DISCLAIMER: This recap of the Poker Face series premiere episode, “Dead Man’s Hand,” contains spoilers. Proceed at your peril.
Welcome, high rollers! Rian Johnson‘s new series, Poker Face, is a barrel of murder mystery fun. “Dead Man’s Hand,” written and directed by Johnson himself, introduces us to Charlie Cale, a cocktail waitress at a casino with a knack for knowing when folks are lying. Natasha Lyonne plays Charlie, and folks, she’s perfect. We’ve already seen Lyonne in action in a similar fashion for Netflix’s Russian Doll, and the wisecracking, gravelly-voiced performer is back at it again. She fits Charlie like a glove.
“Dead Man’s Hand” is a delightful entry into this universe, bursting with Johnson’s trademark clever writing, intrigue and charming characters. I’m usually not a fan of mystery-of-the-week shows, but I love the idea of Natasha Lyonne as a drifter solving new crimes in every episode.
Ready to delve into “Dead Man’s Hand”? Let’s get to it.
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We open with a hotel cleaner at the Frost Casino, Natalie (Dascha Polanco), entering a lavish bedroom suite for routine housekeeping. She stops cold in her tracks when she discovers something shocking on the hotel patron’s laptop. She snaps a photo of it on her phone before departing in a hurry. We see said patron, an older man, emerge from the bathroom. Then, Natalie sneaks away to the stairwell to make a phone call, but the other person doesn’t answer.
Next, Natalie shows Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt) what she found. He escorts her to Sterling Frost, Jr.’s (Adrien Brody) office. He’s the big boss on campus. Sterling agrees that Natalie’s discovery is horrifying. He urges her to head home without clocking out so she can recover from the sight. He’ll take care of this issue. We see him discreetly delete the image from her phone. After she leaves, Cliff, Sterling’s righthand man and security guard, swipes a gun from his safe before departing the casino.
Then, Cliff drives to a shabby little house on the outskirts of town. He shoots one man, Jerry (Michael Reagan), who gets up from his couch to yell at Cliff, thinking he’s there to sell something. Cliff switches off the lights and turns up the volume on Jerry’s TV. Natalie drives home, and her phone lights up in the passenger seat. Charlie’s trying to call her. Natalie enters the house she shares with the man Cliff killed — her husband. Unfortunately, Cliff shoots her, too. He informs Sterling that “it’s done.” Not even 10 minutes in, and we’re already on the murder train!
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Now, we meet Charlie Cale (Lyonne), our protagonist. She hitches a ride from Natalie since they both work at Frost Casino. We’re rewinding a bit for context. When they arrive to clock in, Charlie notices her friend has a nasty bruise on her face courtesy of her abusive husband. Charlie wants Natalie to stay with her from now on.
Charlie works the floor some as a cocktail waitress before she’s ushered into Sterling’s office. She assumes she’s getting fired. We learn Sterling’s father, who owns the casino his son manages, has a history with Charlie. He met her at the poker table and bore witness to her extraordinary gift: she can tell when someone’s lying. Sterling tests her on this and is taken aback at this confirmation. Charlie’s the perfect asset at a casino.
Thus, Sterling delivers a proposition. Charlie helps him fleece one of the casino’s high rollers, a valued customer in his father’s esteem, to the tune of $1.5 million. She can utilize her bullsh*t detector. Then, Charlie can take her cut and disappear without a trace.
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Meanwhile, Natalie’s abusive husband, Jerry, barges into the casino inebriated. Charlie tries to pacify him and asserts Natalie isn’t there while security forces him out. Charlie persuades her best friend to stay with her that night, and Natalie obliges. Later, Sterling introduces his and Charlie’s “Moby Dick” — Kazimir Caine (Eddie Gorodetsky), the rich man whose suite Natalie was in when she found his laptop. Charlie has a singular objection in the form of Sterling’s father, who’ll break more than just her fingers if he catches her using her gift again. Sterling reassures her that no such thing will happen.
Now, we return to the beginning of the episode, wherein Cliff and Sterling dispose of Natalie and Jerry. Charlie waits for Sterling to finish his call. She phones Natalie after noticing a missed call from her. After some convincing on Sterling’s part, Charlie agrees to it. Sterling will set up a game with Caine himself.
Then, Charlie learns the awful news of Natalie’s murder. Right at the outset, Charlie senses something’s amiss. She notices the missed call from Natalie occurred at 7:56 pm the previous night, shortly after the latter discovered the image in Caine’s hotel room. Natalie’s co-worker mentions Natalie’s shift was supposed to end at 9, but Sterling sent her home at 8. The wheels start turning in Charlie’s head. It’s time to solve a mystery.
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Charlie and Sterling prepare for the big game in a suite similar to Caine’s. Sterling hopes to set up cameras in the couch cushions so Charlie can see him while he plays the game. They’ll also have another man onsite who’s on their side. Sterling tries to move the brainstorming session along, but Charlie’s rightfully distracted by her friend’s murder. Sterling consoles her but gently pushes her away from her investigation. Surprisingly, Charlie doesn’t detect that he knows anything (yet). She suggests Sterling place the cameras in the surrounding lamps.
Later, Charlie meets with Sheriff Parker (Noah Segan). She asks to see Natalie’s phone. Perhaps there are texts, emails or photos that can fill in the blanks regarding the murder. Unfortunately, Parker refuses, citing an ongoing investigation into the case. Parker gives her his card before she leaves. The evidence locker bit here made me giggle. Lyonne is a treasure.
Then, Charlie calls Sterling to find another chink in the murder case armor. What about the gun Cliff put in Jerry’s hand? The media touts the event as a murder-suicide, but Charlie believes Jerry is lefthanded. So, why was the gun in his right? Again, Sterling attempts to steer her away from her meddling.
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Next, a friend helps Charlie break into Natalie and Jerry’s home. She finds Natalie’s iPad but cannot unlock it. After attempting to break into it all night, a lightbulb switches on in Charlie’s head. She acquires the combination of Natalie’s locker at work. Thankfully, said combo is the winning ticket. After navigating a plethora of Jerry’s dick pics (a murder of boners), Charlie discovers the photo that led to Natalie’s murder.
She confronts Sterling and Cliff with said photo. Naturally, Sterling realizes Charlie’s on the path to solving the case. However, Charlie believes Caine might be the culprit. After all, Natalie found the image on his laptop. Sterling persuades Charlie to carry out the poker task at hand before turning Caine into the feds. Later, Charlie forgoes drinking her usual breakfast beer for a coffee.
Energized by caffeine, Charlie delivers a rapid-fire monologue to Cliff regarding Jerry’s outburst at the casino. Did Natalie decide not to press charges? Did security only have to escort him out one time? Cliff claims Jerry never returned to the casino, and Charlie can tell he’s not lying. Meanwhile, Sterling makes more preparations for the high-stakes poker game with Caine. Charlie questions Sterling about the phone call he was on before meeting with her the night of Natalie’s murder. She knows he’s bullsh*tting her, but Sterling brushes off her concerns, claiming Cliff calls him 50 times a day.
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It’s the night of the game. Caine is late because he’s out having a long dinner. Charlie also arrives late, much to Sterling’s irritation. Then, she drops the bombshell: she knows Sterling and Cliff murdered Natalie and Jerry. Cliff stole Jerry’s gun and utilized it to commit the crime. Otherwise, why did the metal detector not go off on the day Jerry was booted from the casino? Charlie reveals she didn’t need to contact the police. However, the guy Sterling hired to play with them is making off with their recorded conversations from the prep room as we speak.
Realizing they’ve been had, Sterling and Cliff stew in defeat. Sterling’s father tries to call him. Suddenly, Sterling jumps off the balcony to his death. Cliff starts shooting at Charlie, who takes a bullet in the side. Thankfully, she limps out of the casino undetected and drives away.
Then, Charlie grabs a beer at a pub. She pulls out Sheriff Parker’s bloodstained (her blood) card. She emails the picture from Caine’s laptop to the appropriate authorities, along with the FBI, CIA and Oprah. Hey, Oprah might as well be the highest authority in this land. I’m all for that. Sterling’s father calls Charlie from an unknown number. He already knows about his son’s suicide; in fact, the media knows, too. He threatens to find Charlie, no matter the cost. Thus, she destroys her phone, hops into her car and gets the hell out of dodge.
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I love the vintage feel of Poker Face, from the music and the title card to the vintage-esque color palette. While we’re getting a new case in the next episode, it appears there’ll still be an overarching plot to the season, especially with Cliff Legrand still skulking about and Sterling’s father on the move. Here’s hoping Charlie can evade capture.
On another note, I dig the scenes with Lyonne and Brody. Talk about a competition to see who has the best voice in town.
The first four episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on Peacock, with new episodes streaming every Thursday.
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