Poker Face S1E2: The Night Shift

We last left Charlie Cale on the run from a menacing casino owner Sterling Frost, bleeding from a bullet wound, and headed for parts unknown in a not-terribly-reliable muscle car. That the first episode established her car as a piece of junk was a nice little bit of setup, because the second finds Charlie broken down at The Last Honest Mechanic in New Mexico, per the sign out front.

Last episode’s murder involved wealthy and powerful people and large sums of money, which are appropriate stakes for a murder. This week’s stakes are much lower, as we get a triangle of small town wage slaves—a convenience store clerk, the skeevy auto mechanic (nephew and employee of the aforementioned Last Honest Mechanic) who’s stalking her, and the friendly Subway sandwich maker who’s protective of her (and who Charlie refers to throughout the episode as “Sandwich”). The cold open does a good job of keeping you guessing, as the skeevy stalker seems like a too-obvious choice to be the killer, and Sandwich turns out to be an Afghanistan vet who might take his white knight role a little too seriously. We’re pretty sure we know who the killer’s going to be, but we don’t really know until the final twist of the knife. Metaphorically. Or not.

Things are never quite as straightforward as they seem, and that’s what makes Poker Face work. Charlie’s infallible lie detecting gives her such an advantage over the murderers-of-the-week that things get too easy unless there’s a deck stacked against her. And this episode lays those cards on the table, as this week’s killer throws it in her face that not only is she not a cop, she can’t even call them, as she’s now wanted for several murders. “Dead Man’s Hand” made it clear that Frost has the police in his back pocket, and now he’s set them on Charlie.

And of course, Frost is also taking a more direct approach, as Benjamin Bratt’s murderous security chief Cliff LeGrand is still in hot pursuit. Charlie learns that if she uses a credit card or an ATM, she’s got about four hours until LeGrand shows up to give that bullet wound a few friends.

But back to that first bullet wound. It’s one of those made-for-TV gunshots that doesn’t seem to slow Charlie down much… until she passes out from blood loss while cleaning herself up in a truck stop bathroom. Lucky for her, she’s sharing the bathroom with a standoffish long-haul trucker (Hong Chau, making what could be a throwaway role instantly memorable), who patches Charlie up with superglue and gives her some handy tips on living off the grid, before being framed for the murder.

So that’s where Charlie Cale is this week. Held together with superglue, in a desert truck stop town where her one sort-of-friend is in jail, trying to suss out a killer with no leads, no allies, a ticking clock, and enemies closing in. Does she solve the murder? Of course she does. The fun is in seeing how she’s going to get out of this one.

But Charlie doesn’t get to enjoy the fruits of her victory in person. By the time the cops arrive to cuff the killer, she’s speeding down the highway, running short on cash, still running for her life… but at least her car’s in good shape. There’s nothing better than an honest mechanic.

Stray Bullets:

• This week’s murderer’s row of guest stars includes Chau, John Ratzenberger (Cheers, every Pixar movie) as the Last Honest Mechanic, Megan Suri (Never Have I Ever) as the convenience store clerk, Brandon Micheal Hall (Search Party) as Sandwich, and Chelsea Frei (The Moodys) as a deadpan, inhospitable diner waitress. Rian Johnson described his casting process as, “people coming onscreen that are gonna give you joy,” and so far it’s working.

• We get a lot of Subway product placement this episode. If that’s how Rian Johnson can afford to pay all these guest actors, I’m fine with it.

• One more key disadvantage that the show gives Charlie is that she’s smart enough to outwit the killer, but not much smarter than that. She describes herself in the first episode as a “dumbass,” and when she sends evidence to the police, she cc’s,, and after some thought, And in between flashes of genuine insight, she’s a scatterbrained mess. Last episode has a running gag where she couldn’t remember the word “locker,” and this week she can’t think of the name of an animal, and ropes diner patrons into trying to decipher her hilariously bad drawings.

• The show does give one advantage to Charlie—nothing fazes her. She wakes up twice in this episode, once in a big rig’s sleeping compartment as a stranger pours glue into her stomach wound, and once on a picnic table next to a buzzard, and both times she just goes with it. She’s comfortable on the margins of society, she’s at ease hanging out with drifters and lowlifes, and she’ll happily talk to anyone who’ll listen, up to and including the buzzard.