I’m chuffed to see Peacock jettison the binge model in favor of weekly releases for the rest of Poker Face. For one thing, the show isn’t well suited to a bender. The episodes are too similar to each other, and Charlie Cale’s madcap race to escape danger is really more of a lively trot. Watching the first four installments back to back to back to back, the simple, rhythmic pleasures of the howcatchem formula started to spoil. “That’s a red herring, Charlie!” I wanted to scream at our heroine, whose unhurried gumshoe-ing wasn’t improving as quickly as my Monday morning quarterbacking. But “Time of the Monkey” isn’t just the only episode of Poker Face I watched this week, it’s the only episode of TV I’ve watched, full stop. (It’s been an admittedly weird week for me, a person who makes a living writing about the TV she’s watched.) But absence made my heart grow fonder for this series, including its reliable reversals and roundabouts.
So here’s what a weekly release schedule, in which the episodes dribble out at a pace resembling Charlie’s nomadic crime-solving, freed me up to relish again. It’s the slant of light coming through the curtained open window; the way the camera pulls back to reveal the face of Ben, played by Reed Birney, frozen in sudden death; it’s how Rian Johnson bathes the Mossy Oaks nursing facility in yellow light, as if, in the end, we all come to resemble the sepia-toned photographs of our forebears. Even when it’s not thrilling TV, Poker Face is well-made TV. Peacock giving each episode a little more room to breathe freed me up to appreciate the finer details.
Judith Light, everyone’s favorite boss, commands the episode as Irene, a persnickety, profane, wheelchair-bound septuagenarian whose bucket list likely contains one item only: make noise. She and her partner-in-crime — Law & Order star S. Epatha Merkerson as Joyce — grow extracurricular weed in their nursing home closet. Irene refuses even to charge the medical FitBit the nurses use to track vital signs. (A plot point in the making, to be sure). But when Ben takes up residence at Mossy Oaks — a community for old people veering toward death with field trips mixed in — she and Joyce go from crotchety old maids to cold-blooded killers.
Using her prodigious arm strength, Irene scales the nursing home’s rose trellis — it really is a tasteful place to die — and injects Ben in the neck with a homemade poison just after trading out his medical wearable for her own. Later, to pass off the poisoning as a heart attack, she’ll let Joyce tase her while wearing Ben’s monitor, which is pretty badass to watch, like if The Golden Girls joined Fight Club. To reinforce their alibi, Irene and Joyce take a celebratory field trip to the zoo. Along the way, Irene drops the first clue as to why Ben needed to die. “I’m so glad you came back,” she tells him, her voice positively dropping with villainy before she stabs him with the needle.
Charlie is more entwined than usual in the case of Ben and the Mossy Oaks murder. She’s the facility’s newest orderly and though busy-body Betty, who has crowned herself social chair, warns her to steer clear of Thelma & Louise, Charlie’s immediately attracted to them. As it turns out, even before they were murderers, they were criminals of the Weather Underground variety — anti-fascist domestic terrorists willing to fight the man with IEDs made from pressure cookers. Irene and Joyce went to college together, had sex with Gabriel — the well-hung leader of their political cult — together, and even served time together for their ill-defined political crimes. Though they skimp on the details, they divulge the wild contours of their storied lives to Charlie, who looks at them and their commitment to each other with a kind of wonder. Joyce and Irene were together when the Feds raided their safe house and shot Irene with the bullet that would cost her the use of her legs. Thanks to Mossy Oaks, it seems they’ll still be together when one of them dies first.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the nuts and bolts of the casework that confronts Charlie, but at least in this episode, the delights are more diverse than that. The nursing home is the perfect milieu for a director who specializes in cobbling together groups of zany, satisfying characters. This week we get Billy the nurse — a frequent target of Irene’s ire whose knowledge of the human heart Charlie eventually draws on, Pervy Pete — whose knowledge of sexual kink Charlie eventually draws on, and three little old biddies obsessed with Nordic murder shows — whose thorough knowledge of naturally occurring poisons should absolutely suggest them as suspects.
And then, of course, there’s the new guy Ben, who is really Gabriel. He’s not at Mossy Oaks by chance but to seek forgiveness from Irene and Joyce, who never really left his cult. While they served time for the crimes he organized, Gabe enjoyed the relative peace of witness protection. But Irene and Joyce, in all these decades, never suspected Gabe was the one to turn them in to the cops. They thought he was dead or had disappeared. When he shows up to confess his betrayal to them, though, it’s for his own sake. For years, he’s been haunted by a nightmare in which the women refuse his apology, but truly who cares? These women lost their freedom to his cause. I am entirely comfortable with the idea this dude needs to die.
Charlie drives the bus full of seniors to the local zoo, making her Irene and Joyce’s inadvertent getaway driver. She quickly hears them tell two lies, which she immediately discounts, revealing another fascinating flaw to the human lie detector: The more Charlie likes someone, the less it works. In this case, she still perceives the lies but excuses them instantly. When Joyce and Irene tell her they are skipping the chimp show because they have allergies, for example, she assumes they’re going to get high and check out the petting zoo. If you trust people, you don’t scrutinize them the same way.
It’s Ben’s fake nephew who eventually alerts Charlie to the fact that there’s even a case to crack. At the funeral, real-name Luca confesses to being the disgruntled FBI agent charged with Gabe’s WITSEC detail when really he’d rather be using his Urdu to fight international terrorism. (I do not trust this man.) He’s also pretty sloppy at his job. It’s Charlie who tells Luca that Gabe’s former associates are also residents at Mossy Oaks. She puts it all together when, at the service, there’s a photo of a ’70s-era Gabe by the pulpit — the same time of life in which he knew her elderly besties.
Luca, in exchange, tells Charlie what Irene and Joyce were really getting up to during their college protests days, and it wasn’t organizing peaceful marches. When the FBI stepped in, they were planning to bomb a Model U.N. competition, which is to say, murder a bunch of high-schoolers. The information about their squandered terrorist plot is critical here because it confirms what they’re capable of. They’ve killed Gabe already. What happens if they turn on Charlie, who they already suspect has been collaborating with police?
The dominos fall in tidy fashion this week. The murder girls tell Charlie sodium nitrate makes a nice and undetectable naturally occurring heart-stopper, and the gardener who sells Joyce her grow room supplies confirms she had a lot of it. Charlie susses out that Irene must have switched out Gabe’s vital signs bracelets, but it’s Pervy Pete who teaches her about “sexual zapping” with Tasers, which is how the gals mimic a heart attack. And now they have a taste for blood. When Betty gets snitching about their grow room and their general surliness, they turn her beloved Instant Pot — the one she uses for everything from cheesecake to boeuf bourguignon — into the bomb that kills her.
This brings us to the showdown: the moment in which Charlie explains to her enemies how she bested them and hopes she survives it. Usually, this scene annoys me in a way that says more about me as a viewer than the show, which is just doing its best to adapt detective genre tropes to the outlandish situation at hand. (They’re going to attack you! You’ve been here!) This week, though, it was both genuinely hilarious and menacing. It might be the first time I’ve felt Charlie’s been in real peril, tumbling around with women old enough to have knitting needles on hand to weaponize. Charlie takes one to the calf, not to mention a frying pan to the head. To her credit, Charlie effectively uses a blossom of talcum powder in her defense.
The battle royal ends when Charlie tases herself, setting off a vital sign monitor she’s wearing and alerting Billy and Luca to the fact she’s in serious trouble. The Feds storm in on Irene and Joyce, just like they did 50 years ago. This time around, the turncoat is Charlie instead of Gabe. Never trust a fast friend.
Which I guess is advice I’d dispense to Charlie, too. She’s so quick to throw in with the cops, which feels off-brand to me even though she does it every week. This time, Luca gives her his card, tells her she has good instincts (moments after she avoids being incinerated by a golf-cart bomb) and invites her to stay in touch. I guess it all depends on what Sterling Frost Sr. plans to do with Charlie when he finally tracks her down. It might help Charlie somehow to have an FBI flunky on the side, but it seems more likely that two loyal women with a history of standing up to the man could make useful if questionable allies.