The first season of “The Flight Attendant” was a rollicking, fun reconfiguring of the spy genre with a stunning (and Emmy-nominated) performance from leading lady Kaley Cuoco as Cassie Bowden. What started out as the story of a drunken flight attendant waking up next to a dead body blossomed into a dark — and, at times, somewhat convoluted — exploration of guilt and addiction.
It was often easier to remember Cassie’s journey towards sobriety than the wacky plot involving government espionage and assassins. That note might have been taken to heart by HBO Max with Season 2, as the spy elements may be present and accounted for, but they feel far less critical to this season than Cassie’s personal growth.
While most addicts are urged not to make significant life changes for the first year, Cassie Bowden has jumped in to change with both feet. She’s not only gotten sober but she’s also moved to Los Angeles and started a new relationship with a kindhearted photographer. She’s also doing civilian operative work for the CIA, and her latest mission has her travel to Berlin to follow a man. But when the target ends up dying in what Cassie believes is a bombing she can’t get anyone to believe her. Add to this a person who looks like Cassie being at the scene of a few murders and it’s enough to shake Cassie’s entire being.
Right away this season feels different than Season 1. Because Cassie is no longer drinking, the show starts out slower and more controlled. Cassie is still a spy and immediately thrown into a Hitchcockian turn of events, but the spy theatrics never feel on the same footing, maybe because of how infrequently we go back to them. Even when Cassie is investigating how things tie together the emphasis is always on how it ties into Cassie’s current quest to become sober.
This might turn off fans who loved the complicated murder mystery that was found in the first season, but for those who loved Cuoco’s performance, alongside those of the other established characters, it allows for deeper and richer personal intrigue. Because Cassie isn’t the only one struggling to find out who she is without the crutch of alcohol. Best friend Ani (Zosia Mamet), has also made big life changes, or at least is trying to. Starting out as a Mob lawyer in Season 1, Ani is considering maybe kinda getting engaged to her boyfriend, Max (Deniz Akdeniz), but still struggles to express her feelings.
Jennifer Rose Clasen
Mamet has always been good as Ani, but she tended to get smothered by Cassie’s plotline in Season 1. This iteration feels more balanced, especially as Ani, too, is trying to grow up. Mamet, like Cuoco, have such a skillful way of saying a line that, on the surface, shouldn’t be funny and making it hilarious. Her dialogues with Akdeniz are honest and natural, but that doesn’t mean the drama can’t be dialed up. A moment when the pair believe they might die sees Ani go on a long, existential spiral to admit her feelings that is pure hilarity.
Ani and Cassie’s individual flaws feel organic to their progression, and it helps that Mamet and Cuoco know exactly how to play things. Last season saw Cassie retreat into her head when times got bad, and this season is no different as she interacts with different versions of herself. Cuoco gets a chance to flex different parts of her personality in these scenes, playing the fun, drunken Cassie of Season 1 who snarkily keeps reminding Cassie that her “good choices” haven’t turned out so well. Later, there’s a depressed, sarcastic Cassie that illustrates the dark hole she could find herself in if she doesn’t commit to her sobriety.
It’s easy to see why Cuoco was recognized with award nominations last time around and here’s hoping that trend continues as she has to be a one-woman show. Cassie, on the outside, is desperate to change her life but almost feels like a part of her has died. The show illustrates just how often alcohol is present in nearly all social situations, even having casual get-togethers with friends, which forces Cassie to either remind everyone around her that she’s sober (and thus a former alcoholic) or just awkwardly refuse. Some of these interactions can be fun to watch, but Cuoco’s restrained performance shows the daily struggle Cassie has with drinking.
Maybe because the spy hijinks are dialed back, the side characters feel more peripheral than they did in Season 1. Cuoco and Mamet have the strongest arcs, while the others feel more like pawns being moved in service to them. Rosie Perez’s Megan, now on the lam after selling information to the North Koreans, pops up within the first six episodes but almost feels like a Carmen Sandiego figure, one who just needs to be found rather than have a proper plot. T.R. Knight and Griffin Matthews, as Cassie’s brother and friend, respectively, also have minor blips in Cassie’s world but far less than in Season 1. And if you’re looking for Michelle Gomez’s amazing assassin Miranda, she’s here but even her character acknowledges that she doesn’t quite fit into this story. Though, to her credit, Gomez continues to make me yearn for a Miranda spin-off.
Newer cast members like Mae Martin, as Cassie’s new flight attendant friend Grace, and Mo McRae as Cassie’s CIA handler flesh out Cassie’s world, while Callie Hernandez and JJ Soria are entertaining as villains whose intentions aren’t known. But these characters are in service to Cassie’s sobriety rather than anything that comes off as natural to the spy elements.
“The Flight Attendant,” like its heroine, reinvents itself in Season 2. The story is streamlined to focus more on Cassie’s own personal development. This might turn off those who enjoyed what Season 1 laid out, but if you’ve enjoyed the characters this far you’ll continue to love Cuoco and company as they try to become adults.
“The Flight Attendant” drops two episodes weekly, on HBO Max starting April 21.