The Flight Attendant's Take on Mind Palaces Is the Series' Surprising Strength

Kaley Cuoco as Cassie Bowden.
Kaley Cuoco as Cassie Bowden.
Screenshot: HBO Max

In HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, a barely functional alcoholic with a history of profound trauma finds herself suddenly placed smack dab in the middle of both an FBI investigation and a murder mystery after she wakes up one morning in a hotel—only to find the man she’d hooked up with the night before brutally murdered next to her.

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Though Cassie’s (Kaley Cuoco) life is already something of a chaotic spiral at the beginning of The Flight Attendant, the series quickly sprinkles in details about her that make you understand how, mess or not, murder isn’t exactly Cassie’s style...as best as she can tell. Cassie’s strong sense of self and natural charisma are part of what makes her such a solid flight attendant in most situations, but they’re undercut by her propensity for blacking out, something that gives you every reason to question just how reliable her accounts of events are.

Once you start meeting The Flight Attendant’s other characters, though, like Rosie Perez’s Megan Briscoe, a fellow flight attendant hiding a secret from her family, and Zosia Mamet as Annie Mouradian, Cassie’s longtime friend who works at a powerful and shady law firm, you see just how lost in the metaphorical sauce Cassie is.

It isn’t until Cassie finds herself suddenly and inexplicably transported back to the hotel room where she came to next to Alex Sokolov’s (Michiel Huisman) dead body that The Flight Attendant suggests for the first time that Cassie really might not be Alex’s killer, even though she proceeds to have a “conversation” with what appears to be his brutally murdered corpse. In reality each of The Flight Attendant’s scenes set back in that hotel room with Cassie and Alex are fleeting moments taking place in Cassie’s mind where she attempts to process the madness going on around her, something her subconscious feels would be best accomplished by pushing her to talk to the man she’s suspected of murdering.

As the elements that make The Flight Attendant both a thriller and a murder mystery come into focus, the show also reveals itself as an exploration of the things that drive people to self-destructive behavior. Initially, Cassie’s “episodes” come on without warning, and there’s an almost sadistic quality to the way that “Alex” won’t explain to her what’s happening. Cassie’s panic and Alex’s smugness, at first, create the impression that Cassie’s psychic trips are a manifestation of her guilt, and they are to a significant extent. But as the investigation into Alex’s murder settles into a constant, foreboding hum in the background, and Cassie uneasily attempts to settle back into her normal working life, The Flight Attendant turns Cassie’s mental space into something somewhat different.

Cassie finding multiple Alexes in her mind.
Cassie finding multiple Alexes in her mind.
Screenshot: HBO Max
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Because the first handful of times that The Flight Attendant brings Cassie and Alex back together are all set in the room where the murder happened, his haunting her feels specifically tied to the brief time they spent together. As Cassie fights to be free of her visions of Alex by running away from him, however, she’s alarmed to realize that whatever mental space she’s limited in is a kind of labyrinth from which she can’t escape. More than that, Alex isn’t the only specter haunting Cassie’s mind, and when he begins to say things about Cassie’s past that only she could know, it takes all she has not to fall apart under the stress of being confronted with her darkest, secret shames.

While The Flight Attendant doesn’t feature any real science fictional or fantasy elements, its depiction of Cassie’s mind palace—though, here it’s more of a hotel—echoes stories like Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, in which the protagonists make use of “memory warehouses” where they’re able to almost perfectly recall the entirety of their lives’ experiences. In a very realistic way, Cassie never quite comes to see the way her mind works as some sort of superpower, because every trip into her mental space is, in some way, disturbing. But The Flight Attendant does draw your attention to the fact that, despite Cassie mostly accessing her mind palace when she’s panicked and drunk, her drinking is not necessarily the reason why it exists or why she has trouble contemplating her past.

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Important as Alex’s murder is to both Cassie and her mind’s projection of him, both of them understand that ignoring the ways that Cassie’s past repeatedly manifests itself in her psychic space will only make it keep happening, and acknowledging the problem is likely the key to their progression as a whole. Cassie’s process of being more open with herself and Alex is painful and difficult, in part because some of the things that Cassie discovers make her seriously question her innocence in the grander scheme of things.

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By the time The Flight Attendant’s reached cruising altitude and begun to hit that planned turbulence that signals how shit’s about to hit the fan even more, though, Cassie’s relationship with Alex and the space within her head become the show’s way of telling you that she’s getting ready for whatever’s about to come her way next. The way The Flight Attendant’s first season ends raises the question whether we might see more of Cassie’s interiority when the series returns to HBO Max for its second season. If it does, it’s going to be great to see how the creative team decides to turn this element of Cassie’s identity into an important part of her life’s next chapter.

The first season of The Flight Attendant is now streaming on HBO Max.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

DISCUSSION

bagman818
Jubal Harshaw

This was one of my favorite shows of last year. I was expecting something pretty light-weight, but it had surprising depth. Definitely looking forward to season 2.