Just Fine (Another Thing I Like About Poker Face)

Product placement, or establishing character and mission statement through the use of brand recognition? It doesn’t matter!

I realize that it often seems like my blog posts are written by a LLM using the prompt “write about this in the style of a pretentious nerd under the influence of Ambien,” but I swear that isn’t the case. Even though, when writing about Poker Face, I did hallucinate an Agatha Christie story called Murder on the Nile.

I also evidently ignored years of teachers stressing the importance of making outlines, because I started trying to make a few observations that quickly got away from me. One of them was about how much I like Rian Johnson’s assertion of ethics and morality in his works (that I’ve seen, of course): he doesn’t seem to care much for anti-heroes or ethical ambiguity, much less outright nihilism. He makes his values abundantly clear, but without ever being so didactic that it overwhelms the entertainment.

The other was that there’s such an economy and efficiency to the first episode of Poker Face, where it reads as casual and funny on first watch, but you quickly realize that there’s hardly a single moment in the entire show that doesn’t serve a purpose.

A great example of both: in the scene between Charlie and Sterling, Jr, where he’s setting up not just their relationship but the premise of the entire series, he starts the scene by offering her a drink. When she asks what her choices are, he seems surprised by the question. They’re in the owner’s suite at the top of a casino; she can have whatever she wants. Shortly after, we see her with Heineken in a can. Later in the episode, a bartender who knows her offers her favorite, and it’s a Coors Light. (She chooses coffee instead, which has its own repercussions).

There’s so much packed into that. The question immediately puts Sterling on the defensive, which we soon learn is key to his whole character: he’s in charge of this whole place and can have anything he wants; why is she acting like his options are limited? She’s immediately found a way to change up the power dynamic, choosing to serve herself. And the thing she chooses, out of presumably a wall’s worth of expensive liquor, is a canned beer slightly fancier than the canned beer she normally drinks.

That last part is important, because it’s the core idea of the entire scene that follows. The beer, and more explicitly, the conversation that follows, are all about establishing her character as someone who genuinely appreciates the value of having enough.

The show is throwing so many familiar images at us, that it’d be easy to make assumptions about the characters. It’s a well-constructed detective story, and it honestly only “needs” the characters to be just deep enough to be able to read what their motivations are and what the stakes are. So it’d be easy enough to conclude that Charlie is just a lovable loser, backed into a corner after trying to beat the system, barely eking by with a trailer in the desert, possibly with a drinking problem. It could just read as an easy, condescending gag: she’s so low brow that when she treats herself at an open bar, she chooses Heineken.

And I’d been wondering why that scene spent so much time belaboring the nature of her “powers,” especially since there were so many easier and quicker ways to do it. Earlier, she calls bullshit on her friend Natalie’s insistence that nothing’s wrong, and the entire premise of the series could’ve been taken care of right then and there. Just put in a line to the effect of “I hate that you can always tell that I’m lying, it’s creepy” and so on. But the scene isn’t establishing her powers, but establishing her character arc. Sterling spends the whole scene criticizing her lack of ambition and refusing to believe her when she says that she likes her life.

She explicitly tells him, “I’ve been rich,” and that “it’s better than being broke, harder than being just fine.” He counters, “You’ve had money, but you’ve never been rich.” You can quickly see what drives him, beyond just being the episode’s designated special guest villain: this big score that he’s planning won’t be enough, because he’s not actually driven by money, but by insecurity and the desire for revenge. And as much as Charlie is adamant that she’s not driven by money, either, she’s also still early in her character arc. A lot of money would make things a lot more comfortable to someone who’s wise enough now not to waste it on frivolous things, and instead keep on doing just fine, but with upgrades. Heineken instead of Coors Light.

(As an aside, another great thing about that scene: I don’t think it belabors the extent of Charlie’s “abilities” just to make sure the audience understands them, but to make sure that the audience understands that Sterling understands them. One of the brilliant things about the Columbo format is that the audience is split between identifying with the hero and with the villain. You don’t sympathize with the villain, necessarily, especially when you’ve seen the callous violence of their crime. But the story still gets so much energy from being constantly on the watch for the one moment that the villain slips up and gives themselves away. The first episode of Poker Face keeps up the tension of knowing that our hero is in league with murderers, while she’s unaware just how ruthless they are; and also that the villains are trying to pull off a heist with someone who will instantly know the second they tell a lie).

So there are all of these elements on the surface of “Dead Man’s Hand”1And I kind of want to hug Rian Johnson for that clever title alone that read like a very well-constructed homage to 1970s detective shows. There’s a hapless hero, cursed with a gift that makes her well-suited to solve murders. There’s a murderous casino manager and his sinister head of security, both motivated by greed. There’s a heist, an ominous all-powerful villain who only “appears” in voice-over, and tons of clues that are set up casually early on, only to get called back later on at just the right moment. This would be a very good episode of television even if it didn’t go any deeper than that.

But the idea of having enough, of being “just fine,” is what drives Charlie the rest of the series2I’m assuming. Still only seen episode 1.. She already used her ability to make a lot of money, and that got boring. She’s on the run from a powerful man who wants to kill her, but that’s just what drives the series. What drives Charlie now is the quality she respected most in her friend, that she wanted to do the right thing. She can’t be content just to comment “SICK!” below a story about child pornography; she’s in a unique position to aim higher than “just fine,” and actually make a difference.

  • 1
    And I kind of want to hug Rian Johnson for that clever title alone
  • 2
    I’m assuming. Still only seen episode 1.