Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pan Am: “Diplomatic Relations”

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Being one of the preeminent symbols of the youthful, optimistic attitude Pan Am seeks to convey, President John F. Kennedy has functioned as a secondary character on the series.  A Kennedy stand-in even appeared in the third episode, “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” a meeting with the president the only thing Maggie was looking to get out of the Clipper Majestic crew’s stopover in West Berlin. She ended up getting more than she bargained for—a relationship with journalist Mike Ruskin, the fruits of which recently constructed major obstacles in Maggie’s path from stewardess to politician. (Or failing that, the path from stewardess to politician’s wife to politician in her own right.) To Maggie and many in her world, Kennedy was no mere elected official—he was an inspiration. And, given the time she spends during “New Frontiers” revisiting her tenuous ties to JFK (sitting among campaign paraphernalia) and imagining a world where she could strengthen those ties (by visiting a restaurant in Rome favored by Kennedy), the episode’s concluding moments were more than foreshadowed. Sooner or later, Pan Am was going to have to deal with the death of that inspiration.

But the events of Nov. 22, 1963—and how a nation’s mourning can be reflected through the reactions of six young individuals—is a topic for next week’s episode, assumedly. After all, this week’s hour ends on the hope that Kennedy may still be alive. That still-murky assassination served to inflate the impact the president made during his life, and much of “New Frontiers” manages to capture that impact. Maggie deflects corruptive influences to stay on a noble path. Kate embarks on a mission that will help maintain the United States’ position in the space race. Colette engages with the brash, charismatic offspring of another country’s dynasty. Laura stands up for the Kennedyesque notion that there’s nothing wrong with ogling a pretty blonde. [rimshot] Like the United States under the Kennedy administration, there’s a pep in Pan Am’s step throughout “New Frontiers,” a bright outlook and a sense of confidence that has the rug pulled out from under its feet as soon as the news from Dallas breaks.

Even in spite of its final moments, which trade in too many stock “reactions to a national tragedy” tropes—extras gathered around televisions and radios, cries of “It can’t be!,” actors looking very concerned—to be effective, “New Frontiers” is as close to an “A” episode as Pan Am’s abbreviated first season will get. It’s fun, escapist fare with prominent storylines for Colette and Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!, a crisis of conscience for Maggie, and chance for Laura to show the world that she’s more than a pretty face—she’s a pretty face that strangers can label “brave” and “a pioneer” because the occasionally flighty brain behind that pretty face didn’t think twice about allowing its genetically gifted shoulder blades to be photographed. [rimshot] In fact, the episode as a whole is a little trope-heavy (of course, Colette’s new beau turns out to be a runaway prince; of course, Laura “mistake” positions her to be Andy Warhol’s new “It” girl) but that’s part of what makes it an enjoyable watch. Many of the lesser episodes of the first season felt as if they were the product of a television series thrashing against its true nature; “New Frontiers” feels like Pan Am accepting its status as the fluffy period drama with the adventurous spirit and the soap-opera heart.

To wit: How great was Kate’s cat-and-mouse game with the rogue Italian agent? So great I feel comfortable discussing it out without the jokey “Sky Spy!” umbrella. The character’s upward momentum through the CIA ranks has been treated in such a hurried,  run-and-gun manner that it was nice to finally slow down and see Kate receiving some honest to goodness espionage training. Her earlier attempts at pickpocketing may be played for comedic effect, but that only serves to make the stakes of her scenes with the Italian feel so real and so high. Once the episode gets to the party, Kate’s storyline takes on a goofy, Looney Tunes-esque rhythm, but there’s still a sense that she’s come a long way from dropping off cameras in Jakarta. There’s a sense that she completed the mission without detection, but her target’s ominous farewell—“In Rome, we never say goodbye”—portents trickier business as the season draws to a close.

Of course, maybe I’m just feeling extra-generous because “New Frontiers” is composed of almost nothing but rising action. To date, Pan Am hasn’t proven adept at self-contained storytelling or heavy serialization, so an episode that’s all build-up and no pay-off comes off as extremely satisfying. The Kennedy assassination has been hanging out there as a potential turning point for the series, but here it plays the more immediate role of a narrative recess. No need to rush Colette and Omar into a whirlwind romance or stick Dean with the consequences of knocking out George Broyles, Sky God!—for God’s sake, people, the president’s been shot! We can all deal with Colette and Omar finding a flat within a reasonable distance of Hong Kong International after we pause, reflect, and allow the writers an extra week to come up with decent conclusions to the ongoing storylines and a way to find closure from the season/series finale. We may already know how the events which close “New Frontiers” turned out, but there’s still a chance for a positive outcome for the events which the creative braintrust of Pan Am determine.

Stray observations:

  • I figured the Kennedy assassination was being saved for the finale, but it’s better deployed here. How could a drama about the Jet Age end on such a dour note?
  • Here’s an additional gripe, though I really did enjoy this episode more than any other this season: Though “New Frontiers” is the episode where Pan Am starts throwing around the “empowered” word, there are some weird, retrograde ideas running beneath Amanda’s scenes with Maggie and Laura. Awkward hugs, giving Laura a check for $500 and calling it an “investment”—the script more or less acknowledges it believes that sexual orientation is biological, but Amanda acts like she thinks she can “turn” Ted’s coworkers.
  • Kennedy’s long-distance appearance in “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” aside, Pan Am has largely eschewed the temptation to cast actors as historical/pop-cultural figures. What’s the over-under that some lucky actor at least wanders through the background of some of next week’s episode in a helmet of blonde Warhol hair and a pair of Wayfarers?
  • In the press-screener cut of “New Frontiers,” the gallery owner who displays Laura’s pictures is the hippest guy in Greenwich Village: He’s managed to get a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde three years before anyone else.
  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: I don’t mean to imply that Pan Am would’ve improved if every episode opened with Kate earning some new Sky Spy! merit badge. However, watching her and Richard interact with their outside voices in public was a refreshing change of pace for the start of a Sky Spy! storyline. Espionage doesn’t have to be about surprise meetings and hushed tones—you can practice picking pockets in full view of a crowded park when you’re Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!
  • “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”: Presented with a sliver of commentary, for once, because this is Maggie repeating something Amanda says earlier in the episode: “I can always go back to changing the world one doorbell at a time.