The unreliable narrator is still having its heyday in the peak television era, and its latest iteration comes in the form of Kaley Cuoco’s Cassie Bowden in HBO Max’s new series, The Flight Attendant. To be fair, that is an oversimplification of what The Flight Attendant is, and undermines how well it plots and unravels a mystery through its protagonist’s internalizations and guilty conscience, all the while being darkly clever, and highly entertaining.
Adapted from Chris Bohjalian’s novel of the same name, the show follows Cassie, a flight attendant who is also a debatably functioning alcoholic. The opening moments of the series are presented in a split screen of several frames of Cassie’s clubbing and drinking and then scrambling to get to work on time before the flight to Bangkok she’s scheduled to work takes off. During the flight, she serves the handsome Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman), a first-class passenger reading Crime and Punishment who charms Cassie into agreeing to meet up with him for dinner after the flight. The next morning, she wakes up to find Alex murdered in their bed. Hungover and unable to recall the previous night’s events, Cassie scrambles to get her things and cleans up some of the crime scene before dashing undetected out of the hotel. At first, the trauma of finding a dead body haunts her, but soon enough, Cassie finds herself in the middle of a murder conspiracy and must figure out how to prove her innocence to the authorities, her friends, and herself.
Cassie, no matter how much she drinks or tries to distract herself, cannot escape her conscience—literally. She has these mental pauses—sudden daydreams—in which she imagines herself back to the hotel room in Bangkok where Alex, who is dead, is alive and acts like her sidekick as she tries to figure out who killed him. The dreams are vivid and feel real; so real in fact that a little romance develops between Cassie and the Alex who only exists in her head.
Cassie’s “daydreams” pause the narrative action, which can be annoying to the impatient viewer as they happen often, suddenly, and/or during particularly tense moments. Yet, the series utilizes these pauses effectively. For one, they create an additional mystery, one that slowly reveals a buried secret from Cassie’s childhood. They also serve as Cassie’s conscience, and like the show’s literary counterpart, Crime and Punishment, Cassie’s guilt, delusions and rationale are realized through these dreams. It leaves us with a protagonist who is much more riveting and complicated than she might have been otherwise.
Along with Cassie is a cast of characters who round out this murder-mystery dramedy. Zosia Mamet and T.R. Knight play Cassie’s lawyer, best friend, and brother respectively; both characters stand as Cassie’s voices of reason as her life spirals out of control. Rosie Perez plays Megan Briscoe, a flight attendant that works with Cassie who entangles herself in a treasonous plot against the government. Perez is great as Megan; she brings so much heart and vulnerability to a character who is kind-hearted but also so desperately wants to be seen and acknowledged that she is willing to commit a serious crime. Then there is Michelle Gomez as Miranda, a mysterious assassin-like character who poses a real threat to Cassie.
Actors like Cuoco, Perez, and Gomez are ideal for a show that can be dark, funny, and even surreal—all at the same time. Cuoco’s performance as Cassie is some of her best work. She performs Cassie’s alcoholism with such intense need. There isn’t so much enthusiasm when Cassie goes on one of her benders, but this unnerving sense that a thirst is being quenched inside of her. The depiction feels authentic, and it’s not solely included to make her the unreliable narrator.
The recently-announced season two renewal confirms that The Flight Attendant is not a limited series, although the ending felt as if the series could have served as one. The ending, while not perfect, is a fitting one for this story and ultimately earned its emotional payoff. Not every loose narrative strand gets tied up at the end, arguably leaving room to explore this world and the consequences left behind from Cassie’s journey. However, I feel that another season may stretch the story thin, and while I enjoyed watching these characters, the mystery-thriller element of the series is the main attraction and what pulls you through its eight-episode run. Still, I’m willing to give the show-runner the benefit of the doubt and board that flight when it’s ready for departure.
The Flight Attendant is now streaming on HBO Max.