Thirty years ago, a beautiful Hollywood starlet named Lily Auburn was cast in the directorial debut of one Arthur Liptin, a special-effects genius helming his first creature feature. Arthur could be a demanding, belittling boss, and Dragonfish was running over budget as well as behind schedule. When his pretty young thing worried aloud that an underwater scene was too dangerous, he told her that spending hours submerged in a Perspex tank with no access to oxygen and no safety coordinator was just the job, “honey.” If Lily felt she was at risk, she should press the emergency-call button, which would set off a red light for the whole crew to see — if she really needed it, that is, and she wasn’t too intimidated to add yet another take to yet another day with an overspilling shot list.
But we’ll never know if Lily hit that button. Arthur’s business partner, Laura, surreptitiously unscrewed the bulb on the primitive alarm system. She was desperate to wrap the scene and get her movie back under control. No more unnecessary delays. Poker Face seems to land the fault for Lily’s drowning death on Laura’s reckless indifference to human life, but in truth it could have been Arthur’s error for pushing Lily too far — for making her so afraid of losing her starring role that she minimized concerns about her safety. Because Laura never confessed to unscrewing the light, Arthur assumed the blame, changing the trajectory of his life and eventually shaping his own death.
After Lily’s tragic drowning, Arthur — played by a croaky Nick Nolte in present day — retreated from filmmaking. He quit Light and Motion (LAM), the special-effects firm he’d established with his college friends, Laura (the inimitable Cherry Jones) and Max (Tim Russ), the latter of whom we won’t really get to know. Max’s death at the hands of Laura is the mystery that kicks off “The Orpheus Syndrome,” though it won’t be until Arthur’s suspicious death, also at the hands of Laura, that our girl Charlie Cale gets involved.
“The Orpheus Syndrome” is both the name of the episode and the movie that Arthur has been slowly making about what happened that terrible day on set. In Greek mythology, you may vaguely recall from AP lit, Orpheus attempts to save his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld by playing mournful music. His song successfully persuades the gods to give her back, but those fickle monsters put (unnecessary) conditions on the rescue mission. Orpheus must remain in front of his wife at all times and never, ever, under any circumstances, look back. But look back he does, and so he watches on as his beloved is swept back to Hades. The message of that story is a little confusing to me, but the gist is that one really should listen precisely to the instructions of the gods (H/T Edith Hamilton). The message of this episode of Poker Face is simpler: Retrospection can be deadly.
It’s also human nature. Although Arthur took a step back from LAM, the husband-and-wife team of Max and Laura shepherded it into the age of computer effects. In advance of the company’s 40th anniversary, Max is personally digitizing and archiving all of the film in the studio’s vault. It’s as he nostalgically sifts through all this old film that he rediscovers the Dragonfish dailies, including footage of Laura unscrewing the bulb. He threatens to go public with the revelation, which I personally think makes him a poor husband. In turn, Laura serves Max a poison tea, a perhaps disproportionate response to Max reneging on his commitment to love and protect her for as long as they both should live, but I don’t like to judge other people’s marriages.
In the end, rather than wait for the toxins to do their dirty work, Max leaps to his death from the cliffside mid-century mansion he and Laura have called home. Later, Laura will tell Arthur that his old friends were actually in the midst of a divorce — a detail that might be true or might just be designed to convince Art that Max was really suicidal.
Which brings us at long last to our girl Charlie, who has recently accepted off-the-books, low-paid work as Arthur’s assistant. She’s lurking in his workshop when Laura shows up to request that Arthur, who quit the SFX biz but not his craft, make her a macabre maquette of her recently deceased almost-ex. Laura couches her creepy-as-hell order in a guilt she knows Arthur will feel acutely: the desire for absolution from someone already dead.
In reality, though, Laura just needs a non-smashed version of her hubby’s face to bypass LAM’s two-factor-authentication system and delete the digital record of her misdeed. The harebrained plan works, which I suppose is a testament to Arthur’s ability to imbue his creations with vitality. But the grim task of re-creating his old friend’s face sends Arthur spiraling into that most dangerous place: the past. He even calls up an old friend at LAM, Raul (Luis Guzmán, always a pleasure), so that he can watch the Dragonfish dailies and finally confront what has been haunting him.
Arthur finds the same raw footage that Max found, though rather than threaten Laura, he offers to save her. She has already deleted the digital evidence herself; now, Arthur throws the original reel onto a fire. But by the time Arthur has magnanimously buried Laura’s crime, he has also consumed a full cup of her lethal tea, which I’m fairly sure pushes the SFX doyenne’s body count into serial-killer territory. It’s at this point, though, that this notably sturdy episode of Poker Face begins to fray a little. Upon Laura’s closer inspection of the reel, she realizes that Arthur didn’t destroy the incriminating film at all. He spliced those bits out first, but for what reason? Did he have a more elaborate revenge scheme in mind?
We never find out. Although Charlie calls 911, Arthur succumbs to the witch’s brew. She should split before Benjamin Bratt comes sniffing, but Charlie has an Achilles’ heel. She likes people too much, and she likes Arthur even more than most. Over her weeks of zigzagging the map, he’s the first person she tells about Natalie’s death and the guilt that haunts her every time she wonders what more she could have done to protect her friend. So instead of saving herself, she investigates her only lead. Arthur was a recluse, but on the night he died, she noticed cinders from Laura’s driveway wedged in the treads of his car tires.
Charlie and Laura have a standard Poker Face showdown, which is to say Charlie asks a bunch of straightforward, invasive questions of a person who is, at least theoretically, meant to be grieving. I’m not sure how much additional exposure to lies Charlie can withstand. Before this life of crime-fighting, lies didn’t really bother her, but lately she has developed an allergy to bullshit. Hearing it makes her twitch. Laura tells Charlie one true thing, at least: Arthur was able to let go of the blame for Lily’s drowning before he died. But then she rambles on in the way of a supervillain’s last stand. She mentions she doesn’t feel responsible for Max’s death, but why would Charlie doubt this? She says she didn’t kill Arthur even though no one has asked. The writing here let me down a little because the conversation they were having felt so implausible.
The episode gets its act together in time to set up the big finish, though. Charlie teams up with LAM’s newest disgruntled ex-employee, Raul (whom Laura has fired after finding him snooping around Arthur’s workshop). Laura takes possession of all of Arthur’s belongings, supposedly to put together a nice li’l in memoriam for LAM’s 40th-anniversary party but really to find the inculpatory footage.
So here we are at the long-awaited gala, the kind of fancy but inelegant affair where Ryan Atwood used to get into fisticuffs. Charlie disguises herself in one of Arthur’s old props and sneaks in to find the missing Dragonfish footage hanging from a Medusa maquette that’s slated for inclusion in the tribute. The discovery feels fortuitous rather than a meaningful reflection of how close Charlie and Arthur had gotten. Maybe it was symbolically fun for Arthur to have stowed the tape in Medusa’s serpentine hair. But I would like to have seen Charlie make the connection through something personal.
Laura finds and ousts Charlie from the event, but Raul, still in possession of his employee key card, ushers her back in. Charlie and Raul then run the tape just as Laura is addressing the crowd. But it almost seems redundant. Laura’s already falling apart, imagining dead Arthur in the audience, stumbling over her speech and needlessly bringing up Lily Auburn on what should be one of the shiniest nights of her career. The Arthur memorial, which is overstuffed with the artist’s gruesome creations, has been transformed by her psyche into a deranged and haunting fun house.
Just like Max did at the episode’s open, Laura tips herself over the ledge of another house they created together. (A last long, dark fall to death is emerging as something of a Poker Face motif — Adrien Brody was the first to plunge in “Dead Man’s Hand,” then Brandon Micheal Hall in “The Night Shift,” then Jameela Jamil and possibly Ellen Barkin in “Exit Stage Death.”) Charlie crashing the party in a (Trojan) horse costume feels hokey compared to the psychological torture conjured in “The Orpheus Syndrome,” co-written and directed by Natasha Lyonne. Other installments have made Charlie’s role small, but here she’s almost unnecessary. Long before Laura lied to her twitching face, she had violated the episode god’s final command: She looked over her shoulder at all the mess she’d spent her whole life making.