Poker Face Episode 1 Dead Man’s Hand Review And Recap- Natasha Lyonne Shines In This Addictive Mystery Series
Peacock’s Poker Face Episode 1 has me hooked and desperate for more in Rian Johnson’s answer to the episodic mystery.
I admit to loving procedurals. I have watched everything from Matlock to Murder She wrote and countless more before that. I love the formula, and the flavor of the week design means I could dip in and out of the series without ever needing to worry about episode order or skipping a few, as those shows were on way before the advent of DVRs, clouds, or on-demand viewing. It was the dark ages when you either caught it in real time or were out of luck. The horror! Procedurals that had both weekly and multiple-episode arcs were rare because the climate couldn’t sustain them. Modern procedurals like True Detectives redefined what kinds of stories these shows could tell.
Peacock’s Poker Face premiering today from Rian Johnson(Knives Out, Glass Onion), is a wedding of the best of both types of procedurals. It mixes one-off crime stories with a season-long thriller that is as compelling as its main character. Natasha Lyonne(Russian Doll) is magnetic. Her gravelly voice, ironic sneers, wide eyes, and wild hair are iconic. She, along with clever scripts written by Rian Johnson and his brilliant writers, including Lyonne herself, are money.
Poker Face Episode 1 opens at Frost Casino. It sets up the rules and the players for the remainder of the season without an unpleasant expository dump or confusing downtime. Perennially pretty, Benjamin Bratt is a mid-level manager and fixer, but the hotel and casino isn’t as pretty as he is. It is the kind of place where hope and your bank account go to die. A maid finds something strange on the laptop of the high roller staying in the presidential suite. She quickly snaps a pic and gets out of there, narrowly escaping discovery.
When the maid shows Cliff(Bratt), he immediately calls the manager, Sterling Frost, Jr, hilariously smarmy and intensely unlikable Adrian Brody, who pretends to listen and promptly sends her home to her death. Instead of contacting the authorities, he unleashed Cliff, who went to her house and shot her abusive husband and then her. Cliff then staged the scene to make it look like a murder-suicide. At this point, everything rewinds just a bit, and Lyonne’s Charlie Cale is introduced.
It’s a structure that takes some getting used to, but once you figure out what you’re watching, you are drawn into Charlie’s world of hapless beer drinking, protective advice-giving, and bullshit lie detection. Then, in a twist, the mystery formula is turned on its head. Poker Face Episode 1 isn’t so much who did it, but what did someone do and why? Charlie and the woman who died were friends, and after her death, Charlie goes looking for answers because she can’t let it go. Of course, as it turns out, Charlie can’t let anything go when innocents are involved, but that comes later.
Unfortunately, while all of this is happening, Frost is trying to capitalize on Charlie’s unique talents. It seems she was hired as a bartender years ago by his father, who caught her using her talent to clean out a slew of poker games across the country, including one of his. Instead of killing her, he offers her a job. She can work as a cocktail waitress in the casino in exchange for her life. She can’t ever play poker again, though. Frost senior blackballed her from coast to coast, so without any other plans, she settled down in a rundown trailer outside of town and started slinging drinks.
She has no intention of helping Frost, Jr., but he offers her a huge payday in exchange for helping him rig a game that the high roller has off the books. The man in the presidential suite has been playing in a private game instead of the casino, and that’s a major problem for Frost, Jr., who has major daddy issues and something to prove. The plan is to use Charlie to read the game via cameras set up in the room and clean everyone out. She gets a chunk of the money and a new life, and he gets to prove to his father that he is a smart businessman. It’s an ill-advised plan at best, but when this storyline and her friends’ death catch up to one another, Charlie can’t help but become a fly in Frost’s ointment.
At first, Charlie believes her friend was killed by her husband. The guy was a ticking time bomb of male aggression. In the days leading up to her death, she had a black eye and was staying with Charlie out of safety. The drunk and belligerent turd even showed up at the casino and created a huge scene before he was relieved of his weapon courtesy of Charlie’s observation skills and escorted off of the premise.
Charlie’s ability is a tricky one. She isn’t psychic or omniscient. She just knows if you are lying but not why. As she tells Frost, everyone lies about the smallest things all the time. The trick is in the why of it all. Everyone has an angle. Some try to take advantage of others, while a few genuinely want to be left alone or help someone they care about. Everyone has secrets. You need to know their motivation to understand what is important. In addition to her effective BS meter, she is indomitably determined. She is a dog with a bone that won’t let go, no matter how much danger it puts her in.
She begins looking into her friend’s death when she finds things that don’t make sense about the murder. Her friend’s husband was left-handed, but the gun was found in his right hand. It defies reason, but the cops don’t care. Later, Brody tells her they are on his payroll and told them to ignore any contradictory evidence. Frost also tries to redirect her back to the grift, but it’s too late. The mystery has her, and she continues investigating. She searches her friend’s house and finds her iPad, which she manages to unlock by asking a coworker for her locker combination.
At first, there is nothing there, but then she finds the deleted photos and sees the picture from the high roller’s room. She immediately takes it to Frost, who again tries redirecting her to the card game. He tells her they will take the guy’s money first and then turn him in to the authorities. At this point, she remembers details about her friend and her husband that contradict the news report about her death. The reporter says Natalie asked the casino to release her husband, which is why they let him go. She next watches surveillance footage of the day Jerry was kicked out and watched as he leaves via a metal detector. This prompts her to realize he couldn’t have had the gun to shoot Natalie because the casino still had it.
She accuses Cliff and Sterling of murder, and they check her phone to make sure she isn’t recording anything. When they found she wasn’t, they reminded her no one would believe her or care. Frost controls the cops and the town; she can either help them with the game and run with the money or die. Charlie is more intelligent than they think, though, and tells them she wasn’t recording then, but she was earlier when they walked her through their plan. Frost still thinks he has control because he owns the cops, but she tells him she didn’t send the earlier recording to the cops. Instead, she sent it to the high roller. They thought he had gone to dinner, giving them the opportunity to set up the cameras, but he instead had left town.
Knowing he was done, Frost gets a call from his father, who now knows what he had been planning, and jumps from his balcony to his death. Charlie runs and is shot by Cliff but manages to escape. Frost Sr. calls her and tells her he is coming for her. He let her live once, but not again. She emails Natalie’s photos and her recording to the FBI and the Sherrif, destroys her phone, and drives out of town.
Poker Face Episode 1 was a tight and effective pilot that built the strangely sentimental and fascinating world that Charlie finds herself. She is a captivating creature that Lyonne plays with innocence, grit, and quirk. She is a hero to root for in a world filled with people to root against. The first four episodes were released today, with new episodes premiering weekly. Find all our Poker Face coverage here.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.