One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 3)

Rounding out my list of my favorite things from season one of Poker Face

Previously on Spectre Collie… I couldn’t wait until I finished the season to mention more of my favorite things from each episode. Now I can finally round out the list with the last two episodes of season one.

I’d been avoiding reading anything about the series, so that every aspect of it would come as a surprise, but I’ve seen that a second season has already been ordered by Peacock, so I’ve got something to look forward to. It’s good knowing that Rian Johnson has so much cachet (and so does Natasha Lyonne) that I can be pretty confident that he’ll end the series on his own terms, instead of letting it drag on indefinitely.

Lots of unmarked spoilers, so please don’t read until you’ve finished season one!

9. “Escape from Shit Mountain”

Charlie is stranded in a snowed-in motel in the mountains, along with some extremely untrustworthy people who’d probably be happier if she were dead.

This is probably my least favorite episode of the season, which is saying something, since it’s still extremely well-made, a tense and clever hour of television better than a lot of other series’ best moments.

There’s a lot to love about the episode. Details were set up — Morty’s kleptomania, in particular — and paid off with greater significance later on. Seeing what happened to Morty was genuinely surprising and intense. Charlie’s ability to detect lies was used perfectly. I liked the interlude showing Charlie realize some genuine happiness, for a while. I really liked her flashbacks to a family vacation, and the image of a man rubbing tanning lotion on his hairy shoulders triggering a crucial realization. And I loved the nonsensical detail of her misremembering the name of the missing woman as being “Jackie Jazz, or something.”

But I felt like it was just barely missing that extra layer that makes this series brilliant. There was a lot that strained my suspension of disbelief, especially in terms of Charlie being basically indestructible, but the series is always skipping across the surface of believability, anyway. And I felt like there were moments that were supposed to be surprising twists, but they didn’t quite land — that it had been Charlie who’d been hit by the car, for instance. My bigger issue was that nobody had a character arc.

One of the things that makes this format so interesting is that you spend the first act of every episode with the antagonist as your protagonist. As a result, you don’t necessarily sympathize with the murderer(s), but you at least get some sense of depth to them, at least a glimmer of understanding why they’d be driven to do horrible things. But the villain in this episode is completely irredeemable from the start, never showing the barest hint of remorse or regret. Usually, you can get a sense of their abject desperation, but the bad guy here is just plain rotten. You know from the moment he has a delivery person bring him food and refuses to leave a tip, and absolutely nothing changes your perception of him from then on. (Although to be fair: if you’re working for a food delivery company that gives customers a giant blue “NO TIP” button, maybe you need to find a better gig).

I was inferring that this episode is all about Charlie being in peril, and because she’s smart and able to fend for herself, the villain had to be a remorseless predator. Possibly that was why Charlie felt as if she were making some kind of connection with the “moose,” warning her of danger? I still feel like it would’ve been stronger if there’d been some twist to his character that made his arc more than just a straight line. Even if it had been, say, that he was so convinced of his own rationalizations for what happened that Charlie couldn’t detect it as knowingly lying.

In any case, the thing about this episode that I really appreciated was how good it was at doling out information. There are a few moments of outright exposition, but for the most part, the episode tells you the complete story with as little dialogue as possible. The opening tells us that our villain is a dick, that he’s under house arrest, and foreshadows crashing his car, all with almost zero dialogue. We learn everything we need to know about Charlie’s relationship with the mountain man, all from a montage and a smash cut to a title card reading “FEBRUARY.”

And most impressive, to me: the whole episode, we’ve seen the interplay between the irredeemable villain and the more sympathetic villain, but we’ve never gotten the details of exactly what happened that made him feel obligated to keep helping someone he hated. But with just a single line of dialogue during the climax — and his underplayed conversation with Charlie that makes it clear that he’d been in love with Jackie Jazz — we find out why he’s been living with guilt and remorse, and why the revelation of how she died was such a betrayal.

I think it was another great example of the dramatic irony that makes the format so interesting: we in the audience were perfectly aware that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character had almost certainly murdered the woman, but we were left wondering why David Castañeda’s character hadn’t come to the same obvious conclusion. With one line, we learn that his feelings of guilt had let him be manipulated.

At the time I’m writing this, I haven’t yet seen the season finale, so I’m left baffled as to why the series would go to such lengths to put Charlie through hell to get her off the grid, only to immediately undo it in the final scene. At the moment, it just feels like they wanted to do a Coen Brothers story, but without the humor and the morality that make Coen Brothers stories (and Poker Face stories) work. Still, I think it’s a remarkable script, giving us exactly the right amount of information, exactly when we need it.

10. “The Hook”

Charlie is finally brought face-to-face with the man who’s been hunting her down for over a year, only to discover that he’s got an offer that could get her half a million dollars and the chance to return to her peaceful life before her friend Natalie’s murder.

I’ll just get it out of the way right up front: the thing I don’t love about this episode is the extended quote of a Blues Traveler song. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story about it — whether Rian Johnson was a fan, or whether he was trying to establish the character as completely unlikeable — and I don’t really want to know. I just have to ask, hasn’t Benjamin Bratt suffered enough assaults to his dignity? First that basketball game in Catwoman, and now this.

Anyway, the episode was really good. I was happy that I remained as unspoiled as possible, because I didn’t imagine any of it playing out like it did. There were some predictions that did play out in broad strokes: Charlie having to help out Sterling Sr in some scam, her and Cliff becoming begrudging allies, the FBI getting involved. But it was impressive that the whole season was building up to this confrontation, and it still managed to throw in some unexpected (to me, anyway) twists.

I also liked that it answered my question from the end of the previous episode, to some degree. Dragging out Charlie’s “freedom” for longer would’ve undermined the whole message of the final episode: that Charlie’s not actually driven by the chase anymore. She hasn’t been for a while. If it were just about staying off the grid, then she could’ve left town before at least half of the cases in this season had been solved. But even when she’s had a clear escape, she’s gone back to get the truth. As her sister is forced to admit, Charlie is out there doing good and helping people.

And even if it is inspired by Blues Traveler, the title is my favorite thing about this episode. Once I saw boats were involved, I’d been expecting the “hook” double entendre to take the form of a gruesome fishing implement that would help Charlie escape, so I was happy to see that role being played instead by a glow-in-the-dark dick ring. My fiance suggested that the title might’ve been referring to the right hook Charlie used in order to escape. I think that it’s the show’s creator acknowledging that the hook that drives the series isn’t what the series is actually about.

I keep mentioning how much Poker Face is like Columbo, but I’m a little embarrassed that I’m only now recognizing how much the series also borrows from The Fugitive. And the “hook” in that series was that the main character was trying to solve his wife’s murder, but as I understand it, the bulk of the episodes were an anthology series about him traveling from town to town, risking his own safety in order to help people he met there.

This episode was all about reminding Charlie who she is, and showing how she’s changed over the course of the year. At multiple points throughout the season, people have asked her whether she has a plan beyond staying on the road forever, and she always responds with a shrug. As if she’s just being bounced around by fate with no control over her situation.

But in this episode, she’s reminded of what she does control. Cliff gives her the chance (she believes) to kill him and escape with no consequences, but she’s unable to do it. Sterling offers her a deal which would essentially reset everything to the beginning of the season: use her ability to help herself, with little thought as to the morality of helping out gangsters and murderers.

And her sister reveals that Charlie was never cut out for stability, even before she was “caught” by Sterling Sr and lived a “just fine” life working in the casino. The details are left vague, but I inferred that the source of a lot of their tension wasn’t due just to Charlie being an unambitious screw-up, but due to her stubborn insistence on the truth. I hope they follow up on that in the second season.

Because there is going to be a second season, and this episode was basically a metatextual acknowledgement of it. They wanted the first season to be a complete story, of Charlie being forced out of her complacency and driven to help people (or at least avenge them). But they still need the hook to bring back viewers for another ten episodes, so they conveniently set up even bigger and badder mobsters hunting her down. It’s still episodic television, after all.

I also liked that the other “hook” for the series barely even came into play this episode. It was used again as the basis of Sterling’s offer: Charlie could get a lot of money by using it to benefit her and a bunch of bad guys, instead of using it for good. But for the most part, it was dismissed as just a trick or a gimmick. It was a good reminder that this isn’t a series about a hapless superhero. Her ability never actually solves the case; it just puts her on the trail. Again, what makes her special isn’t just that she can tell when people are lying, it’s that she doggedly insists on uncovering the truth.