Pan Am: “Unscheduled Departure”
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Pan Am: “Unscheduled Departure”

Despite its noticeable lack of Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! action, “Unscheduled Departures” has the prototypical premise for an hour of Pan Am. Its setup is perfect for the next chapter of a high-flying adventure series: There’s an international destination (Caracas, Venezuela, before an onboard emergency reroutes the Clipper Majestic to Port Au Prince, Haiti), a timely hook (putting the plane’s crew in contact with the militia forces of Haitian president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier), and a chance for each member of the Majestic’s crew (save for Sanjeev, who’s on vacation) to contribute to the overall arc of the episode. “Unscheduled Departures” doesn’t carry enough of those attributes to success to also be the new gold standard for Pan Am episodes—but that doesn’t mean it lacks for trying. There’s an impression that the series was grasping for some sort of prestige (or, at the very least, a noted amount of entertainment value) through the episode. Were it not for some iffy choices in portraying its Haitian characters and an inability to fill the ranks of its potentially mutinous passengers with more memorable characters, it could’ve achieved that goal. 

Amid the parts that make up “Unscheduled Departures,” a theme emerges, best described by the Haitian doctor who consults with Colette and Ted: “What makes your passenger more important than these people?” The passenger is question is widower Henry Belson, though the question doesn’t apply to Henry alone—his midair heart attack (telegraphed by the old “If a person coughs onscreen, they’re going to die” tell) is the reason the Majestic is temporarily stranded in Haiti, but he’s not the only character whose individual needs are placed above those of a larger group. There’s also the Haitian refugee Colette and Ted bring back from their trip to find the doctor; and there’s Colette, who faces dire consequences at the hand of the airline for bringing a stowaway onboard an aircraft. The plight of the refugee (who goes entirely and frustratingly unnamed) causes the most controversy within the episode, her presence in coach being the object of much consternation among the paying passengers. They’re given good reason to be upset—the plane weighs too much to take off with the limited amount of runway available at the dilapidated Port Au Prince airport, and adding another passenger certainly won’t help that—and a plea to the passengers’ conscience from Laura does little to calm them down. Ultimately, a sacrifice must be made, and so Kate volunteers to lay her newfound and recently departed friend Henry to rest on the tarmac. It’s a difficult decision and a poignant scene—though considering that Henry is literally deadweight at that point, it’s the only logical choice. It’s also a nice variation on the theme, as Henry tells Kate before he dies that he always wished he could make a difference with his life. Here that individual desire impacts the young refugee and his fellow passengers.

Kate’s quick connection with Henry seems odd at first, but they’re bonded by mutual heartbreak—his stemming from the loss of his wife; hers stemming from Niko’s recent return to Yugoslovia. Harris Yulin’s performance really makes the character, particularly when you consider that his biography is just a rehash of Up, down to the color of his wife’s hair and the fact that they’d been saving for their trip to Venezuela for years. It’s a quiet and dignified turn from Yulin—particularly if, like me, you immediately recognize the actor as the screamin’ mad judge from Ghostbusters II.

Kate is the Pan Am character most regularly cast in a heroic light, but every one of her fellow crewmembers gets to play hero in “Unscheduled Departures.” Chief among them is Colette, whose native tongue comes in handy in negotiating with the militiamen and communicating with the refugee. (The script does a great job of hinting at Colette’s reasons for sympathizing with an orphan from a country under the control of a despot without making any explicit callbacks to “Ich Bin Ein Berliner.”) But Ted, Laura, Dean, and Maggie each also get a moment or two where they’re forced to be decisive in the face of extreme duress—even if Maggie’s is as simple as tossing a non-compliant passenger’s luggage from the plane, it still makes an impact. Limiting “Unscheduled Departures” to the interior of the Majestic forces the show to streamline its storytelling, thus featuring the principal cast working toward a single goal: getting out of Haiti alive/not being taken hostage by the militia. I enjoy Pan Am when it’s attempting to work out several stories though disjointed structures, but it felt good to watch an episode where each member of the ensemble was highlighted while still being placed within the confines of the same plot. And in the end, it all leads to another variation on that theme, where the stewardesses each take their turn to protect Colette by telling the Pan Am brass that bringing the refugee aboard wasn’t Colette’s idea alone. 

Still, “Unscheduled Departures” doesn’t seem like it lives up to its potential. For being the Pan Am distillation of the Airport films, the episode doesn’t do much work to make us care about the passengers on the Majestic. Save for Henry, they’re an indistinguishable bunch of cowardly background players. There’s not a lot of room in the script to flesh them out, however, and what room there is goes to Aaron Diaz’s Miguel, a Venezuelan slickster with a yacht in Caracas and some history with Maggie. Miguel begins the episode as a potential love interest but ends up looking almost as much the villain as the militia—maybe more so, taking into account the sequence where the two militiamen board the plane in search of food, sending Miguel to cower behind Maggie. ABC’s press materials for the episode touted the guest appearance by Diaz, a star in the realm of telenovelas—but the role and Diaz’s smirking performance aren’t the greatest introductions to a wider, English-speaking audience.

The episode’s climax doesn’t exactly do well by the suspense that builds up to it, either. Once the Majestic sheds the extraneous weight of luggage and Henry’s body, all that remains are a few more pounds of fuel to be burned. Militia vehicles emerge from the shadows, but they don’t present any great threat to the takeoff. There are no shots fired, no attempts to block the runway—just a lot of idling vehicles in the plane’s general proximity. What with all the talk of the tremendous danger posed by Duvalier’s forces, they don’t do a whole lot in the end. Much like the plane’s landing in Port Au Prince, there’s never any feeling that things are going to go wrong. You could count the naysaying and odds-giving of Sanjeev’s replacement, Chuck, but in “Unscheduled Departures,” Dean is Han Solo (at least the closest Mike Vogel can get to Han Solo) and you never give Han Solo the odds, so there’s no question that the plane’s getting off the ground. You also don’t sit in Dean’s chair, lest you’re looking for a severe tongue-lashing from First Officer Ted Vanderway. It’s a triumphant moment for Ted, and one which makes up for the clumsy exposition on the situation in Haiti he delivers earlier in the episode.

There’s something a bit troubling about the portrayals of the Haitians, too. Maybe it’s because they’ve landed in the capital of an authoritarian regime in the middle of the night, but it takes a while for the Majestic crew to encounter their first non-hostile Haitian. Ted’s aforementioned info-barf covers the reason the Haitians might not be friendly to Americans—Duvalier had incredibly strained relations with the Kennedy administration—but until the refugee appears, the people of Haiti behave not too unlike the “uncivilized” peoples one might encounter in an adventure film from the 1930s or ’40s. It’s particularly queasy-making after last week’s relatively nuanced look at race relations.

In fact, “Unscheduled Departures” frequently feels like a lost B-movie. Henry’s plot not only recalls Up, but also a small-scale disaster film along the lines of the aforementioned Airport. Perhaps most crucially, it pulls the old drive-in trick of slipping some medicine in with the sugar, raising questions of when individual needs should be sacrificed for the greater good. And that’s what the best episodes of Pan Am should be really—hour-long pieces of escapism with just a hint of social commentary. “Unscheduled Departures” might not be an exemplary episode, but it seems like the series is working toward establishing the gold standard its premise suggests.

Stray observations:

  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: It was nice to see the softer side of Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! this week, but part of me was hoping that Henry was actually a master spy from back in the day sent to dispense some hard-earned spying wisdom in his dying hours. Meanwhile, the phone call with Richard at the end of the episode indicates that Kate’s work flipping Niko will result in finite number of favors from the CIA. I hope she makes them do something really mundane, just so the agency gets a little comeuppance for stranding her boyfriend in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Maybe we’ll see Richard coming to Kate’s apartment with a load of her freshly cleaned laundry in the next few weeks. Just remember Richard—separate your darks from your lights when you’re cleaning the clothes of Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! 
  • “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”: “How did Hemingway describe fear, Mr. Ortiz? Was it ‘grace under pressure?’ Oh no, I’m sorry—that’s how he described courage.”

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