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

Pan Am: “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”

Illustration for article titled Pan Am: “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”

John F. Kennedy is the perfect candidate for Pan Am’s first, extensive engagement with a historical figure. He was the “New Frontier” president, after all, and while a luxury airline isn’t exactly the most progressive setting for a television show, Kennedy’s sanguine public perception is an easy companion for Pan Am’s Jet Age outlook. “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” centers on a pivotal moment in Kennedy’s presidency: his address to an audience of nearly half a million in West Berlin, a powerful statement of international unity in defiance of the then-22-months-old Berlin Wall. As the Cold War continued to play itself out over the next few decades, the wall came to symbolize much more than the physical barrier between East and West Berlin. In “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” Pan Am uses it and Kennedy’s speech about to illuminate the various walls we build around ourselves and the often difficult decision to let people through those barriers.

In other words, just when you expect Pan Am to zig, it zags. If presented deeper into its first season, “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” might seem like a radical reinvention for the series; as the third episode, it’s a sign of Jack Orman and company laying out another potential course for a young series that’s yet to settle on a single path. And while I like “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” as much (if not more) as Pan Am’s pilot episode, more episodes like it may prevent Pan Am from becoming its own, unique series.

But let’s start with the good stuff: Colette continues her march toward being Pan Am’s best character with an emotional plotline that revolves around her first-ever visit to Berlin. Her reasons for never going to the city are telegraphed within the first few minutes—she’s never been to Berlin, but she technically lived in Germany between the years of 1940 and 1944. And like a lot of people in 1963, the actions of a few monstrous Germans have made it impossible for Colette to forgive the entire nation. It’s a bit melodramatic, but hey: Those type of wounds take a long time to heal. And Karine Vanasse does a great job of conveying how deeply they cut, even when the circumstances are a touch ridiculous: She can’t bring herself to enter the apartment of some kind Germans who’ve invited herself, Maggie, Laura, and Ted up to watch Kennedy’s speech; later, at a post-speech reception for the president, she brings the room to an awkward hush by belting the excised, Nazi-beloved opening stanza of the German national anthem. The latter is a fairly unnerving slice of TV, with Vanasse beginning the anthem in a state of steely faced reserve, before emotion threatens to overwhelm her. Like Kennedy standing in West Berlin and telling the East “Let them come to Berlin,” it’s a moment of grand, personal defiance.

It’s also a bizarrely unpleasant stance for a character to take so early into a television series—but Pan Am deserves kudos for trying something so potentially inflammatory on a network drama. Colette has her reasons, but she’s still passing prejudice on an entire population. And in the case of the Berliners (the people, not the pastries—har har, period joke) with which Kennedy expressed his allegiance, these are people living amid a completely separate totalitarian regime. It’s a complicated character note, and to the credit of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” it’s not one which is resolved by the end of the episode—the warm, receptive citizens of West Berlin don’t suddenly make up for a hurt Colette has carried for more than two decades. It will prove interesting to see how Pan Am treats these feelings in episodes to come.

And yet, there’s something about that which bothers me. By choosing to saddle its most sentimental character with some deep, dark baggage, Pan Am threatens to double back on its first two episodes and settle for being a Mad Men clone. Here’s the way to avoid that: If Colette is to become the bubbly female equivalent of Don Draper, Orman and his writers can’t let that infect the rest of series. They’ve shown that they’re capable of letting Kate’s courier missions play out without letting the whole show tip into spy-movie territory; if we delve deeper into Colette’s past, the other characters can’t suddenly start having skeletons forcibly removed from their closets as well. Of course, the way storylines have bled together from episode to episode thus far, the self-contained, “it’s what the destination needs it to be” version of Pan Am will never come to be. I just hope it doesn’t ditch its own, developing identity to chase that of another series.

Kate’s and Maggie’s plots in “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” certainly reflect that destination-based version of Pan Am. Kate’s would almost have to—shy of a diplomatic flight to Moscow, West Berlin is probably the closest Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! will come to being in enemy territory. Meanwhile, in her first major storyline, Maggie goes full-on fangirl for JFK, pursuing any means necessary—flirting with journalists, swiping itineraries, indulging Kennedy’s unspoken predilection for stewardesses—just to shake the president’s hand. We don’t know Maggie well enough at this point to determine whether this is an anomaly or how she really behaves beneath her tough, second-wave feminism exterior—for the good of Pan Am, I’m hoping the former. It’s dispiriting to see the character like this, but it is JFK, after all. Plus, as Maggie explains (blurts out, really) to the Secret Service agent keeping her from boarding Air Force One, she has her own, monologue-worthy reasons for her behavior. And as much as you might be tempted to hate the Maggie-Kennedy plot on the basis of it undermining the series’ previous portrayal of Maggie, it at least provided a fun, satisfying (and even the tiniest bit tense) conclusion to Kate’s assistance in an East German spy’s defection. Her MI6 contact is none too pleased with that development, which while cooling the jets on Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! for a few episodes, might also provide an opportunity for more prominent stories for the other characters. (Laura, for instance, is pretty much wasted in “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” coming to West Berlin solely to have Ted make an ill-advised pass at her.)


“Ich Bin Ein Berliner” ends on a down note, and it’s hard not to draw a line from Colette and Kate’s quiet contemplation in economy class to Kennedy’s assassination, which took place five months after his visit to West Berlin. Kennedy’s death is all too frequently cited as an “end of innocence” moment in American culture, and while many of the progressive measures and pioneering initiatives Kennedy championed would posthumously come to fruition, a lot of that New Frontier spirit died with the president. There’s still some time between now and then in the Pan Am timeline, so I’d like to think “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” doesn’t signal the series’ turn toward darker skies. Rather, I think the episode’s conclusion symbolizes the dual nature of that address: There is still hope and support for people of different backgrounds to come together as one—but they must also acknowledge the challenges facing them.

Stray observations:

  • The bulk of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” is told in flashback, which is a difficult decision to parse out. Pan Am’s made extensive use of nonlinear storytelling in past episodes, but I’m not really sure why this episode starts at the ending—except to build the mystery of why Colette didn’t want to go to Berlin.
  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! (Where we talk about Kate’s other job as if it was the main thrust of the series): I started this as a joke last week, but this week’s Sky Spy! story is the first that feels like it could be the core of its own show. It also added new dimensions to the arc and raised its stakes considerably: We get a better sense of how dispensable Kate is in the eye of her government handlers and discover that there are people in Europe doing similar low-level jobs at a much greater risk. But as I said above, being in a neutral city surrounded by East Germany more or less assured that this would feature the best Sky Spy! story so far—so hopefully it’s not all downhill from here on out 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): “So you’re a politician now?” “I’m whatever I need to be.”