There’s a human urge to fit the chaotic facts of our lives into coherent stories, to make it feel as if whatever’s happening is happening for a reason. Despite their differences in circumstance, Rand Gauthier and Pamela Anderson have been telling themselves similar stories. They’re misunderstood, they’re not taken seriously, they can’t manifest the outcomes they want. But right this second, they’re both on the cusp of changing their personal narratives. Pam has wrapped the comic-book movie Barb Wire; if it’s a hit, she’ll transition from Baywatch bimbo to bona fide movie star, maybe even a franchise lead. And Rand? He interpreted the fact that he has Pam and Tommy’s sex tape as a sign that he should have Pam and Tommy’s sex tape. This is how the universe tilts itself in his direction — finally.
Time has yet to progress very far in Pam & Tommy. Episode three begins where episode two began, which is where the series premiere ended: Two slimy guys in a windowless, wood-paneled office are watching strangers have sex on a homemade video complete with shaky cam effects. For men who have watched a lot of sex on video, they’re strangely entranced. “It’s like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to be seeing,” Uncle Miltie observes. It’s hotter than any porn he could make, simply because it’s not porn at all. Rand takes the tape home for ritual smudging because, lest we forget, this is a business venture slash divine retribution for Tommy acting like an asshole. Rand is who those “Namaste, motherfuckers” T-shirts were made for.
The new business partners take their purloined wares on a montage tour of Porn Valley, but, for fear of being sued into oblivion, no distributor will touch the tape without signed releases from its stars. I don’t do much crime, but I think a solid rule of thumb is that if a bunch of porn execs thinks something is a bad idea, it’s probably a bad idea. Vivid Entertainment passes. So does New Sensations and even the subterranean operation that is Naughty Times Films. The gods, perhaps, are not on Rand’s side.
And they haven’t been for a while. We learn Rand used to be married to an adult-film actress called Erica (Taylor Schilling), who left him for a woman. Their relationship seems to have been largely based on simple compatibility: Rand liked that Erica was pretty and made porn for a living, and Erica liked that Rand didn’t judge her for it. Legally, they’re still Mr. & Mrs. Gauthier, and Erica calls Rand like he’s her super, which is exactly who Rand was to her when they first met. This time, her ancient toilet won’t flush.
Struggling to get his sex-tape biz off the ground, Rand devotes himself to the task of hunting down the obsolete float-cup valve missing from Erica’s toilet. He makes phone calls; he makes photocopies. Like shopping the sex tape, it’s deemed an effort worthy of montage. The B story and A story soon collide when Rand finds the pump part on the internet. The internet! The mysterious hinterland where anonymity is king and crimes against personal privacy are hard to injunction. This is not just any float-cup valve he has sourced — it’s the float-cup valve that will ultimately change the way the entire world consumes porn. Rand and Miltie agree to sell the tapes on their own from the relative safety of the World Wide Web. Well, almost on their own. They need seed money to pay for manufacturing and shipping. So Miltie calls Butchie Peraino, the loan shark who bankrolled Deep Throat, who believes in Rand’s vision for an unpoliceable marketplace. He offers Rand and Miltie some incredibly unfavorable repayment terms, which they naturally accept. From the germ of an idea, an entire business is born.
Miltie handles the money, which for reasons unexplained requires him to personally fly briefcases of cash around the world, setting up bank accounts in Montreal and Amsterdam. Rand heads the much less glamorous production effort: collaging photos of Pam into original cover art, building a sad Web 1.0 site, finding a guy who has a lot of VCRs, measuring envelopes to make sure they’re big enough to fit tapes. Montage, montage, montage!
It’s a whirlwind, and yet Rand has not forgotten Erica in her time of need. He turns up to the home she shares with her girlfriend and fake proposes with the valve he believes has changed the course of his life forever. Over dinner, he tells her — minus the details, of course — how much better he feels about himself, and it’s amazing what a little grand larceny can do for the male ego. So secure is he in his masculinity that he even chuckles along at his not-quite ex-wife’s shrimp dick jokes! He only met Miltie because of Erica, it turns out. Rand was visiting his girlfriend on set when Miltie’s anal specialist bailed, and he was desperate to find a guy with a small enough penis to save a scene. Now, they’re co-founders. Tomorrow, gazillionaires! The world is a vast and mysterious place, and Rand’s modest member has changed his fate. He goes home and signs the divorce papers, which is an empty gesture without the cash to actually file them, but, still, it’s a gesture.
Meanwhile, at Lee HQ, Pam and Tommy are trying to manifest a baby using Hindu meditation cards with no luck. Professionally, though, things are going Pam’s way. Barb Wire is a huge priority for the studio, and tomorrow she’s filming a long, emotional monologue as CJ. It may be her fourth season of Baywatch, but it’s rare that Pam is allowed to deliver more than two lines in a row. She’s ascendant while Tommy’s band is being featured on VH1’s Behind the Music, a program dedicated to the stories of artists who have either died or faded away. It’s an unexpected surprise that Tommy can celebrate Pam’s success even as his own star falls. At loose ends all day, he even cooks her a big Greek dinner to celebrate nailing her big scene. If we didn’t know that Tommy would eventually serve time for spousal abuse, I’d say Pam won the husband jackpot. When she tells him the committee of middle-aged men who call the shots at Baywatch cut CJ’s speech, he even coaches her on how to stand up for herself.
And it works. Pam does the scene their way — yet another shot of her charging into the surf with one half of each butt cheek exposed — and then insists on filming the monologue she’s been rehearsing all week. She’s prepared an answer for their every objection. The other actor isn’t available? Pam’s thought through how they can cheat the reactions in post. Her hair is the same; her wardrobe is the same; her face is as camera-ready as her ass.
Plus, Baywatch is minor league compared with the movie career that’s waiting for her. The Barb Wire studio has hired a dedicated PR exec, Gail Chwatsky (Mozhan Marnò), to ensure it’s a hit, and Gail takes Pam as seriously as she wishes she could take herself, which is as seriously as Tommy takes her. Everyone knows the story people tell about Pamela Anderson Lee, who got her start in the pages of Playboy; Gail wants to know what story she would have them tell instead. And Pam’s North Star is Jane Fonda, of the girl next door to sex symbol to Oscar winner slash activist slash fitness guru pipeline. But it’s more than a career ambition for Pam; it’s a dream of self-acceptance. Pam wants to stop worrying about pleasing everyone all the time. “Freedom,” Gail summarizes without a hint of irony. “That is a great narrative.”
Pamela Anderson Lee is in total blissed-out love, throwing her weight around on set, starring in a major blockbuster, and, she finds out, about to be a mom. Her story is her own personal fairy tale, but it’s on a collision course with Rand Gauthier’s rags-to-riches redemption arc. We already know from the series premiere, which sees Jay Leno asking a squirmy Pam about the sex tape on national television, which version of the story the media eventually tells. Because, sadly, Gail’s plain wrong. It’s not as simple as choosing the narrative you want to tell about yourself, not for a woman, especially a former centerfold, in mid-’90s America, before social media and before Me Too.
Some people are more entitled to their stories than others.