One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 2)

Picking out more of my favorite parts from Poker Face season one

Previously on Spectre Collie… I’ve been so impressed by Poker Face that I already wanted to start calling out my favorite aspects of it even though we were only halfway through the season.

We’ve still got two episodes left, but at the rate we’re going, it’ll be a while before we can finish the season, and I’m impatient. So here are some more favorites from episodes 6-8 of a series that continues to be excellent.

Lots of spoilers throughout, so avoid reading this until you’ve watched up until episode 8.

6: “Exit Stage Death”

Two embittered actors from a former hit TV show stage a dinner theater production of Ghosts of Pensacola, and their rivalry results in the accidental death of someone in the audience. Charlie begins to suspect that it was no accident.

When I first watched this episode, my favorite thing was that they kept mentioning the series Spooky and the Cop, but they never made it explicit who was who. But looking back at screenshots, it’s pretty obvious. Still, I appreciate that with just a title and a couple of photoshopped magazine covers, they make it completely clear what was the premise of the show.

But really, my favorite thing about this mostly-silly episode was the twist: Charlie’s suspicions are confirmed not when she catches someone lying, but when she sees them telling the truth.

This episode would’ve dissolved into “pleasant but inconsequential” if it’d been part of a lesser series. It has all the aspects of “comfort TV” murder mysteries like Murder She Wrote: broad characters you can read immediately, having fun with stereotypes, clever twists at the act breaks, all built around snippets of an overwrought stage drama that we never get to see in its entirety. But the final scene really shows what makes this series special.

The entire episode has been making fun of Ghosts of Pensacola as a hilariously ham-fisted, bordering-on offensive attempt at Tennessee Williams-style melodrama, but after the crime has been revealed, we see a montage of the actors really giving it the full weight of their talent. Poker Face always manages to combine comedy with genuine sentiment, so we see a shot of a police officer wiping a tear from his eye as he’s about to arrest the guilty. But then we see Charlie tearing up at the final monologue, and it’s different. She finally gets what her friend had said earlier about why he was still content to be a stage manager for such awful productions — sometimes there are people in the audience who are seeing something they’ve never seen before. We see Charlie’s expression and we know that she’s watching, maybe for the first time, a performance that feels completely genuine and honest.

7: “The Future of the Sport”

A race car driver on the verge of retirement is upstaged by a hotshot young rival, and he sabotages his rival’s car in revenge. When the plot backfires and seriously injures his daughter, Charlie discovers that both drivers sabotaged the car.

My favorite thing about this episode is the final scene. I already mentioned how Charlie keeps putting herself in danger by confronting murderers and asking them point-blank if they did it. I said it was a sign of her character that she’s more interested in solving the puzzle than in self-preservation.

By this episode, it’s become part of her character arc. She seems more or less resigned to the fact that she’s an unpaid detective at this point; when the podcaster in “Rest in Metal” tells Charlie that she solves murderers, Charlie responds, “Nice work if you can get it.” In this one, she’s not in any immediate danger, she’s not on the run, and she’s not helping out a friend. Since there’s no murder in this episode, and even the attempted murder would be difficult to prove, she’s not technically obligated to get anyone arrested. Instead, she’s driven simply by wanting the truth to come out. And to see some kind of justice happen. It’s unlikely the culprit will ever go to jail, but she still makes sure that he pays for what he did.

8: “The Orpheus Syndrome”

Charlie befriends a cinematic visual effects artist who’s haunted by the accidental death of an actress on his movie set, forty years prior.

Before I get to the multiple things I love about this episode, my main criticism of it: it feels as if they thought the episode had gotten too heavy, and over-corrected by having Charlie wandering around the studio in a horse costume. The first image was funny, but then it went on too far. I feel like the show works so well at combining murder mystery and comedy by keeping it a little underplayed. Or at least so clever that it works as simultaneously high-brow and low-brow.

Anyway, everything else in the episode was really strong. My favorite scene was as Charlie was leaving Laura’s house, and she couldn’t stop her eye from twitching. It was a clever idea to set up a way for the audience to see when she caught a lie, without her just saying “bullshit” repeatedly.

And the whole scene worked really well to remind us how the show works: it so often seems like this is the most unnecessarily confrontational series, where characters just can’t resist going in alone to accuse murderers of murder. We saw Charlie find the clue that tied Arthur’s car to Laura’s house, so we assume that Charlie immediately realized that Laura was the killer. But the scene reminds us that Charlie just wanted to talk to the last person to talk to Arthur, to get an idea of whether he ever found the absolution that he’d been desperately seeking. It was only when Laura repeatedly — and completely unnecessarily — lied about having nothing to do with the deaths that Charlie became suspicious.

Another thing I loved about the episode was that it was so deliberately and specifically weird: Arthur’s maquettes were thematically essential to the plot, but the only reason to show them in so much detail and with actual stop-motion animation is that someone involved in the production was a big fan. I really loved seeing that Phil Tippet studios handled much of the miniatures and the animation, because the episode was essentially a celebration of the work of Tippet and his studio. The episodic nature of the series isn’t just a nostalgic throwback; it gives the filmmakers the chance to change up the theme and the tone of each episode, and to do deep dives into subjects they’re just interested in.

Ever since the early 2000s, series have been emphasized season- or even series-long story arcs with tightly-enforced continuity, and it was a sign of quality and maturation. Now, I’ve got more appreciation for letting episodes be episodes, and having long story arcs and character arcs playing out more subtly over the course of the season.

Which leads to my last favorite thing about this episode: Charlie’s relationship with Arthur, and their conversation about getting forgiveness from the dead, drives home how much she’s evolved over the course of the season. I knew that it was Natalie’s murder that initially spurred her into action and made her aspire to help justice play out everywhere she goes, but I hadn’t thought about how much it’s stuck with her. To Arthur, she reveals that everything we’ve seen her do is a kind of penance for her feeling that she could’ve done more to prevent Natalie’s death.

We know that the format of the show means that wherever she goes, a murder is going to happen. But this has already set itself apart from Murder She Wrote, where the premise drew attention to its own artificiality, and either spawned the old running joke that Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer, or at best, that she saw these crimes as interesting puzzles to be solved. Charlie needs to see justice be served. And that’s the other part of what seems like her reckless streak, putting herself into harm’s way over and over again to directly confront murderers and attempted murderers: she wants everyone to know the truth.