How ‘The Flight Attendant’ blew up the book to get its finale just right
The following story contains spoilers from the eighth and final episode of “The Flight Attendant,” “Arrivals & Departures.”
Since “The Flight Attendant” premiered on HBO Max, Kaley Cuoco has been fielding her friends’ and family members’ best guesses about who the show’s mysterious murderer might be. One of her girlfriends swears it’s fellow flight attendant Megan; Cuoco’s father is convinced North Korean spies are involved. Another friend’s mother told Cuoco that she was disappointed the series made it so obvious that the killer is, of course, Miranda.
“Not one person guessed who it is,” Cuoco says with a laugh. “I think that means we made the right choice.”
So who did slit Alex Sokolov’s throat that night in Thailand? It’s not Miranda (Michelle Gomez), the character who committed the crime in question in Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 book. And it’s not Megan (Rosie Perez), who ended up having nothing to do with the murder at all. “When all of the puzzle blocks start to fall into place, they can feel a little too clean,” says showrunner Steve Yockey. “Throughout the season, it’s been fun to play into the expectation of who it could be and then do a full reversal.”
“I didn’t think anyone would give me this opportunity,” Cuoco says of HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant.” “So I felt like I had to get the project made myself.”
‘Now play it like you’re evil’
Midway into the final episode, a thrilling action sequence confirms what the penultimate episode revealed: The killer is indeed Buckley (Colin Woodell), the guy Cassie met randomly in a bar, dated casually for a bit and then dumped. During a climactic fistfight in her hotel room, Buckley explains to her that he’s actually Felix, a Brit with a violent past who was hired to steal a fortune from Alex (Michiel Huisman). Felix slipped into the hotel room where Cassie and Alex had their one-night stand when Cassie wandered out and made Alex share where the account numbers were hidden before killing him with a broken bottle.
Felix became obsessively attracted to Cassie from the moment he saw her on the initial flight to Bangkok — yes, he was there! — and his expert-level stalking (he’s in the background of many scenes, it turns out) soon turned to dating via Buckley, an American character he created to win her over. He connects these dots for her in Rome with a weapon in hand, switching with haunting ease between his British and American accents, his bitter demeanor and charming facade. It’s a moment that Woodell didn’t know he‘d be shooting when he first sought out the role.
“It must have been the weirdest audition, because all he had was the Episode 2 scene where they meet in the bar, and the producers were like, ‘Now play it like you’re evil,’” says Yockey. “When we called to offer him the role, I told him, ‘By the way, you’re the bad guy.’ He was very excited about it and tracked it as rigorously as the writers and directors did.
“What’s so insidious is that this character he created, Buckley, is somebody you’d want to spend time with, because he was fun and up for anything,” Yockey adds. “But he was fostering Cassie’s worst instincts. He basically just avoided killing her for a few days so he could mess with her, like a cat and mouse. And when she broke up with him, he decided to get serious about it.”
‘There’s all these little Easter eggs’
Felix delivers his villain speech after knocking Miranda unconscious and critically injuring Cassie’s Italian lover Enrico and while attempting to strangle Cassie. But she manages to stab him with his own knife, grab Enrico’s gun and shoot him in his side. Just then, someone bursts through the door and shoots Felix down: Cassie’s coworker, Shane (Griffin Matthews), who later shares he’s an undercover CIA agent tasked with keeping tabs on Megan’s corporate espionage.
“You’re at a point where you think you found out all you can possibly find out and then there’s this surprising cherry on top of this cake of reveals,” says Yockey, who made sure the clues about Shane, like Felix, were there from the beginning: Shane inexplicably knew how to speak Russian, seemed at ease in that FBI interrogation room and told Cassie after Alex’s funeral that he can definitely keep a secret. “There’s all these little Easter eggs that are not meant to be noticed on a first watch but hopefully figured out if watched again.”
Shane is the show’s link between Cassie and Megan’s story lines, the latter of which saw Megan stealing proprietary technology from her husband’s work computer and selling it to the North Korean government. It started out small and seemingly harmless, but she got caught up in it because she liked the excitement.
“I’m a middle-aged woman who spends her day pretty invisible — the passengers, my coworkers, my son — and having a secret, a thing that only I could do, it just felt amazing,” she tells Cassie early in the episode. “It’s my mistake, and I put my trust in the wrong people, but I’m gonna fix this.”
Narratively, this was a big risk. “Everyone at the studio and the network was like, ‘When are their storylines going to cross?’ which was really fun for us writers to consciously do something a little bit different,” says Yockey of Cassie and Megan. “Really, Megan’s own devastating story was this little engine that was running next to the giant story the entire time.
“Since their stories weren’t going to meet in a conventional way, they had to come together in an emotional way,” he continues. “So when Cassie hears Megan basically saying that she’s going to take control of her decisions, it inspires her to do the same thing.”
‘I couldn’t stop crying’
In the lead-up to her final confrontation with Felix/Buckley, Cassie’s search for a gun to protect herself brings her face to face with Enrico’s grandmother — and the older woman’s wise words. “Children grow up to be adults and make their own choices, their own mistakes,” she tells Cassie. “Imagine how sad if they had to repeat all of our mistakes. … Who of us has the space to carry other people’s choices?”
This sends Cassie flashing back through a montage of her bad decisions, ending with her father’s fatal car crash — a situation for which she’s blamed herself since she was a child, when she began drinking with him as a bonding activity. Rather than turning away and fleeing from the scene — as she did back then and many times since in her mind — she tells her younger self what she’s needed to hear for years. “Listen to me,” she says. “A lot of things will be your fault. You will make, really, really bad decisions, alright? But this one, this is not your fault. This will not define who you are.”
The scene, shot at a farm in upstate New York, was filmed without rehearsing with young Cassie (Audrey Grace Marshall). “The second I looked down at her, I immediately started thinking about any child in a situation so traumatizing and who have had to deal with things so horrible,” Cuoco recalls. “I just started getting so overwhelmed, I couldn’t stop crying.”
It’s the emotional climax of the season, which has charted the journey of Cassie’s reflexive self-medication and generational alcoholism with a nuance surprising of a series that doubles as a glamorous, globe-trotting murder mystery. The show’s candor about the topic comes in part from the input of sober living people and people with familial experiences with alcoholism.
“Yes, we have some comedy, but I wanted to be very, very careful that we never made fun of the drinking,” says Cuoco. “I remember being on a network call at one point, and someone said, ‘I think it’s too much drinking, it’s getting silly.’ And I said very seriously, ‘It will not look silly. This is how she’s been getting through her day, and the people around her might not even realize it because they’d be a sloppy drunk if they drank that much. But she’s a functioning alcoholic, and she’s learned how to hide it.’”
Cassie emerges from the flashback with newfound clarity. After returning home from Rome, she holds up a sobriety chip, telling her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet) that she’s attended a couple Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and is trying not to drink.
It’s a stark departure from the book, which ends with Cassie getting sober because she finds herself pregnant — with what is believed to be Alex’s baby, thanks to their tryst that fateful night. “The story we were telling on the show was more about her reconciling with herself and like learning to love herself, rather than doing so for someone else,” says Yockey.
‘A second season feels right’
The episode ends with Cassie peacefully strolling through her mind palace, with no version of Alex in sight. Miranda has disappeared with Alex’s money, and Enrico and Buckley were both still alive when they were rolled away on gurneys. Even though Megan is on the run and no longer a flight attendant, Shane is still maintaining his cover and even pitches Cassie on the idea of joining the CIA’s human asset program.
It’s a springboard that’s ripe for a potential second season, especially with Cassie trying out sobriety for the first time as well as her resolve to be honest about herself and her mistakes, “which she truly has never done before,” says Cuoco. “She has always excused her behavior with alcohol: ‘I don’t remember’ or ‘I just did that because I was drunk.’ To not be able to use that anymore, or at least we think, is probably going to be hard for her.”
HBO Max has not yet ordered a second season of the series. “If we don’t move forward, I think it was tied up enough that we can leave the characters alone,” Cuoco says. “But we’ve been chatting, and I think a second season feels right.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.