Following in the wake of Christina Ricci’s cheery recitation of DVR-assisted ratings and news that Mike Vogel has signed on to headline a Fox pilot from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Rob McElhenney and Rob Rosell, “Romance Languages” arrives as an obvious indicator that the upcoming season finale of Pan Am is really a series finale. At the very least, the episode’s out-of-order airing displays how little thought ABC is currently giving to the series: “Romance Languages” arrives more than three months after the episode it was intended to follow, the Maggie-centric, flashback-heavy “The Genuine Article.” The hour ties a bow on the Dean-Ginny-Henson love triangle; it fully explains the nude portraits of Laura that played such a big part in “New Frontiers;” it adds a previously unseen kink in the dissolution of Niko Lonza’s romance with Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!; and it’s incredibly generous to a storyline that would’ve pulled in the viewers by the hundreds of thousands during the November sweeps period: Colette’s wooing at the hands of a preteen passenger/close-up-magic aficionado. It’s hard to blame the network for trotting out “Romance Languages” as a sacrificial lamb to the Grammys—but why not just put one of those additional five scripts ABC ordered back in November into production?
The simple answer is, of course, money. No one’s watching the show when it’s not on opposite the Nicki Minaj Catholic Phantasmagoria Hour; in that regard, it would’ve been impractical to greenlight another episode for February 12 when there was an unused “Romance Languages” sitting on the shelf. Unfortunately, putting up an episode that wasn’t good enough to air in November has an adverse effect on what once looked like a sprint toward Pan Am’s homestretch. But “Romance Languages” manages to be both out-of-place and several steps down from the disappointing “Diplomatic Relations,” making next week’s finale almost seem like an act of mercy.
Considering that the series continued to hum along perfectly well without any of the developments seen in “Romance Languages,” it seems especially odd for it to turn up now. Either through tricks of editing or mere implication, the two biggest—the conclusion of Dean and Ginny’s fling and Laura’s scandalous photo session—were dealt with in ensuing episodes, to the point where I’ve almost convinced myself the scene of Laura returning to Graham’s loft was cut into “The Genuine Article.” Similarly, the show’s writers (with an assist from Kelli Garner) effectively sold the break-up of our favorite Sky Spy and Yugoslovian dissident without the snowglobe-shatterring encounter between Kate and an enemy of Niko’s.
That would all be fine and dandy if the episode were simply a benign, vestigial organ of the series’ pre-Steven Maeda days, but “Romance Languages” is an inflamed appendix, bursting with goofy detours and go-nowhere subplots. Not to harp on Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!’s big showdown in the café, but that moment (and the breakdown in a phone booth which follows) are appropriately played as Big Dramatic Moments in the first act, but Kate disappears for most of the episode’s middle third. Rather than spend time with Kate and see how she’s reacting to her potentially compromised cover, we get several scenes with Colette’s precocious adolescent suitor, Charlie. And Charlie is the worst. He’s a multilingual Macaulay Culkin coping with his parents’ divorce by practicing sleight of hand and breaking into the hotel rooms of Pan Am stewardesses. I wasn’t necessarily surprised that the kid eventually makes his way (uninvited) to Colette’s bedside, but it’s a particularly outlandish way of dealing with a boyhood crush—especially when the kiss he plants on Colette at a candlelit restaurant (where he knows the waiter by name, no less) was just as suitable a prompt for Colette’s “don’t grow up too fast” speech.
Of course, it takes some commendable confidence in your script to put Charlie in that hotel room. The same goes for the episode’s most over-the-top, animated-.gif-worthy image: Ginny putting her own face through a window. You know, like you do when you’re the unhinged, twice-spurned point in a love triangle. Either I totally forgot about the way Ginny was portrayed in those earlier episodes, or “Romance Languages” blows a gasket in rushing the character from “post-break-up anger” to “cuckoo bananas.” And yet, somehow, Dean and Henson’s confrontation outside Ginny’s hospital room revolves largely around Dean and Ginny sneaking around behind Henson’s back—not the fact that a woman with whom both men were intimately involved just broke glass with her face. It’s totally, laughably bugnuts, and the scene where Ginny does the deed is so melodramatic and unanticipated that it could come from a Ryan Murphy show, but it’s also television junk food with a negligible sugar rush.
If there’s one element of the episode keeping things above water—one that’s also a thread that could’ve enriched the rest of the series to some degree—it’s Laura’s storyline, which finds her staring down those immortal coming-of-age demons of maturity, independence, and doin’ it. Because Margot Robbie just looks older than she actually is (in case anyone feels like a reminder of their own mortality, Robbie was born in 1990) and she hasn’t received much in the way of memorable plots, it’s easy to forget that Laura is supposed to be the greenest of the stewardesses—as well as a character defined by self-discovery. In “Romance Languages,” that involves nearly losing her virginity to Life photographer Graham, an experience that gives her cause to grasp at any symbol of wisdom and sophistication in Rome, be it contending with Italian bachelors at the hotel bar or going straight from hot chocolate to espresso. It threatens to paint the character into a corner of childlike naiveté, but that also gives us a means for comparison when she finally stands up, marches into Graham’s loft, and undresses in front of his camera. It’s a bold and brave move, and while it’s one that requires a large dose of Playboy Club logic to be considered “liberating,” it’s certainly a positive development for the character. And one we’d be without if “Romance Languages” had been discarded outright.
- Out of context, there are a lot of delightfully, unintentionally surreal moments of “Romance Languages”: Ginny’s accident, her sudden transformation into Glen Close in Fatal Attraction, Henson’s out-of-left-field “TWA! I HAD TO FLY TWA!,” and the main image above, which looks like it’s from an unprecedentedly elegant body-swap comedy.
- If there’s anything I like about Charlie, it’s that he’s still enough of a child to not know the name of the wine he wants to order for Colette.
- For a show that was sold on the appeal of its exotic locations, a lot of Pan Am has been set in interchangeable hotel-lobby sets. As such, it was nice to see that gorgeously composed shot of Laura and Kate in front of the statue near the end of “Romance Languages.” Bonus visual points for giving Laura a matching dress-and-gelato getup.
- Happy 32nd birthday, Christina Ricci! Here’s an episode where your character is a kind of a dick.
- Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: It feels as though we’ve been here before, doesn’t it? To avoid monotony: What we don’t see from Kate in “Romance Languages”—what we can only assume was a swift, tremendous flush of paranoia—would’ve been a fun, spy-movie side we haven’t seen from Pan Am before. I mean, if she’s being accosted by complete strangers in café, who can she trust in Rome? Any chance one of those five additional scripts was a bottle episode where we spend a very tense day in a hotel room with Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!?
- “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”: “This is big news!”