Second seasons can be notoriously difficult, especially for TV shows that come out of the gate fully formed. Save for reinvention, there is not much room for them to do anything other than make minor improvements or adjustments. HBO Max’s spy dramedy The Flight Attendant, which launched in late 2020 and stars Kaley Cuoco as Cassie Bowden, an alcoholic flight attendant who becomes a prime suspect in a murder after waking up next to a dead body, opted for the former in its sophomore outing, to varying degrees of success.
The show’s breezy first season was exceptionally fun as we followed an inept Cassie while she attempted to solve Alex’s (Michiel Huisman) murder and clear her name. Her unreliability as a narrator as a result of her drinking complicated the plot in ways that also enhanced the viewing experience, while a fast pace kept the story from growing stale even as Cassie repeated the same mistakes over and over again. In Season 2, Cassie is sober, so the writers have had to find new ways to keep their leading lady and the show’s viewers on their toes while digging even deeper into the character’s trauma. For the most part, they succeed. But they might have also done a bit too much in their attempt to reinvent the show alongside its heroine, creating a somewhat uneven second season.
In Season 2, Cassie has moved to Los Angeles for a fresh start. She’s a year sober, dating a wonderful new man, and has an apartment that makes no sense for someone on her salary unless her new side gig as a civilian operative for the CIA pays exceptionally well. But it’s only a matter of time before this new life that Cassie has created for herself begins to fall apart, because—despite the many positive changes in her life—she remains the same impulsive and reckless woman she always was. Only now, her recklessness relates primarily to her inability to follow the orders of her handler (Mo McRae).
While in Berlin in the season premiere, Cassie is assigned to observe a target in the hotel. Naturally, she ignores this directive and follows him as he leaves, putting herself in danger when he’s killed by what appears to be a bomb. However, by disobeying orders, Cassie discovers that someone is impersonating her. Upon returning to the States, she turns her sights toward figuring out who this woman is—even going to the CIA about what she saw. But despite the fact this person is killing people and framing Cassie, the ensuing mystery and extended spy storyline fail to register as vital to this new version of the show.
The stronger and more urgent storyline is the exploration of Cassie’s attempts to maintain her sobriety amidst the chaos of her life. Her mind palace is back in Season 2, but Alex has been replaced by different versions of Cassie, including the “fun” drunk from Season 1, a version of her childhood self, and a depressed version who presents a possible future self. The scenes in which the various versions of Cassie interact are some of the season’s best and allow Cuoco to show off her range while supplying Emmy voters with plenty of evidence for why she deserves a second consecutive Emmy nomination for her performance.
But Cassie’s personal growth isn’t the only storyline that shines in the reinvented series. Annie (Zosia Mamet) is on a journey of her own after spending the first season as a true supporting character. She and Max (Deniz Akdeniz) travel to LA early in Season 2 so Annie can interview for a job and meet Max’s parents after tentatively accepting his marriage proposal. It’s a seamless way for the writers to keep much of the main cast together, but this dive into Annie’s inability to express her emotions and commit to Max amidst a quarter-life crisis also makes for some of the season’s most moving and relatable moments. As such, The Flight Attendant has transitioned from a frenetic and zany plot-based series to one driven by the characters as they attempt to find themselves between moments of danger and absurdity.
If the show had only focused on Cassie’s and Annie’s storylines, this would have been a very strong season. But Megan’s (Rosie Perez) ongoing arc with the North Koreans and the arrival of a dangerous new couple make it difficult for the show to survive the weight of its many simultaneous stories. Much as in Season 1, the former is mostly an afterthought and, thus, expendable. It’s unfortunate because Perez continues to deliver on what’s asked of her. But with so many balls in the air—and with other stories more emotionally engaging—it’s hard to muster up the energy to care about Megan, her complicated relationships with her husband and son, or the North Koreans hot on her tail. When Cassie misunderstands a coded message and travels to Iceland in the season’s fourth episode to visit her, it’s a side quest that threatens to stall the momentum of the rest of the series.
So while the show’s commitment to Cassie’s sobriety and ongoing investigation of her trauma alongside Annie’s evolution makes for a deeper, more emotionally resonant show, many of the elements that made The Flight Attendant stand out in Season 1 have fallen by the wayside, while the least exciting ones continue to drag it down. The result is a somewhat uneven sophomore outing. Enjoyment will largely depend on which version of the series you prefer: the one about Cassie’s personal journey or the one in which she’s an inept spy. If it’s the former, you’re in for a treat. If it’s the latter, maybe you’re better off watching something like Apple TV+’s espionage-themed drama Slow Horses instead.
The Flight Attendant Season 2 premieres with two episodes on Thursday, April 21 on HBO Max.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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