The Pam-Only Episode Of Pam & Tommy Is A Series High Point

After spending five episodes bringing its central relationship — and sex scandal — to life, "Pam & Tommy" takes a step back this week to give us some insight into the show's much-discussed central figure. Pamela Anderson, as imagined by episode writer Sarah Gubbins and embodied by Lily James, takes center stage in an episode about the deposition in the Lee family's case against Penthouse. The resulting half-hour is one of the series' best.

Without the presence of the show's other, more controversial constellation points, Tommy and Rand, viewers don't need to re-examine their moral understanding of the story with every new scene. As enjoyable and thoughtful as "Pam & Tommy" is, the series' willingness to empathize with all its central figures can make it tough to watch without thinking about what's been left out so far, like any hint of Lee's abuse of Anderson

By focusing entirely on Pamela, we can see the story at its most pure; we can't know that everything in this episode is true, but its themes ring true for women everywhere. "Pamela in Wonderland" lets us get lost in a flashback of Pam at her most carefree — only to be yanked back down to earth by the nasty, misogynist realities of her present-day situation.

A star is born (in Vancouver)

The episode opens with Pam getting ready for her deposition. She wears a baby blue dress suit and her hair and makeup are impeccable as always. Episode director Hannah Fidell quickly transitions to another significant moment for which Pam got glammed up — a football game seven years earlier. In this flashback, Pam's back in Vancouver, working as a waitress. On this particular night, she's out with her obviously crappy boyfriend, and gets singled out in the audience and featured on the Jumbotron. This doesn't seem like a moment that would change lives, but it turns out to be her big break, as a man approaches her soon after and asks her to model.

Soon after, Pam gets a call from Playboy. She's giddy about it, but her boyfriend doesn't take it well, slut-shaming her in an argument that ends with him throwing a knick-knack at her head. She dodges and is out the door before he knows it, headed to America. I'm most stricken here by how unsurprised Pamela is by the chauvinist tone of his abuse; it's clear that male jealousy and cruelty have followed her around for as long as she's been called beautiful. Even at the tender age of 22, she's already learned to shrug it off and focus on her dreams and goals with a smile.

This just in: lawyers are gross

The episode fast-forwards back to 1996, where it's clear that Pam's optimism and people-pleasing spirit both make her an easy target for the underhanded techniques of the lawyers in the Penthouse case. The deposition scenes play out like an interrogation. They don't quite reach the manipulative, terrifying heights of the Monica Lewinsky hotel scenes in "American Crime Story: Impeachment," but they come close.

The legal team's strategy is clear: paint Pamela as a sex, money, and attention-hungry whore by any means necessary. They do this by pursuing intrusive and deeply irrelevant lines of questioning, setting the tone with a question about how old Pamela was when she first publicly exposed her genitals. They ask her if Tommy has ever paid for sex, and if she's ever been paid for sex. They imply that she leaked the tape herself, and in a move that truly deserves to win the sleazeball lawyer gold metal, they bust out a copy of the honeymoon tape and force Pamela to identify the people and places within it.

This deposition comes across as an absolute nightmare to me, and not just because of Pamela's specific mistreatment. It doubles as a broad indictment of a real culture that punishes sexually confident women without understanding them, and of a reductive patriarchal viewpoint that fails to see sex as anything but salacious. It would be one thing for the lawyers to use this as an underhanded tactic while knowing that it's BS, but they seem to buy into it themselves. The man who asks Pamela why she would make a sex tape if she didn't mean for other people to see it says so earnestly, with no thought to concepts like intimacy, pleasure, or shame-free documentation of memories. When he asks Pam if she considers posing nude a sex act, she almost has to laugh.

Pam's exhilarating first shoot

The episode's centerpiece is a lively, lovely flashback to Pamela's first Playboy shoot. It's one of the show's best scenes, in large part because it's one of the only times we see her in her element and with some measure of power. She's nervous when she gets to the mansion, but is whisked away to be pampered in hair and makeup. We can tell that the lawyers' concept of a nude photoshoot is way off by the fact that Pam's mom is here, giving her encouragement as she prepares.

When it comes time for the shoot, it's the least exploitative set-up imaginable. She asks the photographer where they're going to shoot, but she doesn't mean locations. She giggles apprehensively as she gestures towards her own body. "Never fear, dear," he answers jovially. "This is Playboy, not Penthouse: we like to keep things classy here. Remember to have fun!" He also lets her know they'll do whatever she's most comfortable with. I wasn't sure which direction this scene would go in when it started, but the photographer's answer is all the reassurance I need, and Pam seems to agree.

Pam is a natural. As she poses in a montage of outfits and set-ups, Fidell captures the character with a sense of dynamic joy. Anti-pornography feminists, look away for this part: this is pure empowerment. Pam's having so much fun that when the shoot finally ends, she seems disappointed. There's a sense of agency here that's missing in so many of the Pam scenes we've seen so far, which usually show her trapped within the narrow purview of the men whose dirty minds rule her life in the wake of the tape. This is Pam at her most free. When the shoot ends, everyone claps, well aware of the rare talent they've just witnessed.

Fact Check: was Hugh Hefner really this nice?

As a series based on reality, "Pam & Tommy" gets more complicated with each new figure it introduces. This week, its central complication comes in the form of Hugh Hefner (Mike Seely, even more perfectly cast than the actor playing Leno), the famous Playboy founder known for his harem of beautiful young girlfriends. Hefner, too, is kind to Pamela here. He takes her aside to privately express his seemingly platonic admiration for her. He also gives her some amazing life advice, telling her not to forget that her personal worth is different than the dollar values people will try to put on her. He tells Pam that the world will be watching her, and that she'll have to learn to play different versions of herself, but should always remember who she is.

This is beautiful, prescient advice, but the real Hugh Hefner was a much more complex figure than the fairy godfather we see her. By the real-life Pamela Anderson's own account, Hefner was always kind to her. In a now-deleted Instagram video she posted after his death in 2017, she called him the most important person in her life. "Everything anyone loves about me is because you understood me," she said, as reported by Variety. "[You] accepted me and encouraged me to be myself." 

While Pamela may have had overwhelmingly positive interactions with Hefner, his legacy has been complicated since his death, particularly by the release of a docuseries titled "Secrets of Playboy." The series includes a host of allegations against Hefner, detailed in The Washington Post, that make the head of the Playboy Mansion sound manipulative at best, and dangerous and cult-like at worst.

"I'm sorry we left such a mess."

Though the real Pamela Anderson hasn't spoken ill of Hefner, she has been clear about how disgusting the deposition experience was, and her quote about it creates a stark contrast from her descriptions of her time with Playboy. In the book "Tommyland" (excerpted via Esquire), she says the following about the experience:

It was great sitting through depositions, where old men with crusty white sh*t in the corners of their mouths would hold up pictures of me naked in Playboy and ask why I'd even care that the tape was out there...I couldn't handle it. It got to a point where I could not go to another deposition with these sweaty old guys asking me about my sex life.

The full extent of the lawyers' creepiness becomes clear in the episode's final moments, when they full-court-press Pam about her every decision, motivation, and desire. If she's having sex in a car in the video, wasn't she worried that truckers could see her from their angle above? Doesn't that basically mean she doesn't care who sees her have sex? The questions go on and on, and at a certain point, they become unbearable. Pam retreats to the bathroom, where she vomits.

In the quiet final moments of the episode, we realize that Pam is pregnant again. She seemingly hasn't told anyone in the room — this is one thing happening to her body that she can keep private, for now. She tells her lawyer she wants the depositions to be done. She doesn't cry as she packs up her files; despite these men's best efforts, she's leaving with her dignity intact. Yet despite remaining unapologetic throughout the grueling and invasive process, Pam can't help but revert back to people-pleaser mode at the last moment. The episode ends with her softly telling the maintenance workers, "I'm sorry we left such a mess."