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.