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‘Poker Face’ Shuffles the Deck

Of all the ways ‘Poker Face’ has fine-tuned the “howcatchem” formula throughout its first season, the season finale, “The Hook,” is the show’s boldest swing yet

Peacock/Ringer illustration

From its opening moments, Poker Face hasn’t been afraid to show its hand. Rian Johnson’s mystery-of-the-week series hinges on the audience seeing crimes committed with little misdirection—the real thrill is discovering exactly how human lie detector Charlie Cale (played by Natasha Lyonne) will uncover the motives for herself. It’s an effective, crowd-pleasing update to the “howcatchem,” which originally blossomed on the small screen during the glory days of Columbo. In fact, those vintage qualities are what make Poker Face so appealing: The show might have enough A-list guest stars to fill out a new season of The White Lotus, but its adherence to episodic storytelling gives it the feel of a throwback. When serialized television is all the rage in prestige TV, self-contained mysteries like the ones offered weekly on Poker Face become something of a novelty.

Of course, there’s a reason why Charlie’s driving across the U.S. in her Plymouth Barracuda, rarely staying in one place for too long: She’s on the run. A powerful casino boss wants Charlie to pay for the death of his (fail)son in the series premiere, and we get occasional check-ins with the casino’s head of security, the wonderfully named Cliff LeGrand (Benjamin Bratt), who’s tasked with hunting her down. The weekly cases are Poker Face’s selling point, but the overarching narrative of Charlie evading her would-be assailants is the glue holding the show together. (Poker Face would get stale pretty quickly if Charlie stayed in a single location or had little urgency in her decisions.) But the introduction of a serialized plot—however little it may affect the story on a weekly basis—means the story must eventually arrive at a conclusion. Enter Poker Face’s season finale, “The Hook.”

While a familiar pattern was established early in Poker Face—a crime’s committed, Charlie gets roped into the mystery, Charlie solves it thanks to her preternatural ability to spot bullshit—the first season also wasn’t afraid to mix things up. For instance, in the seventh episode, “The Future of the Sport,” the culprit doesn’t face any legal consequences for his actions: a reminder that Charlie can have only so much of an impact when she’s a drifter rather than a detective. Meanwhile, the penultimate episode of the season, “Escape From Shit Mountain,” brings Charlie to the brink of death during a massive blizzard, dialing up the tension like a thriller. “The Hook” picks up in the aftermath of that episode, as Charlie spends months recovering from her Shit Mountain experience at a hospital in Denver. Unfortunately, that’s given Cliff plenty of time to track her down; all he has to do is wait for her to be discharged.

Written by Johnson and directed by Zola’s Janicza Bravo, “The Hook” gets its title from the hit Blues Traveler single, which satirizes the cookie-cutter approach of many successful pop songs, even as it became one itself. “The hook brings you back,” Cliff tells Charlie, reciting the lyrics after picking her up from the hospital. It’s been more than a year since the events of the Poker Face premiere, but Charlie is finally at the mercy of Sterling Frost Sr. (Ron Perlman), who vowed to end her life. Meeting her face-to-face at a casino in Atlantic City owned by a rival casino magnate, Beatrix Hasp (Rhea Perlman), Sterling wastes little time deflating the tension: Rather than kill Charlie, he’d prefer to use her lie detector abilities to his advantage. Sterling is cutting a deal with Beatrix and wants Charlie to listen in on the meeting—if certain protections are promised, he needs the extra assurance that nothing will happen to him. Charlie will be paid half a million for her troubles and won’t have to look over her shoulder any longer.

The arrangement sounds mutually beneficial, but when Sterling presents Charlie with a gift, she pulls a handgun from the box. Suddenly, the lights go out on the casino floor, shots are fired, and Sterling is dead. Just as soon as Charlie found a lifeline, she’s the prime suspect for a high-profile murder. The viewer is just as stumped as Charlie, but as is Poker Face tradition, we soon get the full picture. Having spent more than a year traveling across the country and staying in dinky motels at the behest of an unsympathetic boss, Cliff decided to betray Sterling on behalf of Beatrix—Charlie is the perfect patsy. Of all the ways Poker Face has fine-tuned the howcatchem formula throughout the season, “The Hook” is the show’s boldest swing yet: Charlie has to solve the murder of the very person who had her on the run in the first place.

Thankfully, Atlantic City happens to be where Charlie’s sister lives, giving her the chance to regroup, as authorities (and the mob) are hell-bent on tracking her down. (Charlie’s method of escaping the casino is hitching herself to a bachelorette party that features glow-in-the-dark penis rings; Columbo could never.) But you don’t need an innate ability to tell when someone is lying to know that her sister, Emily (Clea DuVall), isn’t thrilled to see Charlie. Emily calls her sister “ruinous,” and you can understand how Charlie’s bullshit detector could be more of a curse than a blessing for those closest to her. In a way, Charlie’s nomadic existence throughout the series might be for the best: She stays in one place long enough to make friends and crack open a mystery, but moves on before getting caught up in the everyday lies that even the most well-intentioned people are guilty of. “I bet you do some good,” Emily tells her. “I bet there are a lot of people out there who need someone like you, but us? We’re doing just fine.”

Charlie leaves Emily’s home with the keys to their dad’s old boat, giving her an opportunity to once again go off the grid. The only problem is that the boat is in no condition to go anywhere. With nowhere else to turn, Charlie reaches out to Cliff, expecting a sympathetic ear from the man who lost his old boss. Completely unaware that Cliff double-crossed Sterling, Charlie agrees to meet him on his yacht. (The yacht was gifted to him by Beatrix as part of the arrangement.) At this point, Charlie has done little amateur sleuthing in the finale, and it’s only when Cliff asks her to grab something from below deck that she uncovers a fateful clue: a bag of glow-in-the-dark poker chips, one of which Sterling was holding at the time of his death. (The assassination attempt could’ve been a disaster if the target was impossible to spot.) Charlie is moments away from being apprehended by the FBI when Chekhov’s penis ring saves the day: She punches Cliff in the face with it before jumping off the boat and swimming to safety.

As for Cliff, he doesn’t just suffer the indignity of being injured by a penis ring: The authorities have gathered enough evidence to pin him for the murders from the premiere, including that of Charlie’s friend Natalie (Dascha Polanco). Cliff, in turn, sells Beatrix out over Sterling’s death, which could instigate a mob war. While this means that Charlie is cleared of any wrongdoing, she’s caught in the same situation she found herself in a year ago: A casino boss wants her dead, and it’s time to hit the road. “There is no corner of the country deep enough to hide from us,” Beatrix tells Charlie over the phone. “We’re gonna find you, and your death will be neither quick nor comfortable.”

As a result, Poker Face lays the groundwork to repeat the basic setup of the first season: Charlie bouncing between different locations, and mysteries, each episode. And why not? The series doesn’t need to be anything different: Lyonne solving crimes across the country in a vintage muscle car is the hook, and keeping that framework in place should be more than enough to bring viewers back. After all, Columbo ran for 69 very nice episodes, while Murder, She Wrote had a whopping 264 episodes across 12 seasons—few would argue that those procedurals overstayed their welcome. “How long do you think you can keep it up?” Beatrix asks Charlie before the credits roll on Poker Face’s first season, a question that won’t just be on the mind of an intimidating casino magnate.

“Let’s all of us find out together,” Charlie responds. Until then, Poker Face can take solace in the fact that its first season went out with a winning hand.