After last week’s night at the theater, Poker Face returns to an older recipe. Combine one dusty podunk town with a handful of modest, quiet lives and a dash of homicidal desperation. Let the mixture simmer for approximately one-half episode, then add the meddlesome Charlie Cale and a pinch of throaty charm.
On “The Future of the Sport,” the whistle stop in question is the community surrounding Peach Tree Speedway, a dirt racetrack where semi-pros go to live out their Days of Thunder fantasies in exchange for neighborhood bragging rights and zero million dollars. The winners, who risk life and limb every time they circuit that track, left turn after left turn after left turn, are paid in actual peaches and high fives.
The quiet lives hanging in the balance belong to Davis McDowell, a hotheaded (but also regular hot) young racer played by Charles Melton, and his mom, Jean, who worries about her son so much she can’t even bear to watch him travel in those wee circles.
There’s also the town hero, veteran racer Keith Owens — the perennially hangdog character actor Tim Blake Nelson — who has stopped winning but eats up all the sponsorship money regardless. He comes from a local racing dynasty. But it’s not just Davis who’d like to see Keith hang up his helmet; Keith’s surly 19-year-old daughter, Katie, is ready to become the Owens family member behind the wheel of a Late Model Championship car. (Incidentally, Late Model race cars look shockingly beat-up and unsafe. They’re indistinguishable from demo derby cars, at least to the untrained eye.)
But Keith can’t bear to go out if it’s not on top. And he’s not on top. At the most recent underattended contest, Davis is able to tap him off the course with little effort. It’s not a clean W, but, in the immortal words of crew chief Harry Hogge — as he chews out the upstart Cole Trickle — “Rubbin’, son, is racin’.” After the race, the poor sports engage in jealous fisticuffs, which is followed by a verbal blowout between Keith and Katie over Keith’s last-minute decision to postpone his retirement. It’s not simply that Katie’s a spoiled brat; she’s the bests racer among them, which she proves when she trounces Davis on the go-kart track later that day.
Davis deals with losing about as graciously as Keith does. He turns up at the Owens house and livestreams himself uprooting their post-mount mailbox and running over Mrs. Owens’s begonias, which is just bad manners. Ever the supportive wife, she tells Keith to find “his flow” and bury this kid on the track, once and for all. But you know what they say: If you can’t find the flow, try sabotage. Keith breaks into Davis’s garage and does some automotive chicanery under the hood with a fishhook and some gear ties that I never truly understand, even by the end of the episode. At the track the next day, Keith watches on as Davis’s car loses control, crashes into a concrete K-rail, and goes up in flames.
Except it’s not Davis in the car! Davis heard Keith slinking around the previous night, and instead of calling the attempted sabotage into the relevant authorities, Davis further damages the car’s safety harness, then offers his keys to Keith’s ambitious daughter, goading her into proving herself. Even a child can drive a go-kart, but can you handle the horsepower of a late-model jalopy maintained by a homicidal maniac and a homicidal maniac’s mom’s co-worker? And yet it’s impossible for me to hate Davis immediately because he’s very good-looking and because he answers the question that’s been nagging me all season. A 1969 PLYMOUTH BARRACUDA! That’s the muscle car Charlie’s been driving around the endless racetrack of her days — a metaphor that’s lost on her completely. What is Charlie’s life at this point but a series of left turns? Is she really going anywhere if she has no destination?
Compared to the zany and elaborate Rube Goldbergs of weeks past, the crime and Charlie’s howcatchem are straightforward here. These days, Charlie works with Jean at the go-kart arcade — the same place Katie smokes Davis three races in a row. As is often the case, she immediately divulges the fact that she can bust a lie to the most dangerous guy in town, who likens her to one of those dogs that smell cancer. (I, personally, had conceived of her as a dolphin who detects bombs.) Davis lures Charlie into helping him pin Katie’s accident on Keith, careful to steer clear of mistruths. For example, when the Scooby gang finds Keith’s fishhook in the carburetor, he says matter-of-factly: “Somebody put that there.” Not bullshit. Even when he raises the specter of foul play in the first place, he sticks to simple, precise declaratives. Of Katie’s disastrous turn into the course’s barricade, he says only: “She’s too good of a driver to make that mistake.”
As it turns out, nailing Keith isn’t hard work. After the noted angler picks up on Charlie’s suspicions, he comes clean to his wife and then the larger racing community about what he’s done. It should all be over. With the track clear of any Owenses, Davis is clear to start taking some victory laps. But bad guys can’t help themselves; they looooooove the sound of their own voices, even if, in this case, Davis is technically helping a youngster overcome his (completely reasonable) fear of dying in an automobile accident. Davis assures him that Katie’s faulty harness was a fluke, not noticing that the cancer dog is nearby and listening to every word. Finally, some bullshit!
Charlie isn’t exactly a gearhead, though. She can’t prove that Davis damaged the safety belt. When she breaks into his garage and attempts to uncover some evidence, he catches her and threatens her life. There are a few other coincidences that solidify Davis’s guilt in Charlie’s mind, like the fact his lucky photo of his grandfather was missing from the car on the day he let Katie drive it. But ultimately, it’s not enough. Charlie can’t run to the police and say that Davis mentioned gear ties were likely involved in the aforementioned chicanery before Keith confessed to using gear ties. Maybe it was just a coincidence! Gearheads use gear ties.
Justice will have to be meted out on the track instead. By the end of the episode, Katie is awake and talking and eager to get behind the wheel. Even if the long arm of the law isn’t coming for Davis, his own hands might betray him. Keith hoped sabotaging Davis might cure the curse of his missing “flow,” but for Davis, sabotage marks the onset. As the episode comes to a close, he sits behind the driver’s wheel as his hand trembles uncontrollably. Perhaps a sense of control was what Keith was after when he rigged his enemy’s car in the first place.
But it’s like Dr. Claire Lewicki tells the “infantile egomaniac” Cole Trickle in their pivotal third-act showdown: Control is an illusion. “Nobody controls anything. Now, you’ve gotten a glimpse of that, and you’re scared.”