by Charles Mahoney
It’s to easy to slot “Pan Am” into the category of petty melodrama. It’s glossy music and bright, cheerful attitude make it feel disposable, and it’s quick plot movements and powerful displays of emotion make can make it feel overblown. But until this point, the show has done a good job of grounding this big, fast surface with a solid core of detailed characters and themes. Tonight’s episode, however, played into some of the worst traits of a silly soap opera. Its interesting surface was undermined by a complete lack of respect for the intricacies of character and plot.
Everything in tonight’s episode was written in broad strokes. Even the best part of the night, (co-pilot Ted’s backstory as a test pilot), relied heavily on established clichés. It is nice to begin to see some character development for Ted, especially since the entire cockpit has been pretty much a blank slate so far. Ted lost his job because his father refused to admit that a company plane Ted was flying for the navy crashed because of mechanical error. The reason? Ted’s father owned the company that made the plane, and had just entered into a large contract with the Pentagon. Ted has an inferiority complex because his father sees him as little more than a pawn in the game of business. His dream of one day joining NASA is dashed by his fathers disregard for his wishes.
It’s a well-constructed bit of development, but it places everyone under some sort of simple label. Ted’s father is a complete monster, who shrugs as his son’s wishes burn. Ted himself is angry and impotent, but he has yet to show himself to be more than that. His final acceptance of his position as co-pilot felt unrealistic, because the show has yet to show that Ted would ever acquiesce like this. It’s reminiscent of the shows first episode, where Ted finally accepted Dean by calling him “captain.” The character development is happening so quickly, and unjustifiably, that it’s looping over itself.
Then there was the stewardess’s plotline. When “Pan Am” first came out, there were complaints that it was not directly addressing repression and femininity in the early 60’s. This episode should stand as a firm reminder why such a direct addressing of the issues is a bad idea. For starters, Maggie was given almost nothing to do this episode other than be “Liberated 1960’s Woman,” her character reduced to simple tropes. Kate became the stereotypical “Repressed Girl Bursting Out Of Her Shell,” Laura the “Older Sister Protecting Her Younger Sister, But Really Just Oppressing Her More.” Collette just disappeared.
Because the plots foundation rested so firmly on such a broad foundation, it inevitably split apart. Laura was mad at Kate because she almost ruined her spy mission, but because the episode was about venturing out of your shell, the sister’s argument had to focus on that. Maggie wanted to help Kate “adventure,” and this is fine. But because Laura had to be the “bad guy” here, Maggie also had to help worsen a petty argument between the two sisters and drive a split between the two. Laura had to come around to defend her sister at the end and recognize her freedom because…well, that’s what sisters do in these situations.
There’s no reason for any of these movements other than that they are necessary for tonight’s moral of “don’t be afraid to be yourself.” Which is a fine message, if one is okay with blind positivism. It’s feel good and easy. But the problem is that it is not enough. In its first few episodes “Pan Am” worked towards the idea that the core things stopping us from living life were tradition, dourness, and fear. Tonight, it posited that these things were particularly silly, unsophisticated obstacles that could be outsmarted in a moment. And that’s just not true; there are much harder obstacles that need to be overcome than irrational fear. If the show can work towards clearly detailing those obstacles, instead of just painting over them, maybe an episode like this won’t happen again.
Charles Mahoney is Arts Editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org