Current events indicate that Americans are still great at building barriers between one another, so television ought to reflect and challenge that fact. But is Pan Am the show that should be doing so? Sure, it’s the perky, little escapist drama that can be any show it wants to be—and one of those shows happens to be a period piece that peels away the sunny façade of the Jet Age to reveal the ugliness that necessitated the reforms and change of the era. But even with that aspect of the series in full evidence across the most recent episodes of Pan Am, it still feels too shallow to effectively tackle matters of race relations in mid-century America. Thankfully, “Truth Or Dare” manages to dodge the “very special episode” trap laid out before it—even if its ultimate message is “prejudice is bad.” And hey—it puts Gaius “‘Smash’ Williams” Charles back on your TV screen, which is a certain type of public service in and of itself.
Charles plays Joe, an officer in the U.S. Navy fresh from a six-month stint on a submarine. We meet him on a flight with his fellow officers from Madrid, a favor from Pan Am to the Navy which, despite Ted’s tumultuous history with that branch of the military, doesn’t seem to bother the copilot as much as it should. Given what happened to the last Navy man who boarded a plane controlled by Ted, Joe is understandably nervous—though he attributes this to a general fear of flying, a discomfort Laura attempts to soothe with some pleasant company and the advice to simply pretend that he’s still on the submarine. It’s a dud of a suggestion, but the two hit it off regardless. They’re kindred spirits, after all—both left home and disappointed their mothers in order to see the world. As soon as Joe introduces the crystal hummingbird he’s bought for his mom as an apology gift, it’s clear that this symbol of Joe’s inability to stay still will ultimately end up with Laura. It’s the Chekhov’s gun (which got Chekhov detained by airport security) of “Truth Or Dare.”
But to get to that point, “Truth Or Dare” has to run the pair through its gauntlet of racist attitudes, which begins with Laura pulling away from a kiss (because she’s worried what other people would think if she kissed a black man) and ends in a couple of mooks harassing Laura and assaulting Joe at a train station. For all of Pan Am’s superficial shortcomings, it manages to treat this material with a surprising amount of complexity. Laura isn’t the colorblind white woman who fixes racism by making an emotional connection with a black man; conversely, Joe isn’t a magical black man who opens Laura’s eyes to the wide spectrum of injustice in 1960s America. Rather, it treats the two like actual human beings pushed and pulled by external forces, until one of them has had enough and stands up for what’s right. The episode probably makes her seem a little too heroic for simply taking Joe’s hand before he receives several patches of fake blood to the face, but it’s a simple-enough gesture to sell the point that people are people, no matter if they make a living flying through the air or traveling beneath the surface of the ocean. (That was the point “Truth Or Dare” tries to make, right? That air-people and water-people can live together in harmony?)
The theme of loyalty in the face of adversity carries over to the continuing adventures of Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! and Niko Lonza, Handsomest Insurrectionist!, where the truth about their first meeting finally comes out—courtesy of the g-men who burst into Kate’s apartment one night. Unfortunately, they’re not just there for a surprise shakedown, and Kate is powerless to prevent Niko from being taken into the hands of the CIA. When it comes to Kate’s government employers, “Truth Or Dare” nicely blurs the lines between good and evil—their methods for meeting with Niko to discuss a double-agent arrangement are nefarious by any measure (as is the fact that they apparently bugged Kate’s apartment), but they share Niko’s interests in deposing Tito. The good news is they eventually release Niko—the bad news is his he has to do all his spy work within Yugoslovia, meaning we’ll probably never see him again, because the country’s secret police will sniff him out soon enough. It’s a heartbreaking end to Kate and Niko’s romance, made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that Kate knew it would probably end this way. Still, better to have loved and lost your loved one to a dangerous mission to destabilize a Communist regime than to have not loved at all, right? (Here’s hoping Niko defected before things got really nasty following Tito’s death.)
Letting go of the Kate-Niko storyline is difficult, but it shouldn’t prove difficult to go a few more weeks without their more emotional scenes illustrating the wide gap between Goran Visnjic and Kelli Garner’s respective acting abilities. “Truth Or Dare” features several poignant scenes between their characters, but Visnjic consistently outpaces Garner in terms of showing his pain over Kate’s betrayal. It all comes down to Garner voicing her hurt, I think—the sequence where Kate and Niko listen to the CIA recording of their “My mind is full of you, too,” conversation features some excellent silent emoting from the actors, but as soon the dialogue kicks returns, Garner’s line-reading destroys the tension and anguish. Those moments are at least redeemed by the pair’s “We’ll always have Paris” moment at the Worldport, where the characters express their affection for one another through flight plans and coded allusions. It gets pretty cheesy at parts (I could’ve done without the Four Seasons reference), but it’s a fitting send-off to the pair.
Between the earnest social commentary and the farewell to Niko, it’s easy to forget that the scene that gives “Truth Or Dare” its title is so clumsy, inconsequential, and seemingly tacked-on. It also gives Colette the temporary (or maybe not so temporary) ambition to fly the Clipper Majestic and introduces a pretty good dick joke, but the dispatch from Pan Am’s frothier corners is a bit of place-setting awkwardly squeezed into the cold open. It’s the type of scene that temporarily reroutes the episode, but will probably pay off down the line—though, now that the show is under the watch of former Lost producer Steven Maeda, those nude photos Laura took with the Life photographer will probably be downplayed for more outlandish plotlines. Maybe Colette’s newly instilled pilot’s instincts will kick in on a flight where Dean bores himself and the whole cockpit crew to death, forcing her to make an emergency landing on a desert island where the passengers encounter a mysterious creature made of smoke. And it’s through that character that Pan Am will show us the true dangers and stupidity of prejudice.
- Mystified by Gaius Charles’ absence from television (and the later seasons of Friday Night Lights) following “Smash”’s departure from Dillon, I discovered he’s been spending the last few years working on a Master of Divinity (which is hardly as badass as it sounds) degree at New Jersey’s Drew University. He’s probably doing it to impress Waverly’s dad.
- Potential Pan Am guest spots for other Friday Night Lights alums who aren’t currently the golden boy of another small Southern town or carrying the child of a latex ghost: Minka Kelly as a Russian double-agent who Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! discovers was recently outsed from an unpopular private-investigating firm with a mysterious benefactor; Brad Leland as an eccentric Texas cattle baron who pays Pan Am an ungodly sum to allow his prize herd to fly first class from Dallas to New York to Paris on the Clipper Majestic; Taylor Kitsch as the captain of the Clipper Brooding who teaches Dean a thing or two about sulking—and then knocks him flat on his ass in front of Colette, who’s instantly smitten; Kyle Chandler as an idealistic Congressional candidate who wins Maggie’s support, before he reveals some unfortunately retrograde sexual politics; Adrianne Palicki as a stewardess, probably. (Though it’d be great if she was a family friend of Ted’s who doesn’t take any of his shit and dishes out a tremendous amount of sass.)
- A phrase I’d like to hear Visnjic say: “Mom, am I nuts?” Despite being born halfway around the world from Raul Julia, Visnjic sure sounds like the late Puerto Rican actor in “Truth Or Dare.”
- Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: The show lets Kate get off the hook a little bit by allowing the CIA to out her to Niko, rather than forcing Kate to directly confess the true nature of their relationship. And that removes a little bit of the sting, unfortunately. Still, it’s a bit thrilling that Pan Am is allowing us to see the darker, morally ambiguous side of international espionage, particularly during an era where secret agents were often portrayed like patriotic Boy Scouts. In other words, you ought to be more careful about the company you keep when you’re Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!
- “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”: On being stuck on a submarine for six months: “I’d load myself into a torpedo tube!”