DISCLAIMER: This recap of Poker Face Season 1 Episode 6, “Exit Stage Death,” contains spoilers. Proceed at your peril.
Welcome back, drifters! Episode six of Poker Face is a damn delight (as they’ve all been). Ellen Barkin is a force of unadulterated nature. I want to be her when I grow up. Her performance is all piss and vinegar with a dash of soul-baring vulnerability. Kudos to Poker Face for snagging these brilliantly gifted guest stars.
“Exit Stage Death,” written by Chris Downey and directed by Ben Sinclair, cleverly plants a few red herrings in its first half while pushing the limits of its tension-filled narrative. I genuinely didn’t see those plot twists coming. The story itself is gripping and immersive. Before we figured out that Kathleen and Michael were the murderers, I waited with bated breath to see who would kick the bucket onstage. Talk about building suspense.
Ready to delve into “Exit Stage Death”? Let’s get to it.
We open with Kathleen (Barkin) pulling up to a lavish home in the countryside. When she enters said home, she sees a shrine to days gone by — magazine covers and photos from her time on Spooky and the Cop, where she starred opposite Michael Graves (Tim Meadows). Kathleen finds Michael lounging poolside with his wife, Ava (Jameela Jamil). Kathleen and Michael starred in a series that took the small screen by storm three decades ago and have remained bitter rivals ever since.
However, now Kathleen wants Michael to headline a production of Ghosts of Pensacola with her for one night only. Initially, Michael refuses, claiming he doesn’t want to work with her again. After she storms off in a rage, hurling expletives as she goes, Ava persuades Michael to take the job. He needs a project to revitalize his love of acting. But first, he must take his medication before his blood pressure shoots through the roof.
Three weeks later, Michael and Kathleen are chest deep in rehearsals. Rebecca (Audrey Corsa), who plays their daughter in the play, sits onstage with her script. Michael is dangerously close to quitting, no thanks to Kathleen’s stage diva antics. She also chews Rebecca a new one for not being off-book. Kathleen urges the stage manager Phil (Chris McKinney) — who she calls “Bill” — to ensure the trapdoor is ready for her big final moment in the play. Phil states that nobody uses trapdoors anymore because they’re a safety hazard, but Kathleen insists on it.
Then, the trio is in dress rehearsal, with opening night looming large. Kathleen and Michael argue over the latter not hitting his mark onstage. The pair continues loudly arguing for all to see. Meadows and Barkin make for excellent verbal sparring partners. When opening night rolls around, Ava pops backstage to offer a “break a leg” for her husband. Kathleen pulls her aside and thanks her for convincing Michael to do the play. Ava claims she only did it to turn Michael off from acting once and for all. Insidious!
Next, the show starts, and it seems like Kathleen and Michael might get through the night without erupting into vitriolic squabbling. However, during Rebecca’s monologue, both actors exit the stage to carry out their twisted acts of fatal revenge. Michael replaces the lock to the trapdoor with a sliver of dry ice. Meanwhile, Kathleen tampers with one of the lights above the stage. Both spew scathing insults at the other while their microphones are still on. The editing for this scene is brilliant.
Then, the moments of truth arrive: Michael watches nervously while Kathleen hovers around the trapdoor. Nothing happens. Kathleen observes anxiously while Michael stands underneath the loose light fixture. It eventually falls, but someone shouts, “Watch out!” so Michael narrowly misses it. He does collapse, though. The event triggers a heart attack. Ava grabs his heart medication and runs onstage. Unfortunately, the trapdoor opens beneath her feet. She smacks her head on the side of the trapdoor frame while falling to her death. Plot twist!
After witnessing the traumatic death of his wife, Michael sits down with the police to give a statement. Ostensibly, Michael and Kathleen set these traps to kill the other, and Ava became collateral damage. However, when the cop departs Michael’s dressing room, Kathleen enters to praise his “performance.” Then, the two proceed to make out. This was their plan all along. Now, they can be together. It’s a plot twist to the plot twist!
Again, I love the editing in this episode — the seamless transition from Michael sweeping everything off his dressing room table to someone throwing trash away in a dumpster is perfection. We see Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) getting fired from her current waitressing job. Phil witnesses it all and offers her a job at the dinner theater. She’ll get paid cash with no questions asked.
Next, Charlie starts her new gig. She meanders between tables of dinner theater attendees and refills beverages while watching a theatrical horror take place onstage. It’s a musical about Benjamin Franklin in the style of Hamilton. The abject horror. She puts her headphones in to drown out the noise. Later, once we catch up to the Ghosts of Pensacola dress rehearsal, Charlie makes the mistake of loading ice during Kathleen’s monologue.
Kathleen confronts Charlie in the kitchen, claiming the latter essentially committed theatrical sacrilege by interrupting her monologue. As the Resident Truth Detector, Charlie calls Kathleen out on her bullsh*t. She doesn’t believe a word Kathleen says on that stage. Where was Charlie in my acting classes? Charlie expects to get the boot, but Kathleen thanks her profusely for giving it to her straight. It’s the fuel Kathleen needs to dole out her best work yet.
Next, it’s showtime. Ava asks Kathleen to ensure no one sees the bottom of her wine glass. Keep those pours coming. Then, Charlie witnesses Ava’s tragic death. Asleep underneath the stage, Phil wakes abruptly when Ava falls through the trapdoor. After the event, Charlie consoles a distraught Phil. reassuring him that he’s not to blame for Ava’s death. He claims if the police checked his thermos, they’d find alcohol. He blames himself for falling asleep but insists he double-checked the trapdoor to ensure its safety. Someone must’ve tampered with it. Hm…
Meanwhile, Michael and Kathleen celebrate their victory. With Ava out of the way, they can begin their life together. They’ll orchestrate a grand comeback for their dwindling careers, and Ghosts of Pensacola will serve as the spark that reignites said careers. That’s why Kathleen believes they should put on an encore show.
Later, we see Charlie and the crew preparing for another show. Charlie wonders aloud why any doctor would sign off on Michael performing the day after he had a heart attack. Unless he faked it. Charlie also finds it strange he would want to perform so soon after his wife’s death. Our Columbo begins piecing together the mystery. Then, Rebecca confronts Michael and Kathleen. She claims she knows what happened, that they hurried off during her monologue to plan Ava’s murder. It doesn’t help their case that they played out the plot of “Exit Stage Death,” an episode of Spooky and the Cop. She names her price: $5 million for her silence. It must be in her bank account by the end of the show. Otherwise, she’ll go to the police.
After Rebecca departs, Michael asserts they should pay her off, while Kathleen believes it might be time to add another body to their list of kills. Kathleen stares at her dog’s peanut butter treats. If you recall, earlier in the episode, Rebecca mentions she’s deathly allergic to peanut butter. Even being near it will send her into anaphylactic shock. Meanwhile, Charlie and a stagehand look over a pre-show checklist. Charlie finds the one Phil used from the night before and notices he checked off every box. He was telling the truth about checking the trapdoor. She tries to send Phil a text but said stagehand yanks the phone out of her hands.
Next, Charlie informs Kathleen about her findings. She believes Michael and his wife were trying to kill Kathleen. Obviously, the plan backfired significantly. Kathleen, ever the consummate actress, plays along with Charlie’s theory. She insists it was merely a tragic accident. Why didn’t the trapdoor open when Kathleen herself trod over it repeatedly?
Then, Charlie and the stagehand (now stage manager) watch the camera footage from that fateful performance. Charlie notices smoke from dry ice escaping through the cracks around the trapdoor. Suspicious. She picks up a sliver of dry ice to test it out, but naturally, it burns her hand. Another stagehand urges Charlie to steer clear of the tape line on the ground. If she crosses it, that means she’s onstage and in the play.
Charlie tries to get Kathleen’s attention. She ducks outside the set, near a window where Kathleen stands to deliver some dialogue. She attempts to persuade Kathleen to get off the stage. I love this moment, as it shows Barkin’s ability to multitask as a talented performer. When Michael approaches that same window, cigarette in hand, Charlie grabs that hand and examines his palm. She notices he has the same burn marks as she does from the dry ice. Uh-oh.
Not to be shooed away, Charlie attempts to convince Kathleen again by chatting with her in the stage refrigerator. She reveals the burn marks she found on Michael’s palm. He’s trying to kill her. However, Kathleen refuses to leave. Charlie spots red feathers flowing in the breeze above her head. She ventures up to the light fixtures where Kathleen was the night before to tamper with that light. The red feathers are from Kathleen’s slippers. Charlie listens while the pair, as their characters, declare their love for one another. She knows this is the truth. They notice those red feathers flow down from the light fixtures to land onstage. Then, they spot Charlie looming above them.
Charlie tries to get Rebecca on her side, presenting a new theory regarding Michael and Kathleen — they killed Ava together during Rebecca’s monologue. Rebecca refuses to entertain Charlie’s suspicions. Charlie discovers a playbill in Rebecca’s coat with the bottom torn off. She wanders into Kathleen’s dressing room to find the rest of said playbill, with Rebecca’s $5 million demand as the price of her silence. Rebecca was merely trying to cover up her knowledge of the incident should the lovebirds fail to pay her.
Next, Charlie spots the bag of peanut butter dog treats. It all clicks: Kathleen and Michael will try to murder Rebecca to cover their tracks. Sure enough, Kathleen mixed the peanut butter treats with the snack Rebecca’s supposed to eat onstage. Unfortunately, Rebecca’s sitting with the bowl of snacks already. Charlie rushes onstage and slaps the food out of Rebecca’s hand. Now, our gal’s in the play. Charlie, on the spot, improvises some lines about being the Ghost of Pensacola and delivers veiled words about what she knows regarding the murder, along with how Michael and Kathleen tried to kill Rebecca. I love Lyonne in this scene.
During Rebecca’s monologue, Kathleen and Michael flee to Kathleen’s dressing room. Charlie knows the truth. Michael scolds Kathleen for attempting to murder Rebecca without consulting him. They remove their microphones to talk extensively about Ava’s death. Unfortunately, they fail to notice the live microphone concealed underneath Kathleen’s wig. Charlie made it look like Kathleen’s dog. We see Charlie with said dog out in the audience. Oh, and there are also police officers in the audience with listening devices who hear what’s essentially Michael and Kathleen’s confession.
They’re screwed. Kathleen urges Michael to “use it” for their performances. Channel that anxiety and paranoia to give the greatest performances of their careers. The play continues. We see law enforcement circle the stage, but Kathleen dives headfirst into a breathtaking monologue. Charlie looks particularly moved by it. Then, Kathleen ends a stunning performance with her big trapdoor moment. She jumps through it as dry ice rises around her, making her the true Ghost of Pensacola. Fade to black!
I’ll never tire of watching Natasha Lyonne solve mysteries. This whodunit has me in a chokehold, and I hope Peacock considers renewing this Rian Johnson vintage-infused masterpiece. It’s charming, entertaining and engrossing. Plus, the performances are stellar across the board.
Do you think Charlie can stay perpetually on the run, or will Cliff Legrand and Sterling Frost Sr. outrun her? Only time (and more episodes) will tell.
Poker Face drops new episodes every Thursday on Peacock.