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Kaley Cuoco Series Has an Identity Crisis

When The Flight Attendant first premiered, it was evident from take-off that the HBO Max series had the aim of filling a very specific TV niche. The darkly comedic murder mystery, adapted from the novel of the same name by Chris Bohjalian, had everything going for it in terms of both its twisty, intriguing narrative and all the necessary funny beats — and with a comedy veteran like Kaley Cuoco (fresh off her long-time tenure on The Big Bang Theory) at the helm, the result was a show unlike any other in recent memory. At first glance, Cuoco’s Cassie Bowden has the obvious aesthetic of any number of Hitchcock’s trademark blondes — but the longer we spend in her presence, the more we come to realize that this young woman is not the cool and polished lead than might be assumed at first glance. In other words: she’s kind of a trainwreck, and a self-professed one at that, someone who lucks in and out of dangerous situations to a degree that might threaten anyone’s willingness to suspend their disbelief. Fortunately, Cuoco has the ability to toe the line between charming and maddening, leaving us just as compelled to understand the root of Cassie’s struggle with alcoholism as we are engaged by the greater spygame going on around her. With the show’s return, however, The Flight Attendant falters in giving its numerous plots equal attention, leading to the second season suffering from something of an identity crisis overall.

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When Season 2 picks up again with Cassie, the titular flight attendant is in a much better place than when we last left off with her. She’s packed her bags and left rainy New York City behind in favor of moving to a brighter, sunnier Los Angeles, she’s dating a new man in sensitive artist Marco (Santiago Cabrera), and she’s steadily closing in on the one-year anniversary of her sobriety journey, attending regular A.A. meetings and chatting with her sponsor Brenda (Shohreh Aghdashloo) over all the free donuts she can handle. She also just so happens to be in cahoots with the CIA now, though the reasons for that are a little unclear — because even at her most sober, Cassie seems like the least-likely candidate the agency could tap as a valuable asset, and that’s in addition to taking her jet-setting choice of profession into account. It does position her in a delightful role of opposites against her new handler, agent Benjamin Berry (Mo McRae), whose adherence to agency rules clashes with Cassie’s apparent incapability of doing anything to the letter, and who also ends up running interference on Cassie’s behalf on more than one occasion when it comes to his supervisor Dot (Cheryl Hines)’s concern about her involvement in sensitive assignments.



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Image via HBO Max

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It’s an apprehension that isn’t completely unfounded, either, as Season 2 kicks off with Cassie once again in over her head in the immediate aftermath of a mission seemingly gone wrong. This time around, she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had absolutely nothing to do with the unexpected death of the target in question — but there’s another mysterious woman out there who’s clearly trying to frame her for the kill, right down to a well-applied blonde wig and the same butterfly tattoo on her back. However, while Season 1 revolved around the central question of trying to uncover who was truly responsible for the body Cassie woke up in bed beside, with its B-plots accentuating the primary story, Season 2 establishes too many narrative threads to track and only seems willing to pull on one of them at a time, with an expanded cast that only makes intermittent appearances in comparison to the returning players.


One of the show’s best visual tactics that continues to excel is the frequent layovers we spend inside Cassie’s mind; this season highlights that she’s segmented herself into the strongest and varying aspects of her overall personality, from the dormant party girl version of Cassie, complete with sequined dress, to the all-black-wearing Cassie with smudged eyeliner and a much more pessimistic outlook on the world. The depth of Cuoco’s talent is on display to an extent here, as she navigates playing each of these Cassies with a distinction that makes them all feel like parts of the messy whole. The other half of Cuoco’s emotional capacity isn’t fully revealed until the latter half of the season, in which Cassie hurtles full-tilt toward a spectacular implosion by embracing all of her worst habits in a way that plays as distressing and inevitable — like a car crash that can’t be steered away from in spite of all firm efforts to avoid it. Cuoco’s presence on-screen is an undeniable gut-punch in several scenes this season that see Cassie finally being willing to confront how her self-destructive tendencies haven’t just harmed her but her immediate loved ones, including her brother Davey (T.R. Knight) and her estranged mother Lisa (Sharon Stone).



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Image via HBO Max

Yet the show shifting focus and time toward these tangled family dynamics midway through Season 2 is also an indicator of its biggest struggle — attempting to juggle every narrative ball that’s being established, with many of them introduced only to be dropped in favor of another diverting B-plot. Not only does Cassie have to figure out who’s been impersonating her to deadly effect, but she’s also playing host to the arrival of her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet) and boyfriend Max (Deniz Akdeniz) from New York, snooping around the newest flight attendant on the scene, Grace (a woefully underutilized Mae Martin), and also figuring out where the hell her former co-worker Megan (Rosie Perez) has disappeared to since she went on the run from the North Koreans. By the time Cassie admits that she’s basically forgotten about her boyfriend Marco’s existence in light of everything else going on in her life, it’s a tearful character confession that also feels like the series itself acknowledging it may have bitten off more than it can chew.


While The Flight Attendant‘s first season had Bohjalian’s book to work from, Season 2 aims to move past that completed story arc and away from the source material, but only to varyingly rewarding returns, and continues to stumble over the same issues Season 1 did in regard to balancing its main mystery with everything else happening at the margins. Where the show ultimately persists in its success, though, is through its lead; Cuoco renders an award-winning performance through Cassie’s highest highs and lowest lows, the latter of which remind us that she’s still as much of a hot mess express as she’s always been, whether she wants to admit it to herself or not.

Rating: B-

Season 2 of The Flight Attendant premieres April 21 on HBO Max.


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