by Charles Mahoney
By all reasonable accounts, “Pan Am” is slipping. But I don’t think the situation is as dire as it may first seem. Last night’s episode “The Genuine Article” is further proof that “Pan Am’s” off-the-wall nature is both its greatest weakness and greatest strength. It wasn’t perfect; in fact, it was mostly pretty bad. But underneath the muck, the shows willingness to take risks still radiates potential.
The problems ran deepest in the Dean and Ginny plotline, which is growing both predictable and erratic. Ginny and Dean continued to have their affair under the nose of Ginny’s other fling, Pan Am Vice-President Everett Henson. Ginny keeps taunting Henson, shoving her affair in Henson’s face despite it possibly ending her and Dean’s careers. As for Dean, well, he just is not acting like a normal human being. He seems ready to suffocate whenever Henson is in the room, and it is absurd to think that Henson would not suspect something was up.
The last minute revelation in this storyline helped to clear things up, but this leads to a larger problem. Maggie is absolutely cutthroat in this episode, freely manipulating everyone around her to save her job. She tries to manipulate the photographer in order to use his connections to save her job. She coldly uses Laura as a prop to get to the photographer. And by the end of the episode, she’s ready to sell-out anyone to get what she wants. It’s depressing to see a character so based on a strong moral compass be dragged down by what is basically nothing.
The reason for Maggie’s manipulation, however, made for the best part of the episode. The flashbacks were very well done, because they indulged so heavily in the “growing up in poverty” tropes that they actually became really fun. Maggie’s struggle was predetermined from the start, but scenes of her jumping into a moving truck to “find her dream” and attending an old literature class really made her dream palatable. More importantly, it sums up a major part of “Pan Am’s” themes. It’s important to have adventures, especially if you need to sacrifice for them.
The only problem is we haven’t really seen this mean streak in Maggie before. If you only watched this episode, you probably wouldn’t see any trouble. But take a step back, and the inconsistent development becomes clear.
Kate’s story was similarly mixed, but it’s indulgence in genre tropes helped to save it as well. I haven’t been totally on board with her spy plotline so far, but damn if this wasn’t a wonderful bit of Cold War spy drama. Temporarily grounded from flying, Kate was asked to spy on her boyfriend, the Yugoslavian diplomat Niko Lonza. The plotline was a bit cheesy, with Lonza doing little more then giving three cheers for American freedom and Kate’s shadowy informant being as generically cold-hearted as he could get. But it worked on the level of expressing big emotions in a big way. It felt important.
And yet, despite this good stuff, “Pan Am” still feels ungrounded. Perhaps it comes down to the characters. As Dean jumps from strong to weak, Maggie jumps from moral to evil, and Ginny jumps from frivolous to intense, “Pan Am” is losing it’s ability to keep it all together. The plot and genre experimentation makes for great fun, but ungrounded characters can kill a show. If it can learn to keep experimenting while grounding it’s characters, the perhaps “Pan Am” will have a chance.
Charles Mahoney is arts editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org