Poker Face S1E8: The Orpheus Syndrome

The past few episodes have taken longer and longer setting up the week’s murder, but “The Orpheus Syndrome” wastes no time. We see an apparent suicide in the first thirty seconds, as a man (Tim Russ) plunges from a railing to his death while his horrified wife (Cherry Jones) looks on. It’s a nice shake-up to the formula, which is sturdy enough that Poker Face usually finds an interesting way to toy with it.

We then move on to Arthur (Nick Nolte), who makes models and latex masks for horror movies. His place in the story isn’t immediately obvious until Laura, the wife from the opening, shows up asking him to make a bust of her dead husband, Max. There’s a history there, as Arthur created practical effects for movies Laura and Max produced through the years, although they’ve largely moved on to CGI, leaving him to tinker alone in his barn. 

Laura makes an emotional plea for Arthur to do one last job. She and Max were fighting over their impending divorce in the moments before his fatal leap, and she’s so consumed by guilt that she wants to look him in the face one last time and ask for forgiveness. And if you think it’s that simple, I can only assume you’ve never seen a TV show before.

Unlike recent episodes, we also don’t waste time bringing Charlie Cale into the action. Her job at a barbershop sends her to deliver a bag of human hair to Arthur, and they quickly hit it off. Charlie appreciates his zero-fucks-given honesty (especially after enduring several weeks of the unending bullshit of barbershop talk), they bond over a bottle of whiskey, and he quickly takes her on as his assistant. He’s got a big job lined up — making a lifelike bust of his recently-deceased friend…

As with most of her jobs, Charlie’s hilariously incompetent, putting fake blood on toast because she mistakes it for jam. “That stuff’s more expensive than real blood,” Arthur chides her, although that doesn’t stop Charlie from scarfing it down. Eventually, he opens up to her about how he came to live a solitary life in his remote workshop — a young woman died on set accidentally decades earlier, and he still blames himself. It leads to a terrific scene in which the two discuss grief and guilt, with Charlie opening up for the first time about her best friend’s murder from the first episode. It’s a terrific acting moment for both of them, and while Nolte has become an internet meme for his substance abuse problems and increasingly haggard looks over the years, he really brings it in this episode. His hoarse rasp gives Arthur the world-weariness of someone who’s lived with guilt for so long and still can’t quite forgive himself.

Naturally, that accidental death was no accident, and is very much linked to the suicide in the opening. Unlike past murders, there’s nothing immediately suspicious about either death, and there don’t seem to be any dangling threads for Charlie to pull… until we get a Columbo-like “just one more thing.” A stray comment sets off Charlie’s bullshit detector, and she very quickly pieces together the details of the murder, but as usual, can’t prove any of it.

Things come to a head at a conveniently-timed retrospective of the movies Arthur, Laura, and Max made together. We get a few hilarious shots of Charlie sneaking around in a very conspicuous horse mask, and a Hamlet-like film that plays upon the murderer’s guilt. And another ending where, while Charlie can’t call the police, she can make sure the killer gets their just desserts.

Stray Bullets:
• Luis Guzman is also terrific in a small-but-crucial role, playing against type as a nerdy film archivist who multiple people pressure for a reel of incriminating film in his library.

• Once again, someone else solves the murder before Charlie does, but the show is as much about her figuring out a way to make sure the guilty party is punished as it is about piecing the clues together.

• The one sour note in the episode is the soundtrack — a homage to the grindhouse horror movies Arthur devoted his career to, which is thematically appropriate, but far too bombastic and heavy-handed for what ends up being a thoughtful episode about mourning and our inability to escape the past.

• Natasha Lyonne directed this episode, and co-wrote it with Alice Ju, who also wrote “The Night Shift.” (The two also co-wrote three episodes of the second season of Russian Doll.) While the ending gets a bit melodramatic by the show’s standards (again, the bombastic music doesn’t help), she directs herself remarkably well opposite Nolte, and makes a great thematic contrast between Arthur’s inability to let go of the past and Laura’s refusal to deal with her own grief and guilt. Series creator Rian Johnson steps back behind the camera for next week’s “Escape from Shit Mountain,” but we hope to see Lyonne direct some of season two, which Peacock greenlit last week.