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The Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) we meet at the start of The Flight Attendant‘s second season (on HBO Max) is, very pointedly, not the Cassie we got to know in the first. Gone are the single-serve vodka bottles and blackout-drunk hookups; this Cassie is sober (coming up on a whole year!), enjoying a stable relationship with a nice dude (Santiago Cabrera) and crushing it in her dual jobs as flight attendant and secret CIA civilian asset.
But as anyone who’s ever made a drastic life change knows, the idea of a totally new you is a sham. Cassie may have stopped drinking but, as she realizes to her chagrin, she’s still impulsive, intrigue-prone Cassie. Likewise, The Flight Attendant may be starting fresh with brand-new material (having used up the plot of Chris Bohjalian’s novel for season one), but it’s still a delicious mix of pulse-pounding thrills, razor-sharp comedy and surprisingly meaty psychological drama.
The Flight Attendant
Airdate: Thursday, April 21 (HBO Max)
Cast: Kaley Cuoco, Zosia Mamet, Deniz Akdeniz, Griffin Matthews, Rosie Perez, Mo McRae, Callie Hernandez, J.J. Soria, Santiago Cabrera, Sharon Stone, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Creator: Steve Yockey
It takes less than one episode for Cassie to see what BFF Annie (Zosia Mamet) describes as her “perfect, I-have-vegetables-in-the-fridge life” blown to pieces. Literally: While tailing a target in Berlin, Cassie watches him die in a fiery explosion that’s officially being blamed on a faulty gas line, but that Cassie is sure was the result of a bomb. More worrying still, it seems to be one planted by a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Cassie, down to the moth tattooed across her shoulder blades. Naturally, the incident sends Cassie scrambling to solve the case before she’s framed (or worse), which in turn threatens to throw off the white-knuckle balance of her booze-free life.
As in season one, The Flight Attendant takes a daredevil’s pleasure in seeing how close it can get to chaos without completely losing control. The intensity of the storyline gets dialed up early on and stays there, with Cassie zipping across Los Angeles or jetting off to Reykjavik in search of clues while trying to evade the notice of the CIA, her airline coworkers, her fellow AA members and her overprotective brother, Davey (T.R. Knight). Meanwhile, the stress of the mission forces her to face demons even sobriety can’t keep at bay — here represented by other versions of Cassie tempting, scolding or mocking her from the imaginary hotel lobby in Cassie’s mind.
The tension is cut through with a biting sense of humor, delivered via dialogue that pops with personality. Its secret comedy weapon continues to be Mamet’s Annie, who responds to everything from Cassie’s reveal that she’s in the CIA to a job interviewer’s questions about her extra-legal duties in her previous position with the same faintly disdainful deadpan. Like any true New Yorker, Annie reserves some of her best barbs for Cassie’s new hometown: “L.A. is like someone painted a coffin happy colors,” she sniffs to her maybe-fiancé Max (Deniz Akdeniz), himself a native Angeleno eager to move back.
Other jokes the show aims at itself, as when it winkingly calls out a deus-ex-machina twist before the audience has time to start groaning about it. The season’s central mystery is a matter of life or death for Cassie, who compulsively downs boxes of Hot Tamales the way she used to throw back bottles of liquor, but The Flight Attendant isn’t taking itself nearly so seriously. If it’s cuter to send Cassie on a stealth mission in a big bright red coat than in drab separates, or more narratively convenient to have Cassie reject common sense in pursuit of her own elaborate, half-assed plans, that’s the route The Flight Attendant is going to go, rationality or “realism” be damned.
Given the number of plates The Flight Attendant has spinning in the air at any given time, it’s hardly a surprise that its balance teeters from time to time. Some of its ongoing plots tend to get lost in the shuffle — most egregiously, the North Korean spy plot involving Megan (Rosie Perez), who’s even more sidelined in season two than she was in season one. (Ironic, considering she explains she did what she did because she wanted “to be seen.”) Her arc is positioned as an awkward detour from the main plot rather than an integral component of it, at least in the six episodes (of eight) sent to critics.
And perhaps it’s actually a testament to The Flight Attendant‘s writing team — led by showrunners Steve Yockey and Natalie Chaidez — that I kept finding myself disappointed not to spend more time with their new supporting characters, like Jessie Ennis’ codependent AA member Jenny or Shohreh Aghdashloo’s disaster-prone AA sponsor Brenda. As for the season’s splashiest new cast member: Sharon Stone shows up as Cassie’s mom in only one of the episodes I’ve seen, but her display of complex, contradictory emotions makes a whole meal of the limited screen time she gets.
Whatever the show’s flaws, they’re far outweighed by its strengths — chief among them Cuoco, who has to throw herself not only into Cassie’s mile-a-minute mental state but also into all the other Cassies egging her on. Her ability to differentiate between them while keeping them all recognizably the same person is quite a feat, and puts her up there with Doom Patrol‘s Diane Guerrero and Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany in the pantheon of actors who have riveting chemistry with themselves.
Their conversations become Cassie’s internal monologue. As giddy and silly as The Flight Attendant can get, it’s wholly sincere in its exploration of Cassie’s emotional baggage, and her conversations with herself become more and more bruising as her journey continues: “While you’re here, why don’t you do something useful and dig a hole for yourself?” one hisses while Cassie stands over a grave late in the season. The Flight Attendant, like this spring’s Single Drunk Female, recognizes that the end of Cassie’s drinking days were just the start of her journey, and that the lowest moments can come once the numbing haze of alcohol has cleared.
At the end of The Flight Attendant‘s first season, the series seemed in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. The show’s addictive, crowd-pleasing qualities made a renewal feel like a no-brainer, and yet the season had also been so satisfying that a follow-up hardly seemed necessary, or even advisable — its odds of hitting the same highs seemed dubious at best. But the most impressive trick the show pulls off is the same in both seasons. Even as Cassie loses her grip, her series never does.
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