The Flight Attendant Season 2 Review: Kaley Cuoco Shines In An Enticing, But Uneven Attempt To Recapture Previous Heights

When HBO Max first launched in May of 2020, the range of original shows available on the new, upstart streaming service was limited to a mere handful. Within six months, however, "The Flight Attendant" came out of nowhere to announce itself as one of the most thoroughly entertaining new originals of any streaming service at the time.

Developed by Steve Yockey, based on a novel of the same title by Chris Bohjalian, and led by a genuinely engrossing performance by star Kaley Cuoco (who seemed to relish the chance to prove what she's capable of once freed from the shackles of a lowest common denominator sitcom), the series told the hilarious and thrilling tale of a charismatic flight attendant with a penchant for ending international flights with drunken one night stands ... only to wake up one morning and find herself caught up in a far bigger conspiracy than she ever bargained for. Even while encouraging binge-watches with its rapid-fire pacing and soap-opera-like plot twists, the writing team also managed to balance out the vicarious nature of the globetrotting plot with an impressively serious-minded exploration into the darkest depths of casual narcissism, abuse, and alcohol addiction.

When the series received the green light for a second season after an emotionally satisfying conclusion, even the show's most ardent fans had to wonder how exactly the premise would lend itself to continued adventures. This is a story about Cassie Bowden, after all, one of the most shamelessly messy, yet impossibly endearing new characters you'll ever meet, and whose biggest source of drama came from ending up entirely out of her depth in life-or-death situations ripped straight from an airport novel. Turning her into a CIA asset at the end of season 1, even after carving such a self-destructive swath through everyone she encountered, threatened to strain credulity.

Thankfully, the first 6 episodes made available (out of 8 total) in season 2 refuse to get hung up on how the world's unlikeliest hero somehow encounters multiple major murder mysteries in the span of a little over a year, instead assuming (correctly) that viewers are already invested in our favorite disaster of a human being, no matter how outsized her circumstances. Even more encouragingly, the main storyline finds plenty of time and space in between car bombings, home invasions, and assassins to recommit to some of the most nuanced, empathetic depictions of addiction recovery (and relapse) currently airing on TV.

Yet however much this season of "The Flight Attendant" tries its hardest to avoid falling prey to the dreaded sophomore slump, the combination of a thinly sketched premise and some egregiously overstuffed plotting threaten to ground this thriller before it ever takes flight.

Now where were we...?

Season 2 begins over a year after the events of the first, with Cassie relocated to Los Angeles and about to celebrate the milestone of her first full year of sobriety. As succinctly explained in the opening minutes to her Alcoholics Anonymous support group, she has a new boyfriend named Marco (Santiago Cabrera), "picked up a new part-time job" working as a secret CIA asset in between international flights, and certainly appears as healthy and independent as we've ever seen her. Although looks can be deceiving, it doesn't take long at all for the new season to kick things off in earnest and shuttle Cassie into a new overseas assignment in Germany.

Unfortunately, this is also the first warning sign that "The Flight Attendant" may be struggling to recreate the largely unqualified joys of its first season.

The inciting action involves Cassie impulsively getting "a little too involved with your marks," as her new CIA handler Benjamin Berry (Mo McRae) warns her before the trip. This comes back to bite her when she closely shadows a secretive "courier," whom she was ordered to merely observe from a distance. After voyeuristically spying on his risqué late-night rendezvous with a mysterious blonde woman (complete with a back tattoo suspiciously similar to Cassie's own) and noting their telltale exchange of mysterious documents, Cassie attempts to get a closer look as her mark gets into his car ... only to end up far too close for comfort when a car bomb explosion kills her suspect, triggering Cassie's underlying PTSD and leaving her with a debilitating case of tinnitus (and a serious craving for a drink or 5) that leads her to spiral throughout the rest of the season.

Much like the first time she found herself in similar circumstances, the profoundly rattled Cassie initially attempts to hold herself together without telling anyone what she witnessed or how close she came to dying — not even Benjamin, who initially takes her at her word that she was nowhere near the scene of the crime. The biggest difference, however, is that she must try to do so without the vice of alcohol and its numbing effects.

Here, the writing team behind the series (made up of credited writers such as Yockey, Elizabeth Benjamin, Jess Meyer, Louisa Levy, Ryan Jennifer Jones, Natalie Chaidaz, Haruna Lee, Liz Segal, Ian Weinreich, and Kristin Layne Tucker) reveal their greatest recurring strength: allowing a character like Cassie the dignity of making her own choices and, more importantly, her own mistakes. Additionally, her struggles with maintaining sobriety are never treated cleanly or linearly, grounding the series in authenticity. For all the various directions the season eventually takes Cassie, viewers will likely find that the potential of one personal slip-up (or, on the other end of the spectrum, one seemingly minor victory) carries far more weight than any amount of espionage drama ever could.

Clipped wings

Ultimately, none of the second season's plot mechanics ever feel as instantly engaging as Cassie waking up in bed with a dead Alex Sokolov (Michael Huisman) at the opening of the first season, plunging our protagonist into a terrifying world she hardly even knew existed. In fact, "The Flight Attendant" seems to forget about the dead body this time around and focuses much more on the murderous blonde who certainly seems to be trying to impersonate and frame Cassie herself. Where the physical threat of violence by the unstoppable assassin Miranda Croft (Michelle Gomez) helped set viewers up for the last-minute twist involving Sokolov's real murderer, Colin Woodell's "Feliks" (actually an unhinged hitman named Buckley Ware), season 2 sees fit to keep Cassie occupied with investigating various red herrings, none of whom are particularly interesting. Worse, we wind up indulging in another extended detour involving a loose thread from season 1 — Cassie's now on-the-lam friend Megan Brisco (Rosie Perez), still trapped in one of the show's most baffling subplots.

In place of the repeated hallucinations of her dead lover that brought back Huisman in hilarious and sometimes disturbing fashion, season 2 appropriately reflects the new ongoing conflict by forcing our manic and frazzled protagonist to confront several versions of herself: young Cassie as an alcoholic teen (a returning Audrey Grace Marshall), fun partygoing Cassie in a similarly dazzling gold dress that she wore as a functioning alcoholic in season 1, a cynical and defeatist Cassie, and even a far more buttoned-up and mature reflection of Cassie, pointing to a possible future where she has seemingly every facet of her life in order. Needless to say, Cuoco has a total blast acting against herself in these heightened and introspective hallucinations.

But not even these frequent interludes into her headspace can help overcome a central mystery that should be far more compelling than it actually is. The slow-paced and lumbering plotting saps the first few episodes of any energy and momentum. And then there are all those new faces: Cassie's AA sponsor Brenda (Shohreh Aghdashloo), clingy and maladjusted recovering alcoholic Jenny (Jessie Ennis), fellow flight attendant Grace (Mae Martin), the mysterious Diaz couple who may be more than meets the eye (Joseph Julian Soria and Callie Hernandez), CIA handler Benjamin, his boss Dot (Cheryl Hines), and more. The struggle to balance this batch of new supporting characters, along with creating enough time and space for the many key returning characters, eventually takes its toll.

Flying high

That's not to say that this season of "The Flight Attendant" is entirely without its charms, however.

Outside of Cuoco's stellar work, much of the season's redeeming qualities come from its deep bench of recurring characters. The increased focus on Cassie's best friend Ani (Zosia Mamet, expressive and watchable as always) and her relationship with Max (Deniz Akdeniz) does wonders for the moments where we step away from Cassie's self-combusting life, neatly paralleling many of the same insecurities Cassie is experiencing with her own boyfriend. Though relegated to a slightly smaller role this time around, the continued presence of Griffin Matthews' Shane (Cassie's fellow flight-attendant-turned-CIA-agent, in one of last season's more dubious twists) at least helps liven up the proceedings, particularly during the aforementioned plot detour when he and Cassie are both forced to put on deceptive fronts while knowing each is lying to the other. And in an admirable continuation of Cassie's fraught family situation, the arrival of her brother Davey (T.R. Knight) and his attempts to help heal the rift between Cassie and their mother Lisa (Sharon Stone) serves as one of the stand-out episodes of the entire season, by far.

Elsewhere, more technically-minded fans can rest assured that the show's knack for flashy split-screen transitions has been preserved, visually setting "The Flight Attendant" apart from the crowd and helping to set the fun, glitzy, and breathless tone. An impressive "oner" sequence (or at least the appearance of a single-shot take, as various scenes were likely digitally stitched together with some nifty transitions) opens the third episode of the season, subtly building up tension to a boiling point during one particularly dramatic moment. We even get a few split diopter shots thrown in for good measure, largely keeping the focus on Cassie in the background and crystal clear shots of all-too-tempting alcohol in the foreground. The haziness in-between only emphasizes the internal struggle between what Cassie needs versus what she so desperately wants, with the various directors of photography (Cort Fey, Anthony Hardwick, and Jay Feather) using the camera to literalize similar feelings that we see play out in tandem with her many hallucinations.

Overall, season 2 of "The Flight Attendant" doesn't quite match the soaring heights of its inaugural season. But when the series remembers to treat its enticing spy missions as merely exaggerated extensions of Cassie's own personal flaws, rather than the end-all and be-all, viewers will find themselves reminded of why they decided to board this breezy and seductive flight in the first place.