One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 1)

Poker Face is so clever that every episode has at least one thing I love

It’s probably inaccurate to say that I’ve been “surprised” by Poker Face, since I knew I was predisposed to love it based on Rian Johnson’s involvement alone. But I have been a little surprised by how much it’s been surpassing my expectations.

I’ve got to acknowledge that I haven’t seen that much of Columbo, and I don’t remember that much about the episodes that I have seen, apart from the most basic premise (you know the murderer(s) from the start) and Peter Falk’s performance. But a huge part of what makes Poker Face feel so novel and so clever is how it’s all about manipulating the audience’s expectations and sympathies, and how it is constantly re-contextualizing what you’ve seen so far. It seems like they took the stuff I loved about Glass Onion and then spent an entire season’s worth of television exploring all the different ways you could change up or expand on the concepts.

For the first time in a very long time, I’ve been loving a series so much that I desperately wish I could write scripts for it. Are spec scripts still a thing? Do I have to resort to fan fiction?

I’ve already written about the first episode, twice, but I’ll try to keep things more focused this time. And this will only be the first part, because we’ve still only seen the first five episodes at this point. Lots of spoilers throughout; assume that you shouldn’t read any of these until you’ve watched episodes 1-5.

1: “Dead Man’s Hand”

A casino manager, knowing about Charlie’s ability to infallibly tell when someone is intentionally lying, brings her into a scheme to win a fortune in a private poker game. Meanwhile, she learns that her friend has been murdered by her abusive husband.

I’ve already mentioned a couple of things I love about this episode, in terms of setting up the tone and style of the series as a whole. It’s timeless, always calling back to the past, but with significant plot details that could only happen in the present. And it’s got a strong sense of morality; Charlie would have been satisfied to coast through the rest of her life, but now she’s driven to do something to help people.1Even if it wasn’t originally her choice.

One thing I like that has only become clear after it’s recurred in a few more episodes: Charlie (along with the villains, frequently) is so often willingly putting herself in danger. For instance, it doesn’t make any sense that Sterling would ally himself with a human lie detector, when he knows he’s just ordered the murder of one of her friends, unless he was so arrogant and so desperate to prove himself, that he was positive she wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop him.

And it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Charlie to be confronting known murderers directly, unless maybe she were recording the conversation to get a confession. But the script heads off that possibility directly, as Sterling calls her out, and then she reveals she’d been recording their earlier conversation. Which is great for the series being self-aware enough to avoid a somewhat cliched plot structure, but not so great for Charlie being self-aware enough to understand she probably shouldn’t be going in alone to accuse murderers to their faces.

But the reason I think this is so clever, and why it works when it happens again and again, is because it serves two purposes. For one thing, it reminds the audience of the dramatic irony of the Columbo format. We know who the guilty people are, but Charlie doesn’t. Or at least, she’s not certain. Her putting herself in danger pops us out of the story to remind us that we know more than the main character does.

The other thing it does is underscore Charlie’s character each time. She is a great character, and a great hero even, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe her as someone who is especially prudent, or makes great decisions. There’s a great tension to every scene between Charlie and the murderers, because you know that she’s humble enough not to assume that she’s got everything figured out, and you know that she’s more interested in solving the puzzle than in self-preservation.

2: “The Night Shift”

While her car is being serviced at a roadside mechanic’s station, Charlie learns that a Subway employee has been murdered, and her new friend has been accused of the murder.

The pilot does such a good job of efficiently setting up the premise, the format, and the overall tone of the series, that the second episode had to be pretty impressive if it was going to establish how they could make a whole series out of this. At first, I was a little surprised that it was such a low-stakes story in such a small setting: the murderer was so overwhelmingly creepy that it should’ve been obvious to anyone that he’d done it, even without Charlie’s super power.

So what I like about this episode is how it’s kind of like a second pilot. You’d be inclined to watch the pilot and think “yeah, I get it, everything is established, I’m on board.” But the second episode takes the ideas from the pilot, underscores some, clarifies or deepens others, and then establishes some basics that will carry on for the rest of the series.

One of those is the trick of using superglue to heal wounds, which has already come back up a few times. It’s a nice symbol that Charlie is there to help people, and also that her “gift” is the sum of her experiences, not just her ability to tell when people are lying. Another is the four-hour window between going “on the grid” and someone being able to find you. It’s arbitrary and even a little hokey, but it adds a nice bit of tension whenever the show needs Charlie to feel threatened.

But more importantly, where the first episode is essentially setting up “this is how we’re like familiar detective stories,” the second episode sets up “and this is how we’re different.” Key is that Charlie is always at a disadvantage: even when she is convinced of the truth, and when the truth is so convincing that it’s barely even a mystery, she doesn’t have the authority to arrest anyone. Or even call for help, since that puts her in danger2Which is the one aspect of the series that continues to strain credibility, but will undoubtedly come into play later.. She can’t just know who did it; she has to figure out exactly how and why they did it, and then she has to be able to prove it. Her ability is what brings her into the investigation, but it’s her stubbornness and fearlessness that solve it.

And I think this episode does a great job of establishing the morality of the series. It shows characters who aren’t motivated by self interest, and in fact who are often incentivized to stay the hell out of it, pitching in to do the right thing, simply because it’s the right thing to do. None of the people in that small community are Charlie’s “friends,” and some, like the waitress, don’t even like her, but they all contribute in one way or another to bringing the bad guy to justice. Even if they’re annoyed to have to do it.

3: “The Stall”

While working at a popular local barbecue restaurant in Texas, Charlie solves the murder of the recently-converted vegan head chef.

This is probably my favorite episode of the season so far, just for the way everything tied together between the characters, the clues, and the title getting a second meaning in the climax.

My favorite thing is the asshole dog. It shows that Poker Face is extremely aware of the “rules,” but also knows exactly how to bend and break them. One of the prime rules is that it’s okay to show people being murdered to drive a plot, but it’s never, ever, acceptable to kill an animal. Especially a dog.3It’s always stood out to me how War of the Roses, a movie that was so over-the-top eager to prove how edgy and dark it was, still had to insert a cutaway to show that our awful, awful characters hadn’t actually killed the pet dog. So even after we’ve seen a guy murder his own brother, the sight of him killing a dog was still shocking. Especially with the final shot of the dog lying motionless on the side of the road, right before the commercial break.

Then we go back in time to bring Charlie into the story and discover how she met the dog. And most importantly, how the dog was a total asshole. It was hilarious how the episode kept piling on detail after detail to really, really make you hate this dog that had just been murdered.

And best of all, the episode gives the asshole dog the perfect happy ending — which I didn’t see coming, even after it had been completely telegraphed — and still didn’t feel like a cop-out.

4: “Rest in Metal”

While working as a merch girl for a one-hit-wonder heavy metal band on tour, Charlie befriends the band’s new drummer, and she suspects foul play when he’s accidentally electrocuted while on stage.

I really liked the line from this episode, “maybe I won’t see you in that orange jumpsuit,” delivered by Natasha Lyonne’s character to Chloë Sevigny’s. At the time, I thought, “how clever, they’re make a reference to when both actors were on Orange is the New Black.” But then I learned that Sevigny was never on Orange is the New Black4It’s one of the many, many, critically-acclaimed series that I have never seen a single episode of., even though she was offered a role and turned it down. Since Lyonne and Sevigny are good friends in real life, I’m assuming it’s a gag about how disappointed Lyonne was that they wouldn’t be working together. (And I mean come on; everything I know about that series suggests that it’s crying out for Chloë Sevigny).

But the actual thing I liked about this episode: the scene when Ruby Ruin first hears Gavin’s demo of “Sucker Punch.” We’d already seen and heard her describe the first time she’d heard “Staplehead,” her only song that had ever been a hit, and the song that had been like a curse in all the decades since. Now, we got to see it: everything goes silent, all of the lights go out, and it’s just a spotlight focused directly on her. She knows that this is going to be a hit.

I love that Poker Face has so many aspects of a standard detective series but still frequently throws in artistic flourishes like this. In “The Stall,” it was the musical instruments that played any time Charlie discovered a different taste (after being given a Kung Fu-like education on the subtleties of different flavors).

Here, it’s more than just a flourish, because it establishes a few things. One is how profoundly positive Ruby is that the song will be a hit, to establish exactly why she would be desperate enough to kill for it. Another is that the song has to be universally, objectively good, so the scene goes silent to let our imagination fill in the brilliance. And the most obvious, of course, is that the episode has to keep it a secret how much it sounds like the theme from “Benson.”

5: “Time of the Monkey”

While working at a retirement home, Charlie befriends two residents who she learns were activists in the 1970s. After one of the new residents is murdered, she begins to learn more about her new friends and their “activism.”

This was a detail that I noticed when I watched it, but it didn’t really hit me as significant — or even intentional — until I was looking it up on IMDB for this blog post. I’d been trying to remember why it was titled “Time of the Monkey,” thinking it must’ve been some 1970s thing that had been briefly mentioned and I’d forgotten, before remembering that an orangutan telling the current time at the zoo turned out to be an important clue.

Anyway, the detail I liked was that two different actors played Gabriel in the past. We’re first introduced to the young versions of the characters as they’re reminiscing about their youthful idealism, activism, and free-love three-ways. Gabriel in these scenes is an extremely handsome young man, partially hidden underneath long hair and a big mustache.

In later flashbacks, we see Gabriel, and he’s got a less convincing, flat-haired wig, and a mustache that looks almost comically fake. I noticed the difference, but hadn’t thought much about it. Maybe the actor just looks different in close-up than from high-angle shots? Maybe the scenes were shot later and required recasting? Maybe it was just a production error? It was only after I saw the IMDB listing, with one actor being credited as “Hot Gabriel” and another as “Real Gabriel,” that I was sure it was intentional.

And in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. By the end of the episode, it was clear that the women the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, and the casting was a sign that they’d been giving Charlie (and us) a highly romanticized version of the past. By making the distinction significant enough to require two different actors, it drove home the idea that their version of the past wasn’t just idealistic, but so self-serving as to be completely false.

I also loved that the more Charlie befriended the women, the more she adopted the clothing and mannerisms of her “future self,” and especially how she got the chance to go completely into full Columbo mode. It felt as if it had been bottled up for the previous four episodes and was finally allowed to fly free.

Poker Face continues to impress me, going beyond my already-high expectations. I think “Time of the Monkey” is the weakest episode so far, and it’s still pretty great. (“The Stall” is my favorite, and it’s going to be tough to beat). There were several points while I was watching Glass Onion where I thought, “Yes, please, give me more of this, maybe even as a TV series,” and Poker Face has a lot of the same vibe. I’m already looking forward to the rest of the season, and for now at least, I’m enjoying not knowing how it ends and having no idea whether it can or will go on indefinitely.

  • 1
    Even if it wasn’t originally her choice.
  • 2
    Which is the one aspect of the series that continues to strain credibility, but will undoubtedly come into play later.
  • 3
    It’s always stood out to me how War of the Roses, a movie that was so over-the-top eager to prove how edgy and dark it was, still had to insert a cutaway to show that our awful, awful characters hadn’t actually killed the pet dog.
  • 4
    It’s one of the many, many, critically-acclaimed series that I have never seen a single episode of.