The Flight Attendant’s doppelganger scenes expose the horrors of drunken self-loathing

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In The Flight Attendant, Kaley Cuoco’s Cassie is always talking to herself. The first season of this meticulously paced and slickly shot comic spy thriller – which premiered to rave reviews in 2021 – saw Cassie’s imaginary interlocutor take the hunky form of Alex (Michiel Huisman), the billionaire whose dead body she crawled into bed with after a blackout night of partying in Bangkok. PTSD and boozing were offered up as easy explanations for those trippy conversations, in which the ghost of Alex played Watson to Cassie’s tipsy Sherlock. It was gimmicky, but the screwball pairing of Huisman’s nonchalant charm and Cuoco’s spinning top really worked.

In season two, which is currently streaming in the US on HBO Max, Alex’s murder is solved, and the format is repurposed. Cassie is now moonlighting as a CIA asset, and when she gets stressed she retreats into her subconscious from her. In this surreal fantasy world, Cassie sits in a luxuriously lit hotel lobby bar, surrounded by different versions of herself. It’s a fraught place for a one-year-sober woman to be, her damaged doppelgangers of her all mocking and judging.

Their number includes “Party Cassie”, who is stuck in the slinky gold dress she wore the night Alex was killed. She knows all about the madness that followed – how Cassie was hunted down by a cabal of international criminals angling to pin the murder on her. But Ella’s Party Cassie’s all-cocktail diet keeps her blissfully insulated from emotions and consequences. In her fractured psyche of her, there’s no such thing as last call.

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Party Cassie is joined by “Flight Attendant Cassie” – hair impeccably coiffed and uniform crisply ironed even as she cradles a beaker of vodka. Flight Attendant Cassie doesn’t see why the real Cassie can’t keep it together. But the most wretched company of them all is “Tween Cassie”, who thinks drinking with her dad de ella in the cab of his truck is wholesome, family fun.

I’ve been on the fence about these scenes, wondering if the gimmick hadn’t outlived its usefulness. Watching Cuoco bounce off herself doesn’t always feel like the most fun way for Cassie to ricochet through another murder mystery. Not with most of the season one cast returning and a handful of promising new additions (feel good‘s Mae Martin and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Cassie’s sympathetic Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor among them). Free up more screen time for Rosie Perez, I thought.

Man, was I wrong. (Though not about Rosie Perez – I love Rosie Perez.) Cassie has been operating all season on no sleep and ulcerative levels of stress. In the 5 May episode “Drowning Women”, she finally makes a mistake she ca n’t talk her way out of: she cheats on her boyfriend de ella. As a result, she’s bullied spectacularly and catastrophically off the wagon by all the other Cassies living rent-free in her head.

But how do you make a devastating backslide into alcohol abuse work in an hour-long comedy context? Smuggled into the show’s second season under the guise of a comic setpiece, the scenes quickly become serious, and a compellingly wacky dramatization of what it feels like to fall apart.

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Party Cassie, always so judgmental and sardonic, promises to make the real Cassie “sparkly and fun” again. Flight Attendant Cassie, whose sense of responsibility kept Cassie functional even when her drinking from her was at its most lethal, gives her up on her. She swigs the last two fingers of vodka in the bottle and hurls it to the bar floor. In real life, Cassie drinks twice as fast, fueled by the sugar rush of those Hot Tamales candies she keeps in her car’s glove box.

These scenes could easily feel cheesy, but Cuoco is so relentlessly vicious with herself that they seem more like a waking nightmare than an internal dialogue. Cuoco thrills as real-life Cassie terrorizes the rooms of her LA bungalow, smashing things like she’s running the maze of her own mind. In her bathroom, she drunkenly packs away her boyfriend’s toiletries, seemingly boxing up her own guilt. Ella Cuoco’s voice always simmers with a delicate nasal twang, but in these scenes it threatens to snap.

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Meanwhile, there’s another Cassie lurking on the edges of the hotel lobby, dressed in an unfamiliar black top. She turns out to be the grimmest Cassie to face – the one who actually fell off the wagon six months ago and repressed it. She has Cassies inside her that even Cassie can’t face.

Two Cassies face each other off, but which will win?

(Julia Terjung/HBOMax)

The real Cassie drives to the beach drunk, and she’s met by her sponsor, Brenda (Aghdashloo). They talk about the “house of cards” that Cassie’s sobriety was based on. And that being dishonest has always been a part of her, sober or not. The truth – whether it was about her drinking from her or her family from her – was something she had tried to keep locked up.

So it’s interesting when Cassie tells Brenda that drinking didn’t do what Party Cassie promised. She doesn’t feel “shiny” or “invincible”. Now she can see the lies she tells to herself. And if Cassie can’t sit around the bar with a bunch of liars, where does she go instead?

‘The Flight Attendant’ is streaming on HBO Max in the US, and will arrive on Sky Max and NOW in the UK on 26 May

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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