Pam and Tommy
Pam deserved more. She deserved more from the strangers who devoured her sex tape despite its provenance. She deserved more from the courts, which repeatedly sided with greedy men who profited off her tattered privacy.
Pam deserved more from Tommy, whose inability to appreciate his wife’s perspective bordered on the sociopathic. It’s indisputably different to be the woman in a celebrity sex tape! Men admired Tommy when they watched that video. They coveted his knockout of a wife; they coveted his giant cock, which sadly stopped talking to him after episode two.
And Pam absolutely deserved more from Pam & Tommy, which promised vindication but ultimately reduced the fact of her personhood to some dude’s epiphany. That Rand Gauthier eventually recognizes Pamela Anderson as an innocent victim is part of his undeserved and, I’d argue, unrealized redemption arc.
I’m so annoyed that I could scream. (I did scream a little, but I could still scream more.)
It’s June 1996 and Mötley Crüe is hosting an intimate fan event in the same Tower Records parking lot where pirated copies of the pirated copy of the Pam and Tommy sex tape are usually available for sale. The echo is intentional, but what does it signify that a fading rockstar is promoting records from the same strip mall where stolen images of his wife’s naked body are hawked from a car trunk? The familiar setting imbues the scene with the frisson of meaning, but not any actual, discernible meaning. Yearning to understand why Crüe might play a corner lot, I searched for their new album. I wanted to know how the sex-tape scandal might be reflected in the music of a band whose most famous lyric is the word “girls” repeated three times, followed by descriptions of what some girls are like. “Girls, girls, girls / Long legs and burgundy lips.” “Girls, girls, girls / Dancing down on Sunset Strip.” As it turns out, Mötley Crüe did not release any music in 1996.
The show’s timeline is most loyally pegged to Pam’s pregnancy, and by June, she’s about to pop. She reads for L.A. Confidential with a full bump. She adores the part of Lynn Bracken, wants it even more than she wants the female lead in the new Mike Myers spy spoof, which she’s tipped to land. Instead, different beautiful actresses — Kim Basinger and Elizabeth Hurley — get the parts. Barb Wire is a flop, but the more immediate cause for Pam’s shunning is the June 1996 cover of Penthouse. Supposedly 2.7 million people have seen it, plus the X-rated stills inside, but truly how can that be the case? Are lad-mag circulation numbers in 1996 really on par with the current population of Lithuania? Conditions are deteriorating in Crüeville, too, where Tommy’s band was recently dumped from a vaguely defined MTV broadcast. It’s disappointing, but given they just played to a half-empty patch of pavement, I’m surprised that Tommy’s so surprised.
At least, the Lees tell themselves, things can’t get worse. The sex-tape release sucked; the lawsuit blew up in their faces. The Penthouse cover is even newsier than the lawsuit, but the story has to die eventually. This month’s Penthouse will be next month’s recycling. Oh, if only! Pam and Tommy have the extreme misfortune of appearing in the first celeb sex tape since the dawn of the internet-porn era. Seth Warshavsky has the idea to stream the vid to bait new users to his cam-girl site, which he runs from Seattle, with its overpriced Starbucks coffee and its sniggering, plaid-shirted Nirvana fans who think Mötley Crüe is deeply uncool.
“The VHS tape was a flu,” explains Pam and Tommy’s lawyer, a man who retained his job despite failing to contain the flu. “This is a plague.” As you could likely predict, Tommy insists on running the same playbook that proved so effective in shutting down Bob Guccione — a lawsuit! The defendant couldn’t be more stoked to get served, which is a hallmark of a bad legal strategy. Just like the judge didn’t grant an injunction in the case of Penthouse, the judge doesn’t stop Seth. New media is the Wild West, baby.
It’s a devastating outcome. Pamela doesn’t even cry as she listens to the tape in the middle of the night, nearly full-term now. Her lips are an inverted breve; her sadness is resigned. I can’t imagine the helplessness she must have felt. At this point, even I didn’t realize it would still, somehow, get worse. But Seth comes to town the next day asking to buy the rights to the tape. The courts have clarified that he’s allowed to stream it for free; now he’d like to stream it for beaucoup money.
It’s the most complicated dilemma the Lees have faced throughout a series that’s mostly seen them playing reactionary, whack-a-mole defense. If they sell the tape to Seth, it will be confined to a single website and placed behind a paywall. Generally, Seth tells them, you see a 95 percent viewership drop-off when a video is placed behind a paywall. By selling their tape, which has already been stolen, they can effectively limit the number of people who watch it. Pam, so often sharper than the series has time for, says absolutely not. She doesn’t want some pervy guy with a mustache to own her. Pam agrees to give Seth the rights for free. This is the choice that Rand Gauthier has forced her into: selling herself for nothing.
But she can’t make a deal without Tommy’s permission, and Tommy still doesn’t get it. He won’t even slow down long enough to understand what the tape has cost her, what it must feel like to have images of your body stolen and recirculated at the same time your actual body is swelling into something foreign and unfamiliar. Pam needs a break from Hollywood and the corkscrew cave of Tommy’s all-drama, all-the-time rollercoaster. But he intercepts her packing her suitcase and convinces Pam to come away with him instead, an obviously wrong decision that’s easy to sympathize with. She loves him; she’s about to have their baby; she needs this to work. “No cameras,” Tommy promises as they set off on an impromptu babymoon.
Tommy can only maintain the supportive husband act for a few hours. When they stop off in Vegas to grab some sleep, a hotel manager has the audacity to send up a bottle of champagne despite the “privacy please” sign on the door, and Tommy blows his lid. Lily James is exceptional in these scenes, the way her whole body seems to absorb the violence of her husband’s outbursts. He’s the earthquake; she’s the evidence of its aftershocks. That kind of energy doesn’t just evaporate. It needs somewhere to travel, and James’ Pam is constantly negotiating a safe distance from the man she loves. Tommy, meanwhile, is a hothead caught in a cycle of apology. He actually seems sorry while saying it, but ten minutes later he’s busy doing the next destructive thing, like sneaking out of the suite in the middle of the night. When Pam, dressed in a robe and slippers, finds Tommy in a bar, he’s joking with a bunch of normies about his great second act as a porn star. (A pause to appreciate the punny movie titles they come up with based on Crüe songs: Kickstart My Hard On, Dr. Fuckgood.) It’s not the same to be the man on a sex tape. It’s just not.
By the time Tommy returns, Pam’s set off for Malibu. When Tommy finally joins her, she’s watching the sex tape, something the real Pamela claims to have never done. Tommy says sorry. He says he’ll do better. But Pam doesn’t want indeterminate assurances. She wants him to sign the release for the sex tape. What happens next has probably happened a hundred times already between them: Tommy screams at Pam, who doesn’t have the words or the energy to help him. He flips their coffee table and knocks over a lamp because his neediness is incompatible with Pam’s reserve. When he signs the release, it’s not an act of love or sacrifice. It’s violent. “It’s over,” she tells him, almost nine months pregnant with his child. The spell, it seems, is broken. Or maybe this scene will have to play out a hundred times more. The decision to leave isn’t made in a split-second; it has to be made over and over again. The next time we see them, Pam’s in a birthing pool, smiling for Tommy’s camcorder moments after pushing out their first son. The following year, they’ll have another.
Lurking around every corner of this episode is Rand Gauthier, now an accomplished if conflicted enforcer on Butchie Peraino’s team. His collections are up; his health is unraveling. The bloody work gives him nightmares. For reasons never explained, Butchie cuts Rand a deal. If he comes up with $10,000, he can buy his freedom back. Not that Rand deserves it. When the episode begins, he still considers himself a victim. In an unhinged phone call to Seth, he literally calls himself “the rightful owner” of Pam and Tommy’s sex tape. At loose ends, the spiritually inclined dolt asks a fortune teller why bad stuff keeps happening to him when really he would prefer good stuff. Where’s my positive karma? asks a man who broke into someone’s home, stole an intimate video, sold said video into the public domain, and continues in his attempts to wrest back control of the video in between delivering beatings on behalf of a loan shark. The psychic tells Rand that The Wheel of Fortune is going in the wrong direction because he hurt someone; the Star card turns up, too, bearing a naked woman near the water. Rand never realizes what he’s done is wrong. His atonement is the consequence of a tarot-deck shuffle.
Queue the redemption tour. First stop is Erica, who wisely sets an egg timer when her not quite ex-husband asks for five more minutes of her one precious life. Rand apologizes for being a leech; Erica asks that they limit future communications to a biannual schedule. A final round of applause for Taylor Schilling, who manages a lot with little to work with. She inserts a perfectly toned scoff before the sentence, “Yeah, you are not the greatest gender,” transforming the clunker into an eviscerating understatement. After failing to breach the gates at the Lees’ house, Rand’s next stop is Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where he apologizes to an unconvincing Pamela lookalike. It’s not a great proxy, but it’s something, the show begs of us.
Except Rand hasn’t changed at all. After Tommy agrees to release the tape to Seth, Seth comes to Rand in search of the original. You can’t charge 30 bucks for a copy of a copy of a grainy copy. And Rand sells it to him for the convenient sum of $10,000. Instead of handing the money over to Butchie, Rand gives it to Erica to pay for their divorce. He claims it as a karmic victory, but it feels more like a Ponzi scheme. Rand stole from Pam and Tommy to pay his debtors; he’s stealing from Butchie to buy forgiveness from Erica. He’s always stiffing someone, then convincing himself he’s made even.
In lieu of a real ending for Pam and Tommy, we get an imagistic coda set in the unspecified future and some title cards that befit the series’s period-piece aspirations. Pam inks over her “Tommy” ring tattoo so that it now reads, amusingly, ‘Mommy.” In 1998, the series tells us, Pam files for divorce two months after Tommy was arrested for domestic violence. It goes unmentioned that Pam claims she was still holding their infant son when Tommy started beating her. He’ll be sentenced to six months in jail. Ten years and several marriages later, Pam and Tommy will briefly get back together again and break up once more.
Rand Gauthier moves to Northern California to grow marijuana. “Occasionally, he’ll tell someone he was the guy who stole the Pam and Tommy sex tape,” his title card reads. And that sentence — pithy and nonchalant — strikes me as a pretty good shorthand for what I found so frustrating about the finale of Pam & Tommy, a show with so much to talk about and ultimately little to say. The series more than nailed Pamela’s likeness but was too distracted by the comic value of male buffoonery to bother explaining her.
For that, we’ll have to wait for the recently announced Netflix special, the green-lighting of which may turn out to be Pam & Tommy’s biggest contribution to Pam Anderson’s comeback. She wasn’t involved with the Hulu production, but she and her son will share producing duties on the Ryan White documentary, which promises actual interviews with actual Pam.
It may not have happened here, but, for better or worse, the redemption will be televised.