Pan Am: “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”
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Pan Am: “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”

“What did you think of the flight?”

“Take off was good—but the landing was better.”

And thus begins the first snippet of pillow talk between Pan Am’s Colette and Dean, tidily summarizing the consummation of a will-they, won’t-they romance that has been rattling nearly a dozen of the ABC drama’s devoted fans. Conveniently enough, it also serves as a metaphor for “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”—an episode featuring an interminable middle third nearly redeemed by a cliffhanger ending—as a whole. It’s a whole lot of frustrating, jumbled noise signifying some of the show’s major flaws, followed by 10-odd minutes of sexy, fiery, trigger-pulling escapism.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that as expertly as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” touches down, it might be a case of too little, too late. Sony has accepted ABC’s kind of insulting one-episode back order for Pan Am, and things don’t look promising for the show beyond the remaining episodes on the schedule. And everything leading up to that shot of Karine Vanasse and Mike Vogel—the latter of whose name I still have trouble recalling without a Google search—lying beneath the strategically placed blanket in the Lowrey family barn explains why the network has lost faith in the show. Sure, you have to lay some ground work for an episode which ends with Colette and Dean rolling in the hay, Laura realizing her true feelings for Ted (while Ted puts his feelings with Laura aside to reconnect with a family friend played by Ashley Greene, on loan from the Twilight factory), Maggie torching the curtains in a hotel bathroom, and Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! receiving some spur-of-the-moment ballistics training. But did the rest of the episode have to coast before we got there? Was it necessary, for instance, for the cartoonishly sexist older pilot to take up half of Laura’s story if all he really did was plant the “Hey, Ted’s not such a bad guy” seed in her head? Pan Am may be living on borrowed time, but the thrill of the final 10 minutes of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is slightly undercut by how the rest of the episode is over-stuffed with plot- and character-development.

And while “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” ultimately marks Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!’s transition to Kate Cameron, Actual Spy!, its most compelling storyline belongs to Maggie, who’s forced to approach how frequently she sells short herself and her ideals. The realization comes courtesy of another pair of plot devices-cum-supporting characters: Sam, her bohemian buddy from the Village hoping to crash the World Atomic Symposium in London, and Chris Rawlings, a hawkish politician set to address said “biggest gathering of death merchants on the planet.” (Sam threatens to wrest this episode’s “I’m not included in the price of your ticket” distinction from Maggie, as every word that trips out of his mouth is painfully sincere in true idealistic, post-beat/proto-hippie fashion.) It’s frustrating that it’s taken this long to place Maggie at such a crossroads; her duplicitous past has been on the back burner since “The Genuine Article,” so it was about time that those ethics she claims to espouse were brought into question. The series has enough respect for the character not to push her all the way in one direction or the other, choosing instead to have her bed Rawlings before accidentally torching his hotel bathroom with a copy of his speech for the symposium. It’s a touch over-the-top, but what worthwhile piece of escapist entertainment is afraid of setting some curtains on fire?

Somewhat amusingly, Pan Am is ramping up the sex and violence in its death throes. In a move that loosens the series’ already shaky grasp on how to properly skewer the institutional sexism of the early 1960s, Christina Ricci spends not one, but two scenes of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” in nothing but her underwear. Showing that the episode is equal opportunity with its cheesecake, we’re treated to a good visit with Vogel’s bare chest as well. And then there’s the weaponry brandished in the episode’s final moments, a sudden reminder that Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! puts her life and the lives of others in her hands each time she accepts a package. The fact that it’s erstwhile Bus Driver Stu Benedict Damian Young threatening to plunge a switchblade into Roger’s steak and kidney pie adds an additional lurid edge to the scene.

Before all that can happen, however, Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! discovers that it’s incredibly difficult to cut ties to the CIA—like the mob, or a pricy period drama of which you agree to air one additional episode before deciding its fate, though it only occasionally lives up to the promise of its pilot episode. The summit on nuclear weapons provides a good way to keep Kate on the government’s hook, though the contents of the package Roger is meant to intercept show how deep she now is into the espionage game—it’s a list of U.S. assets the Soviets are looking to buy, one which includes the names Bridget Pierce, Niko Lonza, and, while it’s not explicitly stated, probably Kate Cameron as well. (Whether or not Young’s jeweler, the man in possession of the lists, thought to properly append that name with “Sky Spy!” is also not explicitly stated.) That Kate is consistently thrown into missions that hit so close to home is a bit far-fetched, but one of the things Pan Am has done with her ongoing story—the series strongest and most far-fetched—is its ability to whittle the stakes of these missions to the personal level. It might be enough to concern ourselves with the national-security issues at hand if Pan Am was actually Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!, but emotional investment is necessary for these storylines to translate across the multiple threads and styles of any given episode. When the bullet is fired at the end of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” it’s not being just fired in the name of the good ol’ Yoo Ess of Ay—it’s being fired in the name of love as well. (Awww.)

And while I respect Pan Am’s ambition in attempting to balance that moment with Laura, Colette, and Maggie each pulling their respective triggers, the impact of Kelli Garner staring straight into the camera and capping Wellsville’s most love-lorn bus driver would’ve been much more fully felt if we weren’t also thinking about how Ted just blew it with Laura. On one hand, putting a button on all the major, ongoing plots before the series’ four-week vacation is a wonderfully strategic move on the part of credited writers Moira Walley-Beckett and Lydia Woodward. On the other, it takes a lot of straining to make the Colette-Dean story and the Laura-Ted story match the weight of either Kate or Maggie’s stories. (A few weeks ago, I couldn’t predict Maggie’s sudden leap to second place on my Pan Am Chararcter Arc Interest Scale—credit the lack of meaty material for Colette, I suppose.) It promises good, more exciting material for the final five episodes of the first season—but at this point, the series is merely coasting on “promise.” The promise that replacement showrunner Steven Maeda will puff some life back into the show; the promise of more thrilling missions for Kate Cameon, Sky Spy!; the promise of Maggie confronting all of the compromises she’s had to make for what she believes in. Pan Am has no problems getting up in the air—it’s bringing them in for the landing that’s always the problem. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” at least, is a sign of the show getting things right in the 11th hour.

Stray observations:

  • From The A.V. Club’s resident The Adventures Of Pete And Pete scholar Marah Eakin: Apparently, Young’s appearance is not the first example of Pan Am-Pete And Pete crossover, as Michael C. “Big Pete” Maronna works as an electrician on the production. Here’s a picture Maronna tweeted of himself on set with Young.
  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: In the timeline where Pan Am is actually Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!, the conclusion of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is the conclusion of that series third or fourth episode. And if the producers in this timeline are looking for the blueprint for a Sky Spy!-centric retooling of Pan Am, they’ve got one in this episode. Tonight’s Sky Spy story is definitely my favorite of the series thus far, particularly given the twist involving Niko. (I’ve been ragging on Kelli Garner’s performance a lot lately, but her reaction in that scene is fantastic.) Of course, there’s always the chance that Roger is lying to her and he only alluded to Niko in order to lure Kate back into the mission. But those are the risks you take when you’re Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!
  • “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”: “Captain on my very first round-the-world. Two weeks of war stories and wandering hands. Steer clear.”

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