Review of Steve Yockey’s The Flight Attendant
The Flight Attendant (2020). Season 1, 8 episodes. Created by Steve Yockey. Starring Kaley Cuoco, Michiel Huisman, Zosia Mamet, T.R. Knight, Rosie Perez.
Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) is a drunk. So says her best friend. So says her brother. So would the audience—if they could tell her. Cassie, though, says otherwise. “I am not an alcoholic,” is uttered so often during The Flight Attendant that it would stand as the main character’s catchphrase if this was a multi-camera sitcom. However, a sitcom The Flight Attendant is not. Quite frankly, while there are moments of dark humor, seeing the show run as a comedy during awards season is quite flabbergasting. It is not the fun crime show with a sexy and flirty protagonist its promotional run wants us to believe. The Flight Attendant is a show that goes to dark places, without any laugh-out-loud moments. This is not to say that this isn’t a fun show—it definitely moves fast and is an addictive watch—but what makes it a stand-out is neither its genre-mixing style nor its storyline, but how it presents itself as a psychological study of its main character’s trauma.
The Flight Attendant sets up its premise easily and early on in the series: after a night out partying and drinking with passenger Alex (Michiel Huisman), whom she met on a flight to Bangkok, the eponymous flight attendant Cassie passes out. When waking up the next morning, she finds Alex dead and covered in blood in bed next to her in a hotel room. Not remembering (in true hangover fashion) how the bloody body—or she herself for that matter—ended up in the hotel room, Cassie panics and flees the scene. From here on out she tries to prove to everyone, from the FBI to herself, that she is not the murderer.
Just as The Flight Attendant doesn’t waste much time setting up its basic premise (10 minutes into the first episode, Alex is already dead), it doesn’t hold back in showing us who the main character is, shortcomings and all. Within its first few minutes we are introduced to Cassie’s lifestyle, comprised of constant travelling, partying, casual dating and sex, little sleep, and vodka… lots of vodka. Cassie often consumes alcohol in large amounts and at times when it doesn’t seem appropriate to be drinking hard liquor: early in the morning, while on the job, at moments of intense stress. With this premise set up, the show is interested in untangling in episode after episode how Cassie got here in the first place; not only in regard to being a possible murderer, but also how she ended up as an aimless alcoholic with little attachment.
What is apparent from the start is built upon as the show continues: Cassie constantly fluctuates between being drunk and hungover. It is easy for us to believe that she can’t remember how she ended up next to a dead body in a hotel room that isn’t hers. Or that her actions often don’t make sense. Or how she perceives her negligence as less so. This unreliable narrator makes The Flight Attendant an appealing watch. So, while the series overall doesn’t exactly land as the exceptional, dark-humored, murder mystery it would like to be (it falls short on a sharp, concise plot and ties up loose ends much too easily in the end), it still presents a smart dive into trauma and how easily memory—or a lack thereof—tricks us.
Positioning its main character as a “drunk” or a “mess,” as Cassie calls herself, won’t make every viewer happy. And don’t get me wrong, the “messy and proud of it” trope has often pushed the limits of overstaying its welcome, but The Flight Attendant proves once more that it’s the why characters are “messy” that interests us and keeps us returning to shows like this one. In all her drunken, hungover, self-centered, rude, and unapologetic glory, Cassie doesn’t make for a necessarily feminist, empowering or even appealing character. Here is where the show’s lead actor comes in: Kaley Cuoco (who is also an executive producer on the show) plays Cassie with just the right amount of charming and aggravating for us to root for her; the character deals with issues that aren’t foreign to the audience, but instead remind us of similar realities we or loved ones face and struggle with regularly. “Adulting is hard” has become a catchphrase of Millennial life, and Cassie is the epitome of this notion. Keeping your fridge stocked, your body healthy, and a steady work-life-balance is hard—especially when you are facing untreated trauma and prefer to self-medicate. Cuoco’s Cassie, while in absolute denial, remains relatable.
Untreated trauma explains a lot in Cassie’s life: why Cassie has chosen a job that allows her to travel for extended times, why she never wants to stay in one place with one person, but also why, at the same time, she never wants to be alone. She is never alone because she doesn’t like it. And once she has a moment of silence, she is quick to find companionship that brings excitement for a short amount of time—even if this companion is alcohol. Cassie doesn’t like silence or calmness because it is in these moments that suppressed memories fight their way back. She doesn’t like to remember the unexamined traumas from her childhood or her current life. In a state of shock and in order to forget all about it, Cassie goes right back to work (and getting drunk) after finding Alex dead in bed in an effort to make it all disappear. She surrounds herself with people who are not interested, who cannot or are not willing to speak up to her about her problems because they are too preoccupied with their own issues, want to please her for the sake of friendship, or have given up on her. After all, there is a reason why she and her brother Davey (T.R. Knight) are not close, or why she and her best friend Ani (Zosia Mamet) don’t dwell on personal matters when it is easier to keep the surface intact instead of scratching it.
In the end, Cassie is all things people say about her and what she says about herself: she is a drunk (other’s words), she is a mess (her own words), she is sexy, flirty, confident, rude, careless, and oblivious. However, how she got to a place where she has become an unlikeable, lonely person isn’t clear to her nor to the viewer. What we as an audience understand about the character is how she stays in this place of uncertainty: alcohol. It is the series’ strength that the audience is one step ahead of Cassie, since we know she is an alcoholic. It is up to Cassie to catch up with us and fill in the blanks of her story—which means diving deep into her subconscious and (quite literally) having conversations with herself. These moments of internal reflection are visualized through an unusual and, at the same time, provoking narrative choice by the show’s creators that won’t make every viewer happy. Still, this choice allows Cassie to piece together the events of the night of Alex’s death and to (re)experience childhood events that played a decisive role in who she is today.
Cassie’s journey to realization puts the series’ central mystery in the background in order to take us through a much more complex story about the main character’s struggle to make sense of the choices she has made throughout her life, and how past experiences figure within the decisions made in the present. This speaks to the strength of “messy” female characters like Cassie. Perfection—and the many unattainable attributes and expectations that come with it—are non-messy but undesirable traits because in the end, they are just pieces of fiction hiding a larger truth. It is this truth about how a life can be complex and complicated that is interesting and keeps The Flight Attendant going, not only in regard to the murder mystery, but how getting to the truth figures within the protagonist’s life. Cassie is an alcoholic for a reason. Cassie is a mess for a reason. Cassie has learned to trample over everyone around her for a reason. And Cassie will have to face all of this, but on her own terms. The Flight Attendant proves even the stories that rely on repetitive tropes such as “messy and proud of it,” when told with the right amount of truthfulness to the human condition, are always engaging.