This Episode of “Poker Face” Could Have Been Great

Author’s Note: The following contains significant spoilers of Poker Face’s fifth episode, which is available to stream on Peacock

Poker Face is a very good show. I wrote a pretty glowing review of the Natasha Lyonne-starring Peacock series from Rian Johnson last week. It’s well written, well acted, stylish, and has a distinct absurdist sense of humor. I also alluded in that review to a more thorny episode to come: “Time of the Monkey,” the show’s fifth episode, which is now available to stream on Peacock. It’s not that I think the episode is bad enough to undo all the enjoyable things about the show. Truthfully, in isolated aspects, the episode is a thrilling romp! But it also makes some choices that ultimately seem regressive and lazy, particularly when it comes to its depiction of the episode’s “villains” and positions the FBI as the good guys.

Our killers of the week are Irene (Judith Light) and Joyce (S. Epatha Merkerson). Let me just reiterate: Judith! Light! And! S.! Epatha! Merkerson! Their performances here are beyond reproach. In particular, their chemistry dazzles from the very first minute. We meet them in the retirement community where they live, attached at the hip. While the episode isn’t necessarily explicitly queer, their relationship is instantly intimate and lush. They’re so goddamn charming and funny that you’re pretty much rooting for them to murder, which they do, working together quite impressively to kill a man for reasons that become gradually clear. They make use of the required life bands worn by all residents that monitor their heart rates, successfully switching out Irene’s band for the man’s and using a taser to mimic cardiac arrest while wearing his band to cover their tracks. These women are smart.

Charlie’s latest odd job brings her to the retirement community, where she quickly hits it off with Joyce and Irene after being warned they’re bad news. We learn more about the pair as Charlie does. They met while working in anti-establishment, anti-war resistance groups in the 1970s. They also shared a lover, the hunky hippie Gabriel, who they had threesomes with in between protests (c’mon, I’m counting that as them also being paramours). Joyce and Irene’s close friendship is very deeply rooted. Together, they’re survivors of a violent police raid on their movement’s headquarters, which resulted in Joyce being shot in the spine and losing movement in her legs, Joyce and Irene’s thirty-year imprisonment, and Gabriel’s death — or so they think.

When a man named Ben shows up at the retirement community, Irene and Joyce recognize him instantly. Gabriel has returned. At night he comes to them, but when they ask how he survived, he confesses his guilty conscience: He agreed to a deal with FBI in exchange for his freedom and protection. He’s a rat. Irene and Joyce say, through bared teeth, that they forgive him. But in a scene not long before that, they proudly tell Charlie they never forgive.

Charlie’s lie detection abilities lead her to discover a man at Gabriel/Ben’s funeral is actually not his nephew but his FBI case worker for the witness protection program. He balks when she reveals Joyce and Irene live in the community and warns her about them. Joyce and Irene were VERY BAD PEOPLE, he insists. Charlie, at first, resists. But then he tells her what they were plotting when Gabriel sold them out: They were going to bomb a Model United Nations assembly with DIY pressure cooker explosive devices. They were going to mass kill a bunch of teenagers.

Now, I know this show is over-the-top. It veers into borderline surrealist territory sometimes. And it’s often delightful in those more theatrical moments. But making Irene and Joyce into attempted child murderers is just…so stupid! Charlie confronts them about it, and they double down on their plot of the past, saying that they wanted to send a message to “next generation of war criminals.” By making the pair cartoonishly villainous, Poker Face simultaneously condemns anti-establishment direct action by making it seem inherently evil and also forces Charlie to align with the FBI. A plot to bomb a bunch of high schoolers takes all of the teeth out of Irene and Joyce’s beliefs and dulls the characters down.

You’re the assholes,” Charlie concludes. And trust me, I’m all about Joyce and Irene being assholes! But the writing really did not have to go to such great lengths to make them the clear bad guys and to make Charlie turn on them. Because Charlie turning on them also so closely merges her with the FBI. It even seems to retroactively excuse the violent raid on their group and Gabriel’s betrayal. Poker Face feels too smart and imaginative to rely on textbook copaganda like this. There’s nothing complex about Joyce and Irene or their political beliefs. They just become the “domestic terrorists” the FBI paints them as.

It’s not that I expect Poker Face to be radical. I’m just longing for a bit of nuance to Joyce and Irene as characters and devices instead of the black-and-white moralizing the episode falls back on. Wouldn’t it have been a much more interesting story if Charlie were conflicted in her motivations throughout the episode? Instead, Joyce and Irene become her enemies, full stop. There’s no puzzlebox to their interiorities, and that sucks the fun out of the mystery solving, too.

This isn’t Columbo. There’s room for storytelling and characterization beyond boilerplate detective narratives. Poker Face has already proven itself to be surprising and unconventional and even does so occasionally in this episode. But Joyce and Irene go from having this really fascinating, intimate friendship to being caricatures so quickly, and character motivations — Charlie’s included — become distilled into simple, palatable bites. I don’t want Poker Face to feel like just another cop show.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 817 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. It’s very dumb and unsatisfying. And what’s the end result of this episode? They will go from living out the few years they have left in a retirement home to living out the few years they have left in a prison. Why? Who is Charlie helping by putting these old women back in the prison industrial complex? It’s just a dumb story.

  2. Agreed, just finished the episode and my god it was offensive and disappointing. Was loving the Columbo-esque vibes thus far and thought Natasha Lyonne was doing magnificently (I want there to be a Marge show, she was my favorite so far) but how could she agree to be in such backwards ass episode is beyond me. Why the fuck would they make these women into the villains, it’s just so tired and convenient.. and wtf would she help the FBI lol

    • The writing around this oddly pro-police plot also glosses over the fact that the FBI shot up tons of spaces where people *weren’t* planning to blow anyone up in the 1970s, which is a gross way of rewriting the past. I wasn’t expecting the narrative going All Lives Matter on a Natasha Lyonne show! There was an easier way to get her a through line to the FBI. When Charlie says it was more Manson than Hoffman, they could have leaned INTO that in the writing: some annoying white guy helms murderous plots based on his ego more than his politics and then tries to dip out on it would have been more interesting than “these grandmas wanted to kill kids, isn’t that fucked up?” while the FBI had entire programs in the same era devoted to exactly the same thing! Aaaaah it’s such a bummer, this episode.

  3. Cartoonish is right. It’s like they realized they made Joyce and Irene too cool so they pulled back in the worst way. I mean, kid killers? Easiest and most boring way to make them ‘evil’ (which didn’t even work because I still rooted for them get away with it and for Charlie to somehow lose this case tbh). I also really hated how they aligned her with the FBI like that. Joyce says “you’re the cops” to Charlie as they’re fighting, she’s right. I mean, Charlie doesn’t have the badge and yeah, she’s an active fugitive but in all other aspects, especially in this episode, she was A Cop. Super disappointing and underwhelming twist to what was shaping up to be my favorite episode yet. The older actresses were amazing though, I would definitely watch a show about their antics in the home!

    • yeah i keep waiting for Poker Face to subvert its formula to the point of Charlie actually letting someone get away or even helping them get away but if this wasn’t the episode to do that then i don’t think it’s happening lol

    • Right? I agree that the entire plotline was dumb and that making them attempted child-murderers was over the top, and I really would have preferred a more nuanced story where Charlie knew the suspects were guilty but looked the other way because she felt they were justified… but these women were actively murdering people in the present day (including an innocent woman just to cover their tracks). You can’t turn a blind eye to that.

    • You have missed the point. People think this episode should not have been written in the way it was, lionizing the FBI and turning two very interesting and sympathetic characters into cartoon villains to further cheer on the United States grotesque law enforcement and carceral states.

  4. Thank you. Thank you so much for this. I immediately thought of two things. 1. The only group to systematically kill children in terrorist attacks then were white supremacists. and more horrifically 2. Anders Brevik. The ideology of “kill the children of the bourgeoisie” is a right-wing white nationalist transnational phenomenon. It ended with one of the worst mass killings of children in post-war Norwegian history. The writers had to have known both of those things. They knew. They were inspired by Brevik and the KKK for their plot points. How horrible. Despicable.

  5. I found it actually to be a great take because Charlie goes in with the assumption that you hold about the protesters from the decade. I’m not pro FBI by any standard and let’s be clear, the FBI was not the hero of the 60s or 70s but there were actual Left Wing Terrorists groups that were made up of protestors and doing actual harm. You can look up the Weatherman Underground Group. Again, I’m not saying that the FBI were heroes and I’m not sure where that narrative would come from anyway? Most people know that Nixons FBI were a bunch of cronies but history isn’t black and white either. So I thought that twist was fun.

    • I did look up the Weatherman Underground Group. Did you? Destroying memorials, Pentagon infrastructure, intimidating or targeting judges and cops and the military – and sure, many actions with casualties or planned casualties, I won’t whitewash it. But if you can’t see the difference between that and “killing children to send a message to the next generation of war criminals”, then you, my friend, are drinking the copaganda kool-aid.

      This liberal mindset is exactly why the US can’t hold onto abortion laws. Because decades of propaganda have people like you convinced that throwing bricks at the windows of Supreme Court Judge houses is exactly as evil as subjecting millions of people to laws that WILL inevitably cause deaths.

  6. And who are these child murdering domestic terrorizes even based on? The Weather Underground? Did they murder children? I don’t think so. But far-right radicals did. Their names are Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who in 1995 blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City including a daycare. They killed 19 children, 149 adults and ironically, considering the plot in this episode, their target was the FBI. But having a Poker Face episode that dealt with the very real and present threat of far-right extremism and violence would be a little to controversial for Peacock, right?

    • hehe cute. Yes the far right, are the big baddies. haha. Those liberal run left leaning places, and mostly ‘peaceful’ protests, are safe havens for beacons of light! As a black woman during those times, I didnt fear not one single damn nazi or KKK, it was the people looting, and destroying my black owned family business.

      So hush yo dumb mouth!

      I surely as a POC fear the evil far right, they are the big boogey mans…

      Please its the Anti far right, safe spaces, trans idealogy, gender mutilations, microaggression nonsense, white liberals playin saviors after diversity studies I fear more than all these alleged far right extremists, who are somehow worse than actual real Nazis that you in your entire life have never ever ever experienced.

      haha now you weirdos cry about HISTORY, and the real enemies, when hippies, etc are actually shown in a negative light? You cant handle the reverse?

      haha yep let’s stick to white right wing FIGHT THE REAL ENEMY. Yes guard your loans people!

      Gurl, boy, oh sorry gender doesnt exist, Pronoun. BYE

      You’ll live.

  7. To quote Tumblr dot com user kawaiite-mage,

    “the next big Marvel villain is gonna be named “Killworker” or something and his catchphrase is gonna be “workers of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but our chains” and he’s gonna slit a child’s throat as he says it”

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