This show is going to make air travel seem like a lot of things it isn’t: Sexy. Fun. Non-terrifying. Perhaps this is how it really was in the sixties — everyone in the airport in the show’s first shot is beaming maniacally. Things were just better in those days, right? You could call flight attendants “stewardesses,” for instance.
At the Pan Am building, said stewardesses are going through their pre-flight weight check, and a redhead with a severe bun, Miss Havemeyer, checks up on new girl and protagonist Laura Cameron to make sure she’s wearing her girdle. Laura’s got a hole in her stocking and is almost kept off the flight for tawdriness but is saved by fellow stewardess Colette, who looks just like a French Ellie Kemper. Colette recognizes Laura from Life magazine — it seems a photographer snapped a candid picture of a euphoric just-hired Laura and placed her on the cover. Laura’s sister Kate is also a Pan Am stewardess and more than a little jealous of Laura’s beauty and good fortune. After a little bit of sneering, she heads out to the airport to buy a pack of gum (“Is that even allowed?” asks wet blanket Laura). A man in a dandy little black hat is checking out at the same time as Kate and is like, “Throw in the gum for the little lady,” and Kate is like, “Oh shucks, thank ya, mister!” and I wondered if they were going to go do it, but instead we learn that Kate is possibly in the CIA and/or a drug mule.
Pan Am HQ is still in a tizzy (that’s a sixties word, right?) because the flight to London is missing its purser (head flight attendant), Bridget. The supervisor makes a call to Maggie (Christina Ricci), who, as the disheveled brunette, is the resident alternative stewardess. She’s in some shack arguing about Marxism, but agrees to break away from her studies to take a quick trip to London. Her maybe-boyfriend wants her to stay, but Maggie reminds him that with this job, “I get to see the world, Sam.”
On the cab ride over to the Pan Am building, Maggie changes her clothes and apparently gets a professional haircut and blowout. She catches up with the rest of the crew, who is being led by a 15-year-old pilot named Dean. Dean looked vaguely familiar to me as “some asshole” — he’s also the guy who broke Blake Lively’s feelings in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, so I already don’t like the looks of this guy. He is too emotionally reckless to be flying planes.
While the crew is boarding, Colette spots her lover, John, who she didn’t know would be on the flight. She’s really excited up until John’s secret wife and son get on the flight, too. Someone should have told Colette that internationally traveling businessmen on TV and in movies are literally always cheaters.
After seating the target of her as-yet-unclear spy operations who is, of course, Russian, Kate and the rest of the crew prepare for take-off to London. Silly Laura Cameron forgets to put on her seatbelt. Maggie reminds her, “Better buckle up — adventure calls!” Maggie F-ing loves being a Pan Am stewardess. She only speaks in taglines for their company.
Laura is standing next to a honeymooning couple whose PDA is probably especially gross by sixties standards when they ask her to take their picture with their new-fangled Polaroid camera. The camera’s flash shocks Laura into the past to where she stood, about a month earlier, in a white dress on her wedding day. It seems her mother nearly pushed her into a marriage even though she wasn’t ready (because she was getting so OLD, right, Mom Cameron?). After looking through Kate’s bag of travel souvenirs longingly, Laura has an anxiety attack and decides to leave her groom behind at Kate’s urging. The two of them bolt from the house without any belongings and jump into their getaway car. They smash into the car behind them before tearing off over the curb and across the lawn to escape their mother, who is probably neither so fast nor so dangerous as to require so much destruction of property, but damn do those girls want to work for Pan Am. “I’ll become a Pan Am stewardess!” says Laura, to make sure we get it.
Flashing back to present day, John corners Colette in the aisle and says, “I didn’t know you’d be on this flight,” and Colette says, “What a coincidence, I didn’t know you were married!” That is a good one, Colette. Snappy. I don’t know if Pan Am would approve of that much lip from a female, but I thoroughly enjoyed that. John’s wife asks Colette to take their son to the cockpit, and as she does, she flashes back to a time she hooked up with John in Italy. Flashing back to hotel sex with a guy you just found out is married while you’re holding his son’s hand has to be the worst.
Still in Italy flashback mode (it’s like a flash sideways, really), Dean bikes up to a mansion where Bridget is tucking a refined-looking man into a cab. She says he’s nobody, but he doesn’t seem like nobody. In any case, Dean and Bridget make out a little bit. This explains why present-day Dean’s been such a basket case about Bridget instead of paying attention to more important things, like navigating planes safely. Bridget then heads to lunch to meet Kate, who’s sat down with a man named Richard Parks who she says asked for translation help. Richard Parks is the man from the cab outside the mansion, and after Bridget takes off, he reveals that he’s also a U.S. intelligence officer. He’s like, “Hey, Kate, you know three languages, do you want to be an international spy for the U.S. government?”
Back on our flight to London, John’s Southern wife asks Colette to sit with the family for a minute to thank her for taking her son to the cockpit, ask her where she “gets her eyelashes,” and try to tell if she’s been banging her husband. John, who is such a dick, calls Colette “miss” and asks her to get him a martini. I hoped Colette would smash the glass over his head, but I guess that probably goes against Pan Am codes of conduct.
In the cockpit, where Dean is still looking for Bridget instead of caring about his passengers, a call from Pan Am reveals that Bridget has resigned. Because Pan Am stewardesses cannot be married and because he proposed to Bridget while picking up prisoners from the Bay of Pigs (!), Dean takes her resignation to be a “yes” to his proposal.
So, that happened: Two years before this flight, apparently a domestic Pan Am flight stopped by Cuba to pick up some freed prisoners from the Bay of Pigs Incident. These Pan Am guys seem ready for anything. I mean, Dean was, what, 13 years old back then? And already a co-pilot?? Amazing. Anyway, the crew almost left Bridget in Cuba and the pilot was totally fine with that, but Dean jumped off the plane to go get her. I was hoping Castro was going to get involved, but Bridget rode up in a Jeep right away with one last prisoner (maybe Bridget strong-armed Castro into letting him go?). Dean then proposed to Bridget at the bottom of airplane stairs in Cuba and I do not blame her at all for not saying yes because that shit is not romantic in the slightest. Dean thinks it is, though, and he gives her his wings pin to hang onto until she decides she’s ready to marry him.
Back on the flight to London, the Russian is searching his briefcase for the passport Kate took earlier, and so Kate announces an impromptu “random” complimentary bottle of champagne to seat 3D to celebrate the new plane’s first flight in the hopes that he’ll be distracted. However, the Russian hates champagne (too girly), but he does take note of Laura, whom he recognizes from the Life cover. When he’s chatting Laura up, Kate is able to sneak the gold box into his briefcase. It is lucky for her that he leaves that thing open all the time!
The plane lands in London and everyone disembarks, apart from John’s wife, who “forgot” her purse. She and Colette walk back to her seat, where she’s also left her son’s airplane drawing. Colette goes to hand it back and the wife tells Colette to keep it for her refrigerator, to remind her “not to sleep with other people’s husbands.” Yiiikes. That is not what most people want to associate with friendly children’s drawings of airplanes.
The stewardesses pile into a luxurious London hotel, where Dean places a call to Bridget only to find that she’s disconnected her number. This does not bode well for Dean’s future flight record. Kate walks into her hotel room to find the Russian, who is not really a Russian, sitting inside. He turns out to be Roger Anderson, MI-6, another intelligence officer who was placed on the flight to test Kate, to make sure she’s right for the job. Kate makes a speech about how people have underestimated her throughout her life, and it’s clear she’s thinking of her sister. Kate is becoming a Cold War spy to keep up with Laura, which I guess is one way to work out sibling rivalry issues. Roger reveals that Kate came recommended highly by Bridget, who seems to have had Kate’s position before she did.
Dean is searching Bridget’s London apartment for any trace of her, finding only some boxes and then, his wings. In a perfect world, Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” would have started playing at this moment, but that would not be chronologically accurate.
Later the stewardesses are out at a bar, celebrating their lives, their travels, and their involvement with top-secret government missions regarding national security. Ted, the co-pilot, and Dean sit nearby, agreeing that the stewardesses are awesome. Ted calls them “mutations” of normal women (creepy compliment, Ted), because they’re adventurous and also super pretty. At the window, Bridget either cries a single tear or has a single drop of rain trail down the window in front of her face. Who knows with that woman. She is a mystery.
The show closes with a shot of the four stewardesses strolling in a row through the airport, gloved hands out as if holding up invisible trays of airplane food, as a little girl watches them head out to their flight. She wants to be just like them someday. She wants to see the world. She should be a Pan Am stewardess.