A trip to Berlin finally kicks the series into high gear

By Adam B. Vary
Updated October 10, 2011 at 04:56 AM EDT
Eric Liebowitz/ABC

Pan Am

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That is more like it! After last week’s trip to Paris portended a descent by Pan Am into pleasant mediocrity, this week’s voyage to West Berlin for President John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech felt like a show that was finally beginning to realize just what it was capable of pulling off. Kate’s spy games crackled with a real sense of danger; Collette’s poignant struggle to reconcile her Vichy France childhood with the new, friendly Germany carried real weight and resonance; and Maggie finally got to do something more than simply be The 1960s Liberated Woman (although just barely). The time-hopping story structure may not have been all that necessary, but it also gave the scenes a spark and tension that made the hour feel much more alive. By gum, if Pan Am can turn out more episodes like this one, then I’d say we may actually have ourselves a genuine television program on our hands.

The too-trusting Kate and the probably-helpless East German translator

We opened not on a Pan Am airliner, but in a New York City subway, with Kate reading a copy of the not-so-historic New York Examiner that nonetheless featured more-or-less era-appropriate typography. (There is little that gets this font geek more annoyed than fake periodicals in movies and TV that look like they were designed on Word using an anachronistic-in-any-time-period font like Palatino.) Her jaunty CIA contact had another courier job for her, but this one was more complicated — she was to go to a small bookseller in West Berlin and ask for a copy of Friederich Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht in German.

But when Kate got there, things went south in a hurry. Her contact, Anke (Auden Thornton) pulled up behind her in the most adorable little sea-foam green German auto, and anxiously barked that her cover’d been blown by the East German secret police. Before Kate knew what was happening, the two had sped away, only to abandon the car in an alleyway just as quickly. And that’s when they both realized neither of them knew what they were doing; Anke was simply a translator, on just her third mission, and she seemed even less sure of how to get themselves out of this pickle than Kate did.

Back at her hotel, Kate called her contact at MI6, and although he dismissed her concern as barely worth his time — “We’re not going to risk our entire East German operation for someone who can be replaced by a 15-year-old with a bicycle” — he also seemed entirely unconcerned that Kate was calling him on an open phone line. (I guess phone bugging wasn’t prevalent in 1963?) Kate, however, was not to be deterred. She snuck Anke into the U.S. Mission — during a party for President Kennedy, no less — by hiding her in plain sight as a Pan Am stewardess. Thanks to a friendly reporter at the aforementioned Examiner (a bit more on him later), Anke declared herself as an “East German asset” (per Kate’s instruction) and defected.

NEXT PAGE: Kate gets reprimanded, and Collette can’t forgive

Now, whether Anke was ultimately successful remains unclear. But her MI6 minder apparently was so alarmed, he came down to the Mission himself (from London? That day?) to scold Kate for countermanding his orders. What if Anke had been lying? What if Kate had just brought an East German spy into the proverbial hen house? “You have no idea what it takes to keep a Cold War cold,” he chided, and what I really liked about this scene was that he wasn’t in the wrong to say so. Kate really does have no idea what she’s doing; her actions were reckless, and endangered her fellow stewardesses in the bargain. Even Anke at one point couldn’t help but say to Kate, “Did they teach you to lie? Because you’re not very good at it.” I have no idea where or how Pan Am will develop this spy storyline this season — it would be nice for Kate to get a break from espionage for an episode or two — but I am digging the ambiguity.

Collette confronts history, and loses

From the moment Collette warily eyed the flight board declaring her destination to be Berlin, she knew going to the country that had occupied hers less than 20 years previous wasn’t going to be easy. At first, she tried to rally, declining to share her trepidation with her co-workers. But once she was in West Berlin, her façade began to crumble. The first to see it was Dean, who Collette had so ably comforted in Paris. After Collette mentioned that she didn’t have any family, Dean pulled her aside and asked, “So how old were you when the Nazis occupied France?” She was three. (And, by the way, a quick plea to not just Pan Am writers but all TV writers in general: Moving three feet within a public space does not, in fact, create an invisible cone of silence around you, especially if you’re moving three feet closer to the well trafficked main staircase of your hotel.)

After her confession to Dean, Collette found herself swept into the heady stream of people rushing to see President Kennedy’s speech. When an enthusiastic elderly German man — man who loved Americans, and who obviously had lived his prime years during the height of Nazi power — invited them all up to his top floor apartment so they could see the speech, it was all Collette could do to pull herself up the stairs. Those ham-handed jump-cuts to German soldiers storming the staircase weren’t necessary, though. The scene that followed it — Collette, standing at the doorway, flooded with complicated grief and rage, unable to join her friends and triumph in Kennedy’s inclusive words — communicated everything we needed to know about her and what she was going through. It was a stunning, complicated scene: Kate, Laura, and Ted caught up in Kennedy’s forward-gazing idealism; Collette stuck in the lingering psychological stains of WWII.

From there, Collette kept escalating her confrontations with Germany: Grilling Anke about her father delivering bread to the Nazis; explaining to West Berlin officials that she speaks German so well because “I was forced to learn when I was a child”; singing the German anthem “Deutschlandlied” for the entire party at the U.S. Mission, even after she became overcome with emotion. Karine Vanasse played them all without ever teetering into mawkishness, and the payoff was stunning: Collette’s tearful confession to Kate at the end of their flight back from Berlin. “I came to Germany to forgive,” she said. “But I still hate them, and I don’t know how to stop.” Kate had no answer for Collette — she seemed pretty stunned herself, confronted by the messy human consequences of warfare.

Maggie, the world’s best accidental could-be assassin

With two of the episode’s major plotlines so freighted with history and hazard — and Laura and Ted sidelined with a three-scene arc that can be summed up thusly: Ted made a move, Laura said no, Ted was bummed — it was up to Maggie to leaven things with her mad mad mad mad mad dash to meet President Kennedy.

NEXT PAGE: And now for something completely different…

First, she tried buttering up George Manchester, the New York Examiner reporter who we know is a Serious Journalist because he’s just getting around to reading Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage eight years after the Pulitzer-Prize winner was published. Naturally, he sees right through Maggie’s ploy, and she’s forced to move on. (Side note: George was sitting in seat 3D, the same seat as the handsy lout from last week, and the fake-Russian-spy-real-MI6-agent from the series premiere. If this is going to be a running joke on Pan Am, I can’t decide if I think it’s cute and clever or I think the stewardesses are idiots for not realizing that that seat is somehow cursed.)

Next, Maggie hit pay dirt with the strapping Mike Ruskin of the Village Voice, who was happy to be manipulated into scoring her a press badge to the speech on the promise of a First Class upgrade and some help crafting his report for the Voice‘s lefty-boho readers. “It’s not like you can go wrong telling people exactly what they want to hear,” explained Maggie. “You’re a politician now?” flirted Mike. “I’m whatever I need to be,” replied Maggie with a knowing smirk. C’mon. Can Maggie get through one episode without having to speak in thesis statement aphorisms?

A ticket to the speech, however, was not what Maggie was ultimately after, and once she snatched away George Manchester’s itinerary, she realized that what she really needed was a ticket to the president’s party at the U.S. Mission. Bye bye Mike, hello Kennedy’s wink-wink affinity for uniformed stewardesses. “We’re here as representatives of Juan Trippe and Pan Am!” beamed Maggie with all her stewardess compatriots (and the disguised Anke) in tow. (Bonus points to the writers for never explaining who Juan Trippe is.)

This was just one of several times Maggie revealed the 1963 Secret Service to be woefully inept. They simply shrugged when Dean waved the women into the party without even a cursory ID check, and then shrugged again when a frantic Maggie — realizing Kennedy had just left the party — pushed past a Secret Service officer standing by the exit and ran like a crazy person directly after Kennedy’s motorcade. When Maggie later discovered Air Force One waiting at the West Berlin airport, she rushed up to the plane carrying a mysterious large box. Did the Secret Service — alerted to be on the lookout for an unhinged tiny brunette with ginormous eyes in a Pan Am uniform — tackle her and isolate the box for the bomb squad? Nope. Way to go, guys.

Instead, the Secret Service officer kindly listened to Maggie’s explanation for all her gonzo behavior: She was a volunteer for Kennedy in ’60, the one who put in more hours than anyone else, and but for an ill-timed bathroom break, would have been rewarded with some face-time with the future President of the United States. “I just want to thank him for making me realize that each of us can make a difference,” she said. “I just want to shake his hand.” Fortunately, the Secret Service was not so bungling that they were about to let someone talk their way onto Air Force One. They were, however, happy to let a box of illegal cuban cigars onto the plane, a box delivered by someone clearly unhinged, a box originating in a city surrounded by Communist East Germany, and a box that they inspected before handing it to the leader of the free world by lifting the lid and looking inside for maybe five seconds. What I’m saying is Lee Harvey Oswald was a chump compared to the wily machinations of Maggie Ryan. But it was all okay, because the president waved to Maggie as a thank you.

Your turn: What did you make of Pan Am’s third episode?

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