Poker Face S1E9: Escape From Shit Mountain

We open on a literal mountain, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in an isolated cabin in the dead of winter, loaded down with creature comforts, but no human contact to speak of. He has a steady routine of exercise, smoothies, video games, whiskey, and food deliveries, for which he does not tip. And the lingering question — if no one ever sees this guy, who exactly is he going to murder? Or who’s going to murder him?

Turns out, Trey (JGL’s character) is under house arrest, and an ankle monitor ensures he can’t leave the premises. But when a snowstorm puts his monitor offline, he plots a brief escape, despite being in the middle of said storm. He celebrates his freedom by speeding, drunk, in a blizzard, and when he swerves to avoid a deer, he ends up hitting a pedestrian instead. (Why the pedestrian was on an isolated mountain road in a blizzard is enough of a mystery to draw us into this episode.)

In a panic, Trey visits Jimmy (The Umbrella Academy’s David Castañeda), a friend he clearly has unfinished business with, and says “I need to use the spot.” He’s under house arrest for insider trading, but he and Jimmy have a spot all ready to go for hiding bodies. Jimmy’s not eager to help, but still does. “The spot” is a hole in the woods, where they dump the body and return to the mounted-animal-head-happy motel Jimmy runs. Usually the show gives us (and Charlie) an emotional tie to the victim, but we never see their face, and only their shoes suggest it’s a woman. 

Then there’s a knock on the door… and the episode takes a surprising left turn.

Which is our cue to rewind the clock and visit Charlie Cale, lost in the sunny summertime mountains and singularly unimpressed by the bounteous nature on display. She is, however, impressed by the chiseled abs of a local trail guide, and the two embark on a months-long fling. It’s nice to see Charlie happy for a change, and it’s also nice to get an acknowledgement that she isn’t literally stumbling over a dead body every week, and that these episodes take place weeks or months apart.

But her summer fling quickly turns to winter misery, and with snow falling and no boyfriend in sight, Charlie’s too broke to even buy enough gas to get off the mountain. Stephanie Hsu appears as an aimless hippie, and offers to fill her tank in exchange for a ride down to sea level. Charlie calls her Mortimer Bernstein, from the name on her stolen credit card, as she’s a habitual grifter who makes a running gag of stealing Charlie’s wallet.

Naturally, they don’t make it off what Charlie now bitterly calls Shit Mountain, and instead end up at a remote motel, with a mounted animal head theme, and two very nervous men inside. What follows is a classic Rian Johnson mystery (the Knives Out director created the show and directs this episode) and numerous twists and reversals the audience doesn’t see coming, but are all expertly set up.

And while Best Supporting Actress nominee Hsu and Johnson’s longtime muse Gordon-Levitt are both heavy hitters, the acting standout of the episode is Castañeda. Like Nick Nolte last week, he gets a terrific scene with Natasha Lyonne in which the two meditate on grief, guilt, and loss. While JGL’s role is fairly straightforward as a dickish finance bro, and Hsu’s a delight as an outwardly innocent-seeming girl who can’t help trying to steal anything that isn’t nailed down, Castañeda brings a terrific depth to the episode. In contrast to his fairly one-note role on the much campier Umbrella Academy as the impulsive, not-terribly-bright sibling of the group, Castañeda loads down Jimmy with a complicated mixture of regret, a desire to do the right thing, and an impulse to do the wrong thing.

It’s a terrifically acted, written, and directed episode… until we get to the end, when plot holes start cropping up. One character is shot mid-monologue and somehow doesn’t notice the person they’re talking to pulling a gun and pointing it at their head. (It’d be the easiest thing in the world to have the victim turn away for a moment, so it’s a baffling choice in an otherwise perfectly-constructed episode.) And while the killer leaving someone for dead once is believable, having them repeat the same mistake with the same victim a second time is not.

It’s a shame, because it’s two sour notes at the end of an otherwise-excellent episode, and it comes at the end of what’s been a top-notch season of television. Next week’s “The Hook” is the finale, and it’s likely not going to be a typical murder of the week, as we’ve been building all season towards a confrontation with Sterling Frost, the casino owner whose son died after tangling with Charlie in the premiere. Sour note or no, we can’t wait to finally see Frost in the flesh, how Charlie’s going to get out of this one, and what season two holds in store for Charlie Cale.

Stray Bullets:
• Babbling motormouth Charlie is the best Charlie, and a scene where she’s concussed and recounting unhappy family memories to a few baffled onlookers is this week’s chance for Lyonne to cut loose.

• The show seems to have dropped its ticking-clock scenario from the early episodes, in which Charlie can’t use a credit card without alerting the bad guys to her location. But this week we get a similar time limit for Trey, who has to be back home before 7AM, when his ankle monitor re-activates. It’s not leaned on very heavily, but it adds a reason for the characters to rush and make bad decisions.

• The only names on the season’s extensive guest star list we haven’t yet seen are Rhea Perlman (the second former Cheers cast member to show up), Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy, no relation to Rhea), and Clea DuVall, so look for them to show up next week. DuVall costarred with Lyonne in 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, and 2016’s The Intervention, which DuVall also wrote and directed. As with Chloe Sevingy showing up earlier in the season, it’s nice to see Lyonne getting to act opposite old friends.