The Pam & Tommy Finale Reaches The Limits Of Its Access

The sensational, empathetic, totally bonkers experiment that is "Pam & Tommy" comes to a close this week with a bittersweet episode that chooses not to look directly at the violent dissolution of the central couple's relationship. Instead, "Pam & Tommy" zooms in on one of its last gasps, a failed getaway that in different circumstances could have been like a second honeymoon. The hour also closes the door on Rand Gauthier and the internet's first sex tape scandal.

When I first watched "Pam & Tommy" ahead of airtime, I was satisfied by this ending, but it hits a little differently at the end of its polarizing eight-week run. On the one hand, the conversation around this series has inspired more empathy for Pamela Anderson than ever before, despite her own apparent disapproval of the show. On the other hand, the finale, directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton, falls into some of the show's most frustrating habits, like showing snippets of the stolen tape again and again and again to drive home the already-understood point that it's everywhere. In the end, viewers will likely be left feeling deeply sad about the way everything went down, and that's the feeling "Pam & Tommy" seems to want us to sit with as the end credits roll.

An indecent proposal

The episode delivers tentative endings for Pam, Tommy, Rand, and the sex tape itself. The latter ends up fading out due to a strange legal loophole and the dawn of streaming video, but before that, Pam and Tommy sit somberly beside a copy of "Penthouse." 2.7 million people saw those photos, Pam says: "Perverts, casting directors, friends." Tommy, more resigned than supportive at this point, simply says, "Well, at least it can't get any worse."

But it does get worse before it gets better. Pam loses out on two major roles–in "Austin Powers" and "LA Confidential" — while Tommy's band is cut from a performance in favor of Beck. "F*** Mike Myers!" the drummer interjects when Pam tells him the news about her auditions. The pair have been irrevocably changed by this whole sh**show of an experience, and it seems to be a fatal blow to their confidence. But while they're struggling to hold their relationship together, a bizarre opportunity arises.

Seth Warshavsky, who we briefly saw running camgirl sites out of Seattle in prior episodes, is now streaming the tape in a bid to get sued by the couple. When he receives the papers, he gleefully celebrates, because he knows the case will prove it's legal to stream the tape. The Lees' lawyer explains exactly how widespread the tape would be if it continued to stream online: "The VHS tape, that was a flu. This is a plague."

In the end, Pam and Tommy sign over the rights to Warshavsky after he explains he can run cease and desists to other purveyors and cut down the number of eyes on the tape by 95%, simply by putting it behind a paywall. A shot during the final montage shows that didn't exactly work, as the tape ends up officially distributed on video store shelves. Warshavsky's is a fittingly sleazy solution to a scandal that was invasive and money-hungry from the start.

Rand's quest for karma

Rand, meanwhile, is in hell as Butchie's muscle. He tells the guy he's done eight jobs for him, but simply can't bear it. We see his reddened knuckles as he talks about how he can't eat or sleep. "It's devouring my soul," he says, and it's clear he's finally feeling like a bad guy for the first time. Butchie tells him he'll be off the hook if he brings him 10 grand. In a moment of rare serendipity for a guy who's always stepping in it, that's exactly how much money Seth offers him for the original VHS tape later in the episode. When Rand finds out Seth's running a copy of the tape, he leaves his receptionist a message threatening to pop his head off like a dandelion. But like the Lees, he eventually succumbs to Seth's business sense, giving him a clearer copy of the footage in exchange for the 10k. He doesn't give it to Butchie, but to Erica, so the pair can finally get a divorce.

Rand's apology to Erica is sweet, if just as selfish and dramatic as he usually is. But there's another apology he never quite gets to make, one that's emblematic of the series as a whole. He goes to a psychic who tells him he caused harm to the "star," and the tarot card captures a vision of a nude woman near a beach. He decides this must be Pam. Rand's character is interesting because his attempts at reconciliation clearly have nothing to do with Pam herself; he just wants to get his own karma back on track. He tries to approach the Lees' car among a crowd of onlookers, but is ignored. Eventually, he says his piece to a Pamela Anderson impersonator, a blonde woman with a Baywatch swimsuit. Like the people who made this show, who reportedly never got a response from Anderson, he never gets to explain himself to the woman face to face.

Fact Check: How did Pam and Tommy's relationship end?

Though this finale wraps a bow on the sex tape plot, it doesn't present quite as clean a portrait of the last legs of Pam and Tommy's relationship. After Tommy aggressively screams at Pamela during a fight about the rights to the tape, the pair decide to plan a getaway. The trip to Las Vegas starts off with a flash of the goofy, loving energy we saw from the pair early in the series, with Tommy laughingly pretending to catch Pam on a fishing hook while "Alright" by Supergrass underscores their giddiness. The trip soon takes a turn, though, as small but significant moments begin to pile up and push the couple apart. Tommy roughly grabs Pam's arm in the elevator, then goes on a tirade when the hotel sends a bottle of champagne up despite the Do Not Disturb sign.

When heavily pregnant Pam goes to bed, Tommy ends up down at the bar, joking with some strangers about his bright future in porn. We know this is his attempt to get over the impact the tape had on him — "There's worse things than the whole world knowing you got a monster hog," his bandmate hilariously advised earlier in the episode. Still, Pam doesn't know this, and she's hurt when she catches him joking. She takes their car and drives home without telling him.

The last months of the couple's relationship play out via montage during the show's closing moments. The most bittersweet is the birth of one of the couple's children, which Tommy captures on video. He asks Pam to smile at the camera, and she does despite everything she's been through. The show seems convinced that the couple almost could have made it all work, but its ending is a pretty clear contradiction to its own romantic ideal. After Pam gets the "Tommy" tattoo on her finger redone to say "Mommy," we're given the final headline: the couple split in February 1998, two months after he was arrested for felony spousal battery.

This really happened. The Associated Press reported at the time that "Lee pleaded no-contest last month to charges that he kicked wife Pamela Anderson several times while she held their baby son." The show doesn't get into these details, instead ending on a frustratingly romantic note that highlights the couple's brief reunion in 2008 and the times they've called each other the loves of one another's lives. This seems to be true, too: Pam said it about Tommy in 2015, in a People Magazine interview where she also called him a supportive co-parent.

The end of "Pam & Tommy" is a tragedy, but even after spending eight hours with the show, it's hard to tell how clearly its creators understand their own story. Signs of Lee's abuse were few and far between until this final episode, which makes me wonder if Anderson's own documentary retelling will have little in common with the domestic scenes we've seen. "We're so good together, Pamela," Tommy insists in this episode. "It's the world that's f***ed." This may be true, but the whole world wasn't arrested for hurting Pamela Anderson. The battery charge hangs over the show's ending like a dark cloud, and as "I Will Always Love You" plays out the series, it's hard to make this whole messy, painful, private yet public story make sense.