by Charles Mahoney
“Pan Am” is such a schizophrenic show that it’s not uncommon for it to contain one amazing storyline and one middling storyline in the same episode. Last night’s episode was a perfect example of this. On the good side, there was a subtle, emotional story of forbidden love in a racist time. On the downside, Kate’s storyline took the next step into absurdity, reinforcing and highlighting the melodramatic spy clichés it has been built on. The spy story weighed down so heavily on the rest of the episode that it threatened to push all of nice stuff out. It was messy to say the least.
But there was a lot of great stuff here nonetheless. For starters, the editing was just great. Cutting between the party in the past and Laura’s day with her African-American love interest Joe. On it’s own, the party was a nice little bit of comic relief, but it was also a clever way to tell the story. It made Laura and Joe’s relationship grow very organically, and while it’s a bit unrealistic to think that the meek Laura would so easily overstep racial boundaries, it was still a very heartwarming story. I liked the idea of racial stereotypes as being another limitation that kills adventure. Laura’s problem is not that she lacks opportunities, or even lacks the will to take advantage of them. It’s that she lives in a world where movement towards those opportunities is effectively impossible.
This relatively strong plotline was almost completely pushed to the side, however, by the adventures of Kate Cameron, spy extraordinaire. Instead of allowing Kate and Niko’s relationship to end naturally, or at very least, interestingly, we had the US government kidnap Niko so that they could black mail him into working for them. This is problematic for several reasons, but the biggest problem is that it is just too easy. Kate was betraying Niko by working for the government, but the government’s blatantly evil actions took the blame off her shoulders and placed squarely on the shadowy men in trench coats. True, Niko still blamed Kate for what she did. However, their final resolution is only made possible by the government’s intervention, which made them the “primary” evil actor.
And why did the government act this way? It’s not as if Niko wasn’t sympathetic to their side before; indeed, he was probably more sympathetic before they banged in the door and demanded he get in the car. I’m not saying this is totally out of character, but it feels so forced. They didn’t even try to talk to him and really, this plot point only existed to create situational irony between Niko’s love of American freedom and the authoritarian actions of the government.
It was also there to wring some cheap melodrama out of Kate’s spy story, of course. Despite what many have said, “Pan Am” is at its best when it’s not melodramatic. It’s a very low-key show, one concerned with the adventures of a few people (Kate, Laura, etc.) in a single situation (the 1960s), and it doesn’t really do well outside of this context. Spy adventures and rescue missions, while fun, take the focus off of the very human struggles of love, self-discovery, and personal liberation that rest at the shows core. Laura’s love story with Joe was first and foremost a story of one woman’s struggle over boundaries, and it transcended its simple roots by tapping in to this shared struggle. It’s more compelling then all the gritty, flashy spy action the FBI can muster.
Charles Mahoney is arts editor. Email him at email@example.com