The right pace at which to watch Poker Face is one episode per sitting; when I watch any more than that, my mind wanders. And over the course of watching an entire season of Poker Face, I’ve come to think that the right pace at which to review the show is a handful of episodes at a time. One of the series’s principal delights is how radically it remakes itself each week: a new crime, a new cast, and even a brand-new world for Charlie to learn and conquer. (As far as I remember, Columbo didn’t leave L.A.) Not every episode has been equal in quality, but there’s an easy pleasure in watching the formula — murder, rinse, repeat — get fine-tuned.
Then I watched “Escape From Shit Mountain,” the first episode since the premiere to come to a truly satisfying and unexpected conclusion. Even the other episodes I’ve most enjoyed — the Chloë Sevigny and Judith Light ones — didn’t feel this complete. It has sizzle; it has scares; an attractive man appears shirtless for reasons entirely superfluous to the plot. And the guest stars all crackle with chaotic energy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is exasperating as Trey, the big fish forced to return to the small pond that spawned him with a LoJack on his ankle as he serves time for insider trading. The Uber series was but a dress rehearsal for Gordon-Levitt’s turn in Poker Face.
David Castañeda is a pure puppy dog as Jimmy, the high-school friend whose number Trey only seems to remember when he needs help out of a bind. Plus, Stephanie Hsu shows up as Morty, a kleptomaniac ski bum who, like Charlie, is desperate to get out of the mountains and back to Denver. She’s got a feverish excitement to rival Charlie’s own, which is especially welcome, because Charlie will spend most of the episode supine on a motel-lobby couch.
Though the series’s trusty braided structure begins to suggest otherwise, there’s really only one plot in town this week. When a snowstorm powers down the electronic ankle monitoring system for wealthy lowlifes, Trey decides to trade his model home-prisoner routine — Peloton, smoothie, video games, GrubHub — for a few fingers of off-brand Malibu and a joyride in his Giallo Auge Lamborghini Urus, as you do when you’re a small-town crook trying to keep a low profile. This same snowstorm has left Charlie and Morty, who won herself a ride down the mountain in the Barracuda by filling up the gas tank with a stolen credit card, accidentally parked in a snow drift on the side of the road. Charlie is in her umpteenth hour of waiting for flaky Morty to (possibly) return with a tow truck when she decides to get out of the freezing-cold car and hitch a ride back to town. Trey clips her with his side-view mirror, which sends her flippy-flopping into the air until the ground breaks her fall and the bones in her leg. Trey, mistaking Charlie for dead, brings her to his buddy Jimmy’s house, where the broski brain trust decides to bury their new Jane Doe in the same hidey-hole in which they’ve already deposited the body of Chloe, the last girl whose murder they covered up together.
Except Charlie’s not dead. Using Chloe’s tibia for a spade, she claws her way out of the cold, dark earth and crawls toward the neon light of the crummy motel Jimmy owns and operates. Jimmy and Trey are just about to kill her for the second time when Morty pulls into the motel lot in the ’cuda she was planning to steal off Charlie, thereby saving her life. It’s a setup in the style of Agatha Christie. Four people, not quite strangers, are stranded overnight in a house in the woods cut off from the world by a blizzard. The roads are closed, the phone lines are down, and even the electricity is on the fritz. It’s not long before Charlie deduces her “shovel” belongs to poor Chloe. Even a decade after the high schooler went missing, signs offering a $75,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts are all over town.
What Charlie’s less sure about is what exactly happened to her. She can’t really remember anything after being hit or even the obtrusively yellow car that hit her. If she hadn’t emerged from a hole in the ground with Chloe’s leg in her hand, Jimmy and Trey might even have been inclined to let her go. But from the moment Morty remembers the big cash prize and assumes everyone else in the room is out to collect it, too, alliances keep rearranging themselves. What Morty (not her real name) can’t know is that she’s the only one among them who would ever willingly involve the cops in their lives.
The boys huddle up in a motel room to game-plan. Jimmy is a softie. He wants big-shot finance-guy Trey to pay off Charlie and Morty to let the past stay buried, just like Trey paid Jimmy a decade ago to help with Chloe. This, to me, doesn’t sound like a terrible option. Morty doesn’t care about justice for Chloe’s family; she just wants cash. And she’s too scattered to come back to Colorado looking for more hush money any time soon. Trey, on the other hand, wants to kill them. It’s cleaner, and he has the taste of blood.
Meanwhile, back in the exceedingly thematically decorated lobby, the gals are bickering. By Charlie’s count, suspicious circumstances point to danger. Firstly, she clocked Trey’s ankle monitor, which at least suggests bad morals. Then, there’s the fact that Trey claimed to call the cops, but now the phone isn’t even producing a dial tone. Plus, there’s the other matter of concern that takes Charlie a little too long to spot, a lapse for which I blame blood loss, a concussion, or both. Whoever put her in that hole knew about its location because they put Chloe there, too. Given no one is going anywhere in this snow, the suspect list is pretty narrow: Trey or Jimmy hit her.
Unfortunately, Charlie’s leg is broken in so many places that she’s entirely dependent on Morty, a person who has stolen her wallet no fewer than three times. Even as the evidence points to running far away from these dudes as fast as they can, Morty can’t be convinced to leave without her 75 large. She’s outside photographing Chloe’s dirt grave when Trey finds her, and the two appear to strike a deal. Morty can take the Lambo, which is worth way more than the reward — no cops required. It’s a win-win situation, really. But Trey is a little more risk-averse than that. He snaps her neck and sends her body off a cliff in the car of her dreams. It’s just tidier this way.
But Charlie was always the real threat. While Trey has been distracted by Morty, Charlie and Jimmy get to bonding. Charlie can bond with anyone. She has a deep interest in people, and people feel safe with her. Jimmy kind of loved Chloe, it seems. He helped Trey hide her body because he thought her death was at least partially his fault. Jimmy was the one to sell her the bad coke on the night she fell. But the lie of the bad coke finally unravels as Jimmy questions what he’s probably long suspected, and Charlie shouts “bullshit” after each one of Trey’s mistruths. Trey hit Chloe or pushed her or something else violent and entitled.
In the midst of their showdown, the gun Jimmy loaded at the beginning of the episode to finish off Charlie finally goes off. Trey kills the “brother” who hid Chloe’s murder for him. After a tussle in which Charlie gets in one good slash at the back of Trey’s leg, he stabs her to death in the chest. He puts them both in Chloe’s hole, which is getting a little crowded, cleans the blood off the motel floor, and manages to sneak back into his big-windowed manse just before the 7 a.m. check-in with his parole officer.
Trey is literally cackling with delight at this point. His vibe is ecstatic mayhem. “That is how you fucking do it!” he shouts with glee. No guilt. This guy is super-pumped. Honestly, for a man desperate to feel powerful, this is a better outcome than if he’d never mowed Charlie down in the first place. Now Trey can be sure that he’s invincible. He’s the one who escaped Shit Mountain and lived to tell no one about it.
Alas, the king of Shit Mountain is no king at all, not without his crown. Trey’s electronic anklet is missing. When the cops find it, it will be faintly beeping in the warm clutches of Charlie, who’s barely breathing below the earth, but breathing all the same. By morning, the police will assume the dead woman in the Lambo who had her wallet is Charlie Cale, which makes our Charlie a Jane Doe. She’s better than off the grid, she thinks. She’s officially dead. Alas, Benjamin Bratt, whose character has been AWOL so long I no longer recall his name, is at least smarter than your average cop. Charlie is in a hospital bed healing, but for what? Sterling’s henchman is sitting just outside Denver General, getting ready to dig her a hole of her very own.