In social media posts this week, Natasha Lyonne proclaimed she takes inspiration from Italian actor Giulietta Masina, who’s known for bringing an endearing humanity to her varied characters. It’s easy to see how this quality has seeped into Lyonne’s performances going all the way back to films like But I’m A Cheerleader and the TV roles she’s spent the longest time with. She found a certain tenderness in Orange Is The New Black’s Nicky Nichols and Russian Doll’s Nadia Vulvokov, two eccentric and goofy personas that benefited from Lyonne’s skills in elevating them from script to screen.
Lyonne’s talent lends well to Poker Face’s Charlie Cale, who is clearly written around her, as I mentioned in my recap of the series premiere. There’s an easygoing affability to Charlie. We know almost nothing about her, except that she possesses a superhuman ability to detect lies and has a knack of befriending everyone she meets. Yet you can’t help but root for her in the midst of all the enticing crime-solving shit she finds herself in throughout season one.
For the most part, Rian Johnson’s Peacock drama has evolved into a crackerjack hit centered around Charlie’s lie-sniffing gimmick. The show has delivered thrilling murder mysteries, fascinating characters played by notable stars, and the slowest of slow reveals about Charlie’s history. The first season wraps on a high note by finally pulling on that last thread and introducing Charlie’s estranged sister, Emily, played by Clea DuVall. It’s a proper BIAC reunion.
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Charlie and Emily reunite when Cliff (Benjamin Bratt) nabs her two months after her hospital stint and drives her down to Atlantic City. She comes face-to-face with Sterling Frost St. (Ron Perlman) after running from him for the past 365 days. Here’s when we find out that Charlie grew up in this city, and her family still lives nearby. And she eventually seeks refuge with Emily once she is forced to go on the run again. We’ll get to why in a minute, but first I want to expand on the great and potent Charlie and Emily scenes from the finale.
Their interactions shed further light on both siblings’ upbringing in Atlantic City and hint at why Charlie isn’t connected to her family anymore. It all comes back around to her uncanny bullshit-meter, which she used to detect her father’s lies a long time ago that led to the Cale clan’s downfall. We don’t know the details yet, but it’s safe to assume that he was hiding major things until Charlie caught on. Emily tells her sibling during a years-in-the-making emotional confrontation, “You are ruinous.”
It’s a quietly volatile moment because their connection is clear as day, even if we’ve only just met Emily. She instantly points out that Charlie chooses to spend her good heart on strangers and then breeze on down the highway (a.k.a the plot of Poker Face). “I bet you do some good,” Emily says. And she’s not wrong, as proved by the number of criminals Charlie has helped put behind bars. But this same skill stops Charlie from having a personal life. You simply can’t afford to lie to her about literally anything.
Poker Face subtly explores this aspect of Charlie’s dilemma, and it perfectly explains why she’s learned to be content with living as a nomad as opposed to settling down. She could’ve tried to reconnect with Emily and bond with her niece over the years, but chose to travel and eventually work at Frost Casinos. Conversely, Emily’s love for Charlie notwithstanding, she doesn’t seem interested in having her troublemaker sister around. Lyonne and DuVall’s crumbling facial expressions when Emily tells Charlie to leave (with a crushing “We don’t need you,” no less) are terrific.
Now, let’s shift gears to the central mystery of “The Hook” because the murder victim is none other than Sterling Frost. Poker Face pulls a bait-and-switch because the episode opens with Perlman’s Sterling in the morgue after identifying his son’s dead body and calling Charlie (it’s the same phone conversation we heard in the premiere from her end). He tasks Cliff to follow and find her, no matter what. We’re led to believe he has grand plans of vengeance. In reality, his reasons are far more selfish (sorry to Adrien Brody’s Sterling Jr.). He wants to use Charlie’s bullshit-meter while dealing with the “five families”—yes, Poker Face is bringing in the mob for season two. He promises her freedom and a $500k in return, but before she can do anything, Sterling is shot to death by none other than his seemingly loyal lapdog.
Benjamin Bratt finally gets more to do than run behind Lyonne, and boy does he deliver. Cliff isn’t happy living out of motels and eating shitty food for a year as he tries to capture Charlie, so he teams up with the head of one of the five families, Beatrix Hasp (Rhea Perlman). Beatrix and Cliff plot Sterling’s demise and plan to put the blame on Charlie. He’s followed her for so long now, but still doesn’t grasp her ability to bring herself out of danger one way or another, huh?
Admittedly, I thought Charlie would figure out much sooner that Cliff was responsible for framing her. She connects several pieces of the puzzle like how only someone who knew Sterling’s habits well would’ve pulled off his murder, but doesn’t put it together entirely until she finds the black light poker chips (!) in Cliff’s bag. Luckily, Charlie had already involved Simon Helberg’s FBI Agent Luca, so he arrives just in time to arrest him for Natalie’s death.
Luca (who’s harboring a crush on Charlie, right?) later invites her to join the FBI, and she rejects him again. He’s grateful she’s helped him nab some big wig criminals (including Kazimir Caine), so it’s safe to assume Luca will be showing up in PF’s second season. After all, he’s involved in the mob investigation too. And guess what, or rather who these mafia families want most? Charlie. Beatrix calls her in the episode’s closing moments in a way that’s reminiscent of Sterling’s phone call to her in episode one, so we never see Perlman. She offers her the chance to use her “circus freak lie detector thing” for the Hasps. Charlie refuses and drives off into the sunset, or whatever city and murder case beckons next, as Beatrix presumably preps to send her own minion after Charlie.
It’s going to be a long wait until we catch up to Charlie’s next adventures. Johnson is helming Knives Out 3 as we speak (I think) and hopefullt scripting the new Poker Face episodes. Until then, who’s up for a good rewatch?
- I didn’t get to mention it in my recap, but Janicza Bravo’s direction is tremendous, especially the framing of Lyonne and DuVall’s scenes. We’ve discussed the actors a ton, but PF scored some winning directors like Bravo, Iain B. MacDonald, Lyonne, Johnson, and Lucky McKee.
- Another major win for Poker Face is composer Nathan Johnson’s theme song for Charlie. (Is it me or does it have a Twin Peaks vibe?)
- Ron Perlman makes his Poker Face debut after a season-long build up. While he’s only around for the first 10 to 15 minutes, he makes each one count.
- In case you were wondering, no, Ron and Rhea Perlman aren’t related at all.
- Ron Perlman’s delivery of this line is sublime: “There’s nothing that pulls you in more than being really good at something for unhealthy reasons.”
- Who else is going to watch Benjamin Bratt reciting the lyrics to Blues Traveler’s “Hook” repeatedly?
- You know what, shout out to the Poker Face prop team for the lavender and long dick-shaped ring Natasha Lyonne wears for most of this episode. She ends up with it while escaping from the cops by mingling with a bachelorette party. And an even bigger shout out to the writers for using this silly little prop in a significant way when Charlie uses the dick ring to punch Cliff in the eye and escape. (Will it be part of official Poker Face merch or...?)
- I love the detail of how Charlie knew everyone’s names at the hospital where she recovered for two months after the accident. Nurses, clerks, fellow patients, their family members—she knows them all!
- Now that Poker Face season one has wrapped, who were some of your favorite guest stars? It’s hard to narrow down from the impressive list, but some of mine are: Stephanie Hsu, Chloë Sevigny, Judith Light, S. Epatha Merkerson, Ellen Barkin, and Cherry Jones.
- Related: Who are some of your dream guest stars for season two? You just know Johnson is going to bring in some big names for the next round, right?
- How would you grade Poker Face overall? I’d give it an easy A- for season one.