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The absurd, sadistic joy of The Flight Attendant

HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, starring Kaley Cuoco, finds the joy in watching someone who’s acutely bad at crime.

Kaley Cuoco in The Flight Attendant.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

To love The Flight Attendant is to hate its protagonist. Each episode is equal parts pleasure and taunt, as 30-something Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) triggers a cascading sequence of awful decisions — usually within the first five minutes. Watching Cassie is like watching the hero of a horror movie run up the stairs where the killer is instead of out the door to safety. But in Cassie’s horror movie, there are multiple exits and signs that say “Do not enter, you will get murdered if you go this way.” It’s just not in the cards for Cassie to ever heed those calls.

And here’s the dark magic of The Flight Attendant: I still want to see this fantastically inept person succeed.

The show, based on the 2018 novel by Chris Bohjalian, is one of the newest treasures in HBO Max’s growing chest of exclusive programming. It is a pulpy, brazen whodunnit murder mystery with hard-drinking, horny flight attendant Cassie at its core.

In this case, everyone is a suspect — except for Cassie. But the FBI thinks she’s acting fishy, and the people who actually did the murdering want to murder her, too. Cassie seems to not fully grasp the magnitude of the situation she’s in, driving the show’s central tension. At the same time, Cassie’s friends (like a fellow flight attendant, Megan, played by Rosie Perez) and family are either tired of cleaning up her messes or not as close confidants as she believes them to be.

Watching Cassie try to untangle herself from this sticky web of homicide and suspicion is gripping television, akin to kinetic Shondaland dramas like How to Get Away With Murder or Scandal. But The Flight Attendant comes with an empirical difference: Cassie is nowhere near as proficient, savvy, or smart as the heroines of those soapy series.

Cassie might hold herself back, but not the series. The Flight Attendant ascends to the same level of must-see, absorbing urgency of those great shows. It demands that you put down the little screen in your hand and watch the big screen in front of you. And it’s uniquely clever, sometimes deliciously absurd, in so many ways that matter.

The Flight Attendant’s secret weapon: Cassie’s bad decisions

Cassie Bowden’s bad luck begins during a one-night stand from hell. On a flight to Bangkok, she meets Alex Sokolov, a tall, dark, and handsome man sitting in seat 3C. They hit it off, and she decides to meet him for a date once they land. Alex is played by Michiel Huisman, a man with hair so majestic and looks so blazingly good that no one minded when he replaced the original, less hot Daario on Game of Thrones. Alex and Cassie seem like a well-matched pair, even if just for a night: Cassie, too, has great hair and is down for drinking and good sex.

Then we find Cassie the next morning. She awakes not in an afterglow of ecstasy and expensive hair products, but in a pool of Alex’s blood and no recollection of anything that happened the night before.

From there, Cassie commits an avalanche of errors. Determined to not become Thailand’s own Amanda Knox, she cleans up the crime scene and accidentally cuts herself in the process. She’s photographed by hotel surveillance leaving the room. She returns to work, flying back home to the US, where she tries to flee from the FBI. During an interview with the feds, she kinda-sorta lies. A lot. While she’s hiding the truth and giving the FBI lots of incriminating information, she also tends to leave out key developments — like how her New York City apartment was broken into, as it seems that whoever killed Alex now wants Cassie dead too.

And though she knows that the FBI might consider her the prime suspect, Cassie does super-suspicious things, like commit mild espionage when she decides to visit Alex’s office and chooses to attend his memorial service.

While she didn’t kill Alex, Cassie seems determined to get caught for it. I’m not sure how many people fantasize about being at the center of a glamorous homicide, but The Flight Attendant sparks the thought of what you would do if you were in Cassie’s shoes. Every time I ask myself this, I repeat to myself: I’d probably think of many different ways not to be seen as a killer. That is, I’d probably do the exact opposite of what Cassie is doing.

This mind game is The Flight Attendant’s superpower.

The show’s writers force us to confront how we think we would act if we woke up covered in someone else’s blood in a luxury Bangkok hotel, and then prod us with Cassie doing the blatant opposite. The Flight Attendant somehow takes this outlandish crime scenario and transforms it into something of a shared experience, one that we can giddily judge and rejoice that we aren’t actually having ourselves. We enjoy this haughty power fantasy, convinced that if we were in Cassie’s shoes, we’d be different, and smarter, and more resourceful. Maybe we’d have one less drink during it all, too.

Cuoco, as Cassie, is who makes this complicated premise all work. She locks into the parts that make Cassie frustrating — her selfishness, her stubbornness, her self-righteousness, her absolute lack of filter — while understanding that this person is exhausting, not just to herself but to others caught in her orbit. To that end, she also plays Cassie with enough vulnerability and fragility that we never write her off. She’s winsome, if in flashes; at some points, she even serves slapstick physical comedy. But everything is grounded by Cassie’s emotional ruin.

Cassie remains fixated on Alex, contributing to her disintegrating emotional state. While Alex is very dead, he’s very much alive in Cassie’s head. After his murder, he becomes part of her subconscious, as she replays their one-night stand over and over in her head. Of course, who she is remembering is not really Alex, but just a projection of who Cassie thought Alex was. And as the show proceeds, it cleverly unfurls how crooked — maybe even desperate — Cassie’s projection is and all the damage that’s caused.

Cassie’s only ally is her best friend Annie, played by Zosia Mamet, who is, fortunately for Cassie, alive and a savvy, high-powered lawyer. Mamet slinks away with the entire show as she manages to deliver the chill and severity of an attorney looking out for her friend while never seeming soulless. Annie is all brains and Cassie is all emotion, but as we get to know them, we understand that these two are best-suited to each other, making their friendship meaningful.

This week, HBO Max released The Flight Attendant’s season finale — a satisfying landing for the show that, thankfully, leaves the door open for its second season (HBO Max announced the renewal on Friday). I’m not sure how a second chapter will play out, as several more hours of Cassie making bad decisions could get a little exhausting. But I’ll definitely be watching it anyway.

Yes, I fully recognize that a sudsy frustration thriller with hot dead dudes and Zosia Mamet in attorney drag might not be everyone’s thing. But The Flight Attendant moves me to scream, “No, no, no,” and, “Ohmygod, why?!” in my living room every time I watch an episode. That’s a little rattling for someone who considers himself to be smarter, savvier, and much more together than Cassie. But I have fallen in love with the shake-up.

The Flight Attendant is streaming on HBO Max. All eight episodes of season one are now available.

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