The first time we witness Cassie following a mark as a CIA civilian asset in Season 2 of The Flight Attendant, she is wearing an oversized wool trench coat in flashing fuchsia and luscious leather gloves that match to perfection, and she has achieved the kind of effortlessly cascading high ponytail I’ve only ever seen on the coolest teenager in Starbucks (or Jonathan Van Ness). The feathered bangs? They’re flawless. The breathless darting behind taxi cabs and peaking out from around columns? Near-constant. And the actor playing Cassie? Tall, blonde, and forever bumbling to the rafters Kaley Cuoco. In short: Cassie Bowden, semi-CIA employee, is the most noticeable woman in all of Germany as she attempts to inconspicuously tail a man she’s already made sure to introduce herself to before following him out into the streets for a game of katz und maus.
But we can’t really blame Cassie for her lack of discretion. As far as we know, she’s been trained to be a professional flight attendant, not a professional spy. Cassie knows how to board passengers and advise them on seatbelt safety; she knows how to treat an overhead compartment like a game of Tetris and, I assume, how to incapacitate any unruly passengers with nothing more than a rolled up magazine. In her personal life, Cassie is most adept at making a series of poor decisions that result in her being in frequent proximity to homicide. But in Season 2 of The Flight Attendant, Cassie has made one shockingly good decision—to stop drinking alcohol with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous—while still managing to hold on tightly to the ability to kamikaze her life at every turn with a little help from fate and circumstance.
Quite simply, our girl remains the worst decision-maker in the game, but unlike when you or I wake up with the distinct feeling that we had one too many martinis the night before, or made the wrong choice at work, Cassie’s errors in judgment almost always involve the federal government.
At the end of Season 1, Cassie was presented with the prospect of becoming a “human asset” for the CIA when it was revealed that her fellow flight attendant Shane (Griffin Matthews) was actually an operative tasked with following their other coworker Megan (Rosie Perez), who’d been accidentally committing treason for North Korea out of boredom. Because on The Flight Attendant, everyone is always wearing amazing slacks, and everyone is also a secret spy, a secret criminal, or, more often, both. At the beginning of Season 2, we find Cassie a year into her sobriety and a year into her new side hustle as a human asset for the CIA. And though her handler, Benjamin Barry (Mo McRae), seems like a skilled, by-the-book CIA officer, we can only assume that he has offered her no formal training in the role …
After all, this is a woman who’s had the same signature ringtone for two years, and has never once turned her phone on silent, not even when tailing a mark through Berlin as an unpaid CIA intern. This is a woman who loves nothing more than observing what is clearly a piece of blood-soaked criminal evidence, and then touching it all over with her bare hands. This is a woman who will give just about anyone she knows a key to her house, despite almost everyone she knows historically revealing themselves to be a duplicitous criminal. And speaking of that house with a key hidden over the door frame: Between seasons 1 and 2, Cassie has transitioned from New York to Los Angeles, moved into an Instagram-worthy bungalow in what appears to be the cobblestone alleyway of an upscale shopping center, and decorated said bungalow in wall-to-wall Smeg appliances. Which raises the question: Exactly how much does the CIA pay its human assets? And also: What even is that?
As a human asset for the CIA, Cassie is basically a human (check) who’s being utilized as an asset (sort of check) for her ability to gather a particular subsect of information (not at all check) for the CIA. She’s not an agent, she’s not an operative, she doesn’t get PTO—she’s just a civilian being asked to do a little observin’ and report back to the federal government. Now, as a flight attendant, Cassie does come with a built-in alibi for globetrotting ... and if she happens to secretly tail a mysterious stranger or two along the way, then so be it. But the observational spying expertise mostly stops there.
Cassie was recruited to help the CIA because, as we hear Benjamin’s big-wig boss Dot Karlson (Cheryl Hines) say in the Season 2 premiere, “How many people do you know who could wake up next to a dead body in a foreign country and get back to the U.S. without incident?” I’d wager to say “without incident” is a stretch, but I’d also agree with Benjamin’s response, which is: “How many people do I know that would end up in that situation at all?” Yes, Cassie is resourceful, and particularly adept at convincing hotel staff to let her into rooms she doesn’t have keys to … but as we understand it, the main thing about being a freelance civilian asset for the CIA is a “look, don’t touch” approach to spying. And the main thing Cassie fills her time with is getting deeply involved in messes that she has created for herself. You know that moment in HBO sister show Mare of Easttown when Mare planted marked drugs on her son’s ex-girlfriend, and everyone was like, “It’s so out of character for Mare to do something so obviously ill-considered …” Yeah, all of Cassie’s decisions are like that.
Watching The Flight Attendant is like living in a constant state of yelling at the heroine in a horror film not to go into the basement alone, and then she goes into the basement anyway, somehow finds a sub-basement, and that sub-basement is filled with autonomous figments of her imagination going into even more sub-basements. When Benjamin gives the assignment that kicks off Cassie’s espionage caper of Season 2, he hands her a photo of the mark, begs Cassie to destroy it as soon as she’s memorized it, reminds her not to engage with the mark, not to follow him, and that her only assignment is to observe the man on site at his hotel in Berlin, all while citing her history of disobeying these mandates in the past ...
So of course, Cassie proceeds to use the mark’s photo as a bookmark in her paperback, sidle up directly beside him at the hotel bar the moment she spots him, bond with him over both being sober, and follow him all over Berlin after he gets a suspicious message until she finally spies him exiting a tryst with a woman who mysteriously looked like Cassie’s doppelgänger—at which point he gets into a car that blows up directly in front of Cassie’s head-to-toe magenta outfit. And then, she lies to Benjamin about witnessing the explosion when he calls to check on her. Because Cassie is a terrible CIA operative. Excuse me—
She is not trained for this! She is not meant for this. Cassie’s unique set of skills and moxie are cut out for something, but not for this dry toast version of espionage. And as for those Smeg appliances: FiveThirtyEight estimates that 56 percent of spies get no compensation for their secret-trading, and another 9 percent are paid less than $12,000. And though FiveThirtyEight notes that spy stats are hard to come by (this makes sense), and that people who commit espionage on behalf of the U.S. can make millions, those people probably don’t do this bad of a job. So unless Cassie’s fairy-tale L.A. neighborhood has an absolutely booming “Buy Nothing” group, I truly do not know where her influx of riches has come from. I only wish I had her Topo Chico supply.
But the fact that Cassie isn’t cut out to be a human asset for the CIA is precisely why it works. We’re two episodes in to Season 2, and it doesn’t matter that Cassie is unsuccessful in aiding the CIA—it matters only that she’s Cassie. Gone are the Season 1 days of the “hot dead guy” and alcohol-induced blackouts leading to traumatic hijinks, but her chase for that high very much remains. Even Cassie knows it. Hell, even the fugue-state mind-palace versions of Cassie know it.
She may have sobered up, but the alcohol was just one variant of justification for her recklessness, and with this new opportunity for occupational hazard, The Flight Attendant has managed to match the stakes of Season 1 without sacrificing the messy character study that is Cassie Bowden. Working for the CIA is a brand-new invention of the TV series, not tied to its literary source material, and thus far, its resulting hijinks play right into the unique tone established by the first season. Once again we find ourselves at the comedic caper; we find ourselves at the magical realism character study; we find ourselves at the combination-comedic-caper-magical-realism-character-study.
Cassie isn’t someone who can merely sit back and observe; she’s determined to seek the full truth of what’s happening around her, even if it often means neglecting the warring truths of her own mind. But it’s worth noting what CIA boss Dot Karlson tells Cassie once her actions in Berlin come to light (even though there’s a 100 percent chance every other thing Dot told Cassie in their meeting was a lie): “What passes as boldness in men is often seen as reckless in women.” If Cassie wants to lead a life that puts her in danger and threatens her sobriety and makes her constantly forget that she has a whole new hot boyfriend back in L.A., who are we to stop her? The CIA, Imperial Atlantic Airlines, and good, plain common sense certainly won’t!
Cassie should most definitely be fired as a rule-breaking CIA asset, and maybe as a highly distracted flight attendant too. She is never going to become more manageable, she will never silence her phone, and her outerwear will never become more subtle.
Cassie is one gaucho hat away from full Carmen Sandiego cosplay, and we can only assume that’s exactly what she’s going for. But even though Cassie’s simply flying by the seat of her wide-legged pants, the fact is it’s too fun not to watch.