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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pan Am: “The Genuine Article”

Illustration for article titled Pan Am: “The Genuine Article”
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Christina Ricci took a curious path to Pan Am: Successfully traversing the choppy waters of child stardom, the actress’ adult career has been defined by a particular choosiness, as she achieved a perennial “It” girl status by sticking to smaller, idiosyncratic productions (Buffalo 66, Pumpkin, Monster) while always seeming on the verge of superstardom. Big-screen notoriety and movie-star looks scored her a few TV gigs along the way (most memorably a two-episode arc on Grey’s Anatomy as a paramedic whose hand is stuck inside a patient who also has an explosive lodged in his body), but her decision to commit full time to Pan Am served as the headline to much of the early press surrounding the series. Certainly, some of the heat surrounding Ricci’s film career had cooled by the time of the announcement, but casting the actress was seen as a major coup for ABC, as well as further evidence that there’s no shame in leaving the movie biz to do television for a while. (Even Dustin Hoffman is doing it!)

That said, in light of the box-office failure of Ricci’s two most recent forays into wide-release territory—2008’s Speed Racer and this year’s Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star—it’s easy to read some authentic desperation in the performance Ricci brings to “The Genuine Article.” Revealing to Laura that she essentially faked her way to the stewardess position she’s in danger of losing—while leaving it to the flashbacks to reveal the extent and length of her con job—Ricci’s Maggie has an honest, “I’ve got nowhere else to go” moment in the galley of the Clipper Majestic. “Each close call was a stepping stone to something better,” she says, eyes wide and head nervously bobbing. “But this time, there is nothing better. This is it. I can’t lose Pan Am.” I wouldn’t say that the episode’s credited writers, Todd Ellis Kessler and Nick Thiel, penned that line to wring some art-imitating-life pathos out of Ricci—but knowing the arc of her career certainly lends an intriguing, additional dimension to her delivery. It’s unlikely she’ll every be out of the acting game for good, but if Pan Am were to go away, so will Ricci’s chance at that spotlight she never seemed particularly interested in.


While “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” was the first episode to lavish Maggie with the attention implied by Pan Am’s pre-air promotional push, “The Genuine Article” is the first hour of the show that’s legitimately devoted to the character. In a series of flashbacks and an unexpected brush with Brazilian authorities, we learn that Maggie’s typical gumption and independence aren’t in any way a put on—but they’ve helped her get a lot of places she shouldn’t be, like a world literature course at UC Berkeley and the cabin of the Clipper Majestic. Only four years prior (a nicely done part of the script: the character’s journey to Pan Am lasts as long as the average collegiate matriculation), Maggie was but a struggling waitress at a greasy spoon in Tacoma, Washington, reading The Great Gatsby between pouring coffee and picking up shitty tips. “The Genuine Article” furiously draws connections between Maggie and Jay Gatsby, two strivers who used their considerable amounts of gumption and independence—and, ultimately, a bunch of lies and an easily compromised sense of ethics—to get everything they want. But at what cost?

Maggie’s F. Scott Fitzgerald fixation also provides your weekly recommended dose of Pan Am-Mad Men parallels, as, like Gatsby, Don Draper, and the imitation Rolex that brings her and Laura to the attention of the Brazilian law, Maggie is a complete phony. A smart phony, but a phony nonetheless. She only took on an assumed name for a short period of time—long enough to complete that lit course and have its professor pat her and the viewer on the back for giving a close reading to Gatsby—but, as I’ve previously made clear in this space, any aspect of Pan Am that even smacks of a Mad Men lift sets off alarms for me. Obscure it with all the literary allusions you’d like, but a plot like that in a setting like this in such close proximity to Mad Men carries a stink of creative bankruptcy. Particularly because Maggie could’ve gotten to the point that she’s at without taking on another person’s identity.

There’s an inherent sadness in the fact that Maggie’s pulled all these tricks and hurt so many people to end up in a job where her main duties still involve fetching coffee—that’s only underlined by the betrayal she pulls to save her job at the end of “The Genuine Article.” Thanks to her being in the wrong place at the right time, she’s able to gain the leverage she needs to prod Dean’s romantic rival Everett Henson into putting in a good word for her at Pan Am HQ. The captain’s no saint, and neither is the other corner of the love triangle he and Henson are in—globe-trotting “secretary” Ginny Sadler—but as we watch Maggie stroll down the hall of the Pan Am Building in the closing moments of “The Genuine Article,” we now know that she’s willing to harm innocent bystanders to maintain her shaky status quo. And even though we’re meant to feel sympathetic for her as she breaks down in the dim light of a language-training cubicle (her “fluency” in Portuguese being the thread which began to unravel the character’s web of lies), that’s a mighty tall order. I eagerly anticipate the eventual flash-forward where, having compromised every fiber of her being, Maggie is the most trusted staffer in the Nixon administration. Hopefully, she’ll be strong enough by then that Tricky Dick has to get his own damn coffee.

I like the turns Maggie’s storyline is taking—and the way it ultimately, though somewhat forcedly, ensnares Dean and Ginny—but as is often the case with Pan Am, the strength of this episode’s main plot isn’t reflected in its subplots. Until Maggie’s little bit of eavesdropping goosed the Dean-Ginny-Henson love triangle, it was a non-starter of a plot that has so far suffered from Dean’s flimsy characterization and Ginny’s inexplicable attachment to her flyboy fling. At least we get that scene in the hotel restaurant in Rio, where the influence of alcohol prods the dinner companions into acting all kinds of suspicious of one another—and shows Henson’s true, insulting stripes. I love a good soap where secrets and power trade hands frequently and make people behave in ways they wouldn’t in the real world (Why else would I still be watching Gossip Girl?), and it’s always entertaining to see those things seep into Pan Am. I’ll take them even more readily when the alternative is Ginny knocking on the door of a sullen Dean or a soggy Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! plot where Kate is on the ground and barely spying. Of course, bulldozing over other characters is how Maggie earned such a prominent spot in “The Genuine Article” in the first place—why shouldn’t the same apply to the episode as a whole?


Stray observations:

  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: Temporarily grounded by the CIA, Kate’s mission this week involves a day at the amusement park with her Yugoslovian beau, Niko, and a lot of Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired philosophizing. Niko could be a valuable asset to the States, but only if Kate can flip him—which seems likely, considering the negative opinions about Yugoslovian president Josip Broz Tito he expresses throughout the episode. But can Kate take advantage of those sentiments without sacrificing her romantic bond with Niko? Has James Bond ever hung onto a romantic interest across multiple films? Spying and serious relationships rarely mix well, and Kate’s new assignment is bond to drive Niko away—or get him killed. Either way, it’s going to be a learning experience (and hopefully it’s written in a more exciting fashion by the Pan Am writers) for Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!
  • “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”: Maggie’s been found out by her world lit professor, who asks why she’s pretended to be another person for an entire semester: “People kept dropping these wonderful classes—I picked them up.”

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