Every Poker Face Episode, Ranked

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Every Poker Face Episode, Ranked

Remember when TV shows had individual episodes that told contained stories? While still common on primetime, it’s a foreign phenomenon in the streaming era. That’s what makes Poker Face such a breath of fresh air. The howcatchem mystery show created by Rian Johnson features a case of the week format that gives each episode a tiny glimpse into the complex lives of a whole new group of people in a new place. Nastasha Lyonne shines as a dirtbag Columbo bouncing between odd jobs while utilizing her gift/curse for identifying lies to solve the frequent murders that take place around her.

Poker Face’s stellar first season has established the show as exactly what our TV portfolios have been missing. So while we wait for the next installment of Charlie Cale adventures, let’s go through and rank the best of Season 1 had to offer.

10. “Exit Stage Death”

Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows shine as two former co-stars and perpetual enemies who reunite for an overly dramatic dinner theater play. The episode has a great setting, and writer Chris Downey well exploits just how bad a play called The Ghosts of Pensacola would be. But “Exit Stage Death’s” mystery and character portraits just aren’t as strong as some of Poker Face’s other offerings.


9. “The Future of the Sport”

This episode was the first to break the mold of “person is killed” that the previous 6 installments perpetuated. Tim Blake Nelson is the perfect type of under-utilized actor for Poker Face, and Charles Melton gets to show some of his acting chops outside of Riverdale for once. “The Future of the Sport” is a great addition that sets up a layered rivalry between families that deserved just a bit more exploration.


8. “Time of the Monkey”

Irene and Joyce are everything this episode needs. Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson are some of the best characters Poker Face features. Their relationship with Charlie and playful rebelliousness work so well that the reveal that these counter culture revolutionaries were actually aspiring domestic terrorists twists the entire episode on its head. The episode is ultimately a bit messier than others, but you can’t deny it’s a memorable ride.


7. “Rest in Metal”

A one-hit-wonder washed up metal band led by Chloe Sevigny and featuring The Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle? Sounds good to me! The songs (written by Darnielle) are a highlight alongside Nicholas Crillo’s profoundly empathetic performance as the doomed salt-of-the-earth drummer Gavin. The Charlie job reveal is also one of the best of the series: she’s the merch girl from “Merch Girl!” But my favorite little aspect of “Rest in Metal” is including how horrible YouTube prank shows are. I hope Krampus gets punched many more times during their tour.


6. “The Hook”

“The Hook” is a solid end of one road for Charlie Cale. Briefly featured characters played by Ron Perlman and Benjamin Bratt finally get the chance to shine in the satisfying conclusion. Bratt especially does a lot of great work, from reciting the lyrics to “Hook” by Blues Traveler in the most ominous way possible to a great monologue about secretly hating your boss. Lyonne’s scenes with Clea Duvall are fantastic, the two are natural scene partners and Duvall’s dissection of Charlie’s character completely twists the show. A woman who’s kind to strangers but a stranger to family? It’s a perfect way to elevate Charlie for Season 2. There’s less room for humor with so much to wrap up in one episode (save for a surprisingly helpful penis ring and a classic drunk girl crying bit) but “The Hook” doesn’t miss it much.


5. “Dead Man’s Hand”

Pilot episodes are hard. “Dead Man’s Hand” is doing a lot of heavy lifting to set up Poker Face’s conceit and central character. But the episode mostly succeeds, leaning into the characterization of Charlie as a woman too clever for her own good, distracting herself by being a little chronically online. Adrien Brody fits perfectly in the role of a ruthless casino boss who’s also scared of his daddy. “Dead Man’s Hand” introduces the concept of a human lie detector with humor and clear rules while setting up the thematic and story stakes of the rest of the season. Charlie is a lucky winner on the run; how long can her gift/curse keep her alive this time?


4. “The Stall”

As an obsessive barbecue fan, it didn’t take much for “The Stall” to get me hooked. Add in an asshole dog who loves racist radio hosts, and a life-changing viewing of Okja and you have a stellar Poker Face episode. The reveal of Taffy Boyle and Mandy’s secret love affair is a great twist (a better version of the same thing in “Exit Stage Death”). The construction of this small town connected by a creative and bored radio DJ makes every second of “The Stall” burst with flavor. Poker Face shines when it shows a detailed slice of American life and “The Stall” is the show at its funniest, cleverest, and most fun.


3. “The Night Shift”

I might be in the minority in thinking “The Night Shift” is spectacular. Every character comes to life: the instantly likable aspiring sandwich influencer, the horrifying depths of a man who believes he deserves better than life has dealt him, and the always wonderful Hong Chau knocking it out of the park in her role as a perpetual trucker who’s a perfect mix of strange and endearing. “The Night Shift” is also a great exercise in using a space to develop relationships and tension, the interconnected lives of those in a small rest stop in Nowhere USA are compelling to anyone who’s ever taken a long drive and wondered “what happens here?” The countdown to Cliff’s arrival pushes the episode into high gear as Charlie zips between three locations trying to prove a random woman’s innocence with her own safety on the line. Add some of Poker Face’s most clever mystery solving, and “The Night Shift” becomes a highlight of the series.


2. “Escape from Shit Mountain”

Where there’s Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt can’t be far behind. “Escape from Shit Mountain” is a terrifying look at the callousness of the super rich. The episode breaks Poker Face’s mold and puts Charlie in the victim’s shoes. The tiny cast trapped in a weirdly homey spooky motel makes the most of the setting and escalating the tension. Stephanie Hsu is great, but Gordon-Levitt and David Castañeda are the true stars of the episode. “Escape from Shit Mountain” pushes Poker Face into its conclusion while never losing sight of the strange characters who might not make it through the night. It’s also a cautionary tale to anyone who meets a hot guy in a beautiful place: wait until winter comes.


1. “The Orpheus Syndrome”

“The Orpheus Syndrome” is the episode of Poker Face that absolutely blew me away. Natasha Lyonne’s turn in the director’s chair produces some of the most visually alluring TV I’ve seen in a while. Grainy, colorful, and tinted by a hazy past, “The Orpheus Syndrome” is the Hitchcock meets B movie creature feature I didn’t know I wanted. So much of what’s great about Poker Face is the fact you’re only seeing a small glimpse of these characters at a brief point in time. Nick Nolte and Cherry Jones are outstanding portraits of two fascinating people at the very end of their lives. Charlie takes a larger back seat than usual but it works in service of an intricate twisty tale of artistry, guilt, and legacy. “The Orpheus Syndrome” succeeds as both a great episode of Poker Face and a beautifully crafted statement on the casual cruelty of the film industry and how far one will go in the name of their interpretation of art. It’s wholly original and exactly the kind of TV episode that makes you excited to see what else the creative team can make next.

Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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