, ABC has sunk so much money into the series that it’s likely to show it a bit more patience than Charlie’s Angels. (At the very least, can we hold out until “Smash” Williams shows up to teach Laura a clumsy lesson about tolerance?)
  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! (Where we talk about Kate’s other job as if it was the main thrust of the series): What we see onscreen from our dashing heroine this week is a series of red herrings: The man snapping photos of her in Rangoon turns out to be an ally, the disappearing camera disappears with Laura, and the contact in Jakarta isn’t as stabby and mugging-prone as he initially appears. What we don’t see is the team of assassins and the Commie mole she takes out while waiting for her telegram to arrive. (Using the Krav Magra techniques she picked up from an Israeli businessman—as a means of self-defense for that trip to the Cameron homestead alluded to at the start of the episode.) That’s the real reason she seems so exhausted by the time she hears back from the CIA. All in a day between the margins for Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!
  • “I’m not included in the price of your ticket” (Where we present, without commentary, the most ridiculous thing Christina Ricci has to say in each episode): “Yes, we are the American Dream—but alas, merely your fantasy.”

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