Season two of The Flight Attendant upped the ante in every way. This story is more personal, emotional, and ambitious. Last year’s production design, by Emmy nominee Sarah K. White, was rightfully nominated for an Emmy, and Nina Ruscio’s work on this season is entrenched in character and growth. Its elegance cannot be surpassed.
Season one featured a lot of reflective surfaces so the design thematically recalled the journey of Kaley Cuoco’s Cassie Bowden. It almost begged for Cassie to look inward in order to begin taking the steps towards a healthier version of herself. It helped that it was a glamorous, globe-trotting spectacle, and Ruscio wanted to take the production in a new direction while retaining the opulence of the original.
“My approach to it was to do book matching and replicating and doubles and the impossibility of the replication of things ending. In the Mind Palace, there is a lot of deep symmetry and doubling. The Easter eggs of that set are really related to that. Cassie is going through a journey and an inevitability to the portals that she passes through. The arches act as those and it is inevitable for her to get to the bar. It is designed in the metaphoric sense of twinning and doubling and tripling.”
When Cassie looks inward, this new Mind Palace doesn’t give itself away too easily. As the season progresses, we discover how vast and huge the space is. Ruscio explained how the Mind Palace is almost like a winking character itself. As every Cassie Double makes her first appearance, it unlocks a new part of her mind.
“It’s very intentional in how it reveals itself. Part of the unleashing of herself in that space is about her unfolding in those emotional moments to play out. Not just the bar. The set is laid out like an axis or cross. The axis from the twin bears to the multiple bars of alcohol are written as her going through the portals. Cassie is seduced by them, and there’s no other way around it for her.”
The glowing bar at the center of the Mind Palace has such an alluring, sexy quality. Since Cassie’s subconscious knows that Cassie truly wants to toss back a drink, it knows exactly how to try and seduce her, and Ruscio told me how the space lends itself to a more feminine energy.
“That’s what I really wanted to do. It’s a beacon that you cannot not go to. The curvature was in contrast to the first season’s angularities. I wanted to start the imagery with softer curves. Almost the entire Mind Palace is radius corners and rounded edges, and she thinks the world is going to work out in her favor. That’s the softer part of herself that’s she’s exposing, and some people would consider that more feminine. The estrogen journey of all the aspects of herself is very womblike. This season is the sister to the first season’s Mind Palace.”
Who doesn’t want to live on Cassie’s bungalow? I’ve never been to California, but it’s like Ruscio’s designs unlocked exactly what I wanted in terms of a Zillow, West Coast paradise. Cassie’s new digs are a comfort to her, but it’s all an illusion.
“It needed to touch this wish fulfillment of a wonderful life. She turned the corner and taken a deep dive and moved into this Venice bungalow to have this controlled and perfect life. It needed to trigger everyone’s personal level of what would make them happy. What makes you feel safe, happy and visually satisfied?”
I could not stop looking at the details of the bungalow. The raised ceiling in the living room with the large wicker shades give a getaway feeling, and the kitchen is packed with round edged appliances that harken back to a domesticity that Cassie never got as a kid.
“Matt Callahan is my brilliant set decorator, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with him for many years. What Cassie thinks is California is connected to car culture and more rounded edges. The refrigerator and the stove are all the things you image, especially as a New Yorker, when you think of California. The automotive, high-gloss finish of the appliances ends up being a façade and part of an existential terror that she is truly going through. Cassie thinks she can reach that level of life.”
Quite different from Cassie’s space is the apartment of Mae Martin’s Grace. Any time Cassie enters that space, she is directly propositioned for alcohol, but the dark qualities jump out at us. The space is almost entirely black and white, and Grace’s organization comes into play since she was in the Army. The artwork, however, is what triggers a response. A piece by Shintaro Kago should’ve been the first indication that something was off with Grace’s character.
“It’s a triggering space, because there is an edge of masculinity and the clarity of things being almost monochromatic in the palette. The art aesthetic is rather unsettling but compellingly dark. The cage art piece is one of the only colored piece in the space with the hues of pink. It’s so right in expressing the core nature of her conflicted, dark, inner self. The art is key in the space. There are haunting images in the space that Matt curated–skeletal imagery. If you look closely, a person’s art collection become little keys to their inner self. Those should’ve been clues for the inner monologue for Grace’s heart and mind. The militaristic order of the space and the black and white of it all are very important to her mind.”
Reykjavik is one of the more prominent cities we travel to in season two, and Ruscio was eager to explore the spaces with creator Steve Yockey to discover all the placed Cassie and Megan frequented when they landed in the city. I was surprised to learn that one of the best scenes between Cassie and Shane was rebuilt to fit the Reykjavik vibe.
“One of the fantastic things about working on location is that it’s a treasure hunt. I went on the scout with Steve [Yockey], and we re-wrote things in the script depending on the location that we found. It was a thrill to go to Iceland and get to do a lot of interior work. Cassie is on a hunt for Megan, and those characters spent most of the time in bars with each other when they spent time in Iceland. The restaurant we found was a little bit outside of Reykjavik, and it was meta-kitsch. It was so full of Viking imagery. The most epic landscape space that we shot was the helicopter spot where the boat docks. We could cherry pick the specific, quintessential Reykjavik streets. Blue Sincerely was a build inside a real location that we radically augmented on the edge of town. We intended to shoot that in Los Angeles, but I loved the industrial nature of that space.”
A surprise to most fans of The Flight Attendant is the final twist that comes in the season finale. When Cassie has to save her brother Davey (T. R. Knight) from an unlikely adversary, the setting is a candy-colored nightmare. It’s almost like Cassie has stepped into a hellish, horror Hansel and Gretel, and she has to fight her way out one last time.
“What’s unbelievable about The Flight Attendant is how many genres it is. The Berlin sequence is dead-on Read Window and Hitchcockian. There is intense drama with Sharon Stone and Kaley Cuoco’s characters. There is action when the group is running from the Korean mafia. There are even kisses towards Esther Williams sequences in the pool. The scene in Jenny’s grandmother’s house is straight-up horror and psychological thriller. She is so full-tilt in love with Buckley that she becomes a quintessential horror movie villain, and it’s an extra gift because you are in something entire differently. There is an unexpected ugliness for when you see Jenny’s true nature, and setting it in this storybook grandmother’s tchotchke palace. There is another setting of the romance of Jenny visiting the prison, and that lends itself to the twinning. It’s overly saccharine, and it’s what Jenny surrounds herself with. It’s too floral. An actual 90 year-old woman lived in that house, so there were layers of history of her life in that house that we fed off of. We rebuilt the bedroom where her selves are molded into one in the elevator.”
The Flight Attendant is streaming now on HBO Max.