Poker Face: Ranking The Episodes Of Rian Johnson And Natasha Lyonne's Mystery Series
SPOILER WARNING! The following article contains major spoilers for the Peacock original series Poker Face. If you have not yet watched the show, continue at your own risk!
There is arguably no bigger name in the mystery genre right now than Rian Johnson. In 2019, the filmmaker dazzled audiences with the release of the critically acclaimed Knives Out, and a few years later he stunned with the hit Netflix follow-up, Glass Onion – but that’s far from all. Collaborating with star/producer/writer Natasha Lyonne, Johnson has also now made one of the best currently-running detective shows on television. The original series Poker Face – a Peacock original – is utterly brilliant, with each chapter centering on a wonderful protagonist in bullshit detector Charlie Cale and featuring stellar acting talent. Now that Season 1 is complete, it can be said that every episode is a scream.
But which is the best of all? That’s not at all an easy question to answer… but we’ve decided that we would take a crack at it anyway. Keeping in mind that there has yet to be a bad episode of Poker Face, we’ve taken on the challenge of ranking all of the individual mysteries we’ve seen thus far on the show. Kicking things off, we’ll start with a great how-done-it tale that just happens to not be as strong as what’s featured in the rest of the series thus far:
10. Episode 3: "The Stall"
By the end, the construction of “The Stall” doesn’t totally click (specifically, Charlie Cale stalling her conversation with Lil Rel Howery’s Taffy doesn’t really have the narrative kick/stakes that it is meant to have), but there is still a lot to love about the episode. It’s full of quirky ideas that quickly helped establish Poker Face’s voice in the first batch of episodes that became available streaming – including the fascist dog and a BBQ chef turned into a vegetarian by Bong Joon-ho’s Okja – but it simply isn't quite as good as the stuff that came before it and after it.
9. Episode 2: "The Night Shift"
Like “The Stall,” “The Night Shift” came out as part of the four-episode launch of Poker Face on Peacock, and it’s certainly an essential part of the show in that it’s the chapter that establishes the series as being episodic narratively and introduces the idea of having high-profile guest stars (namely Oscar-nominee Hong Chau and Cheers legend John Ratzenberger). The middle-of-nowhere setting is wonderful, and while the central crime isn’t as fascinating as what follows on the show, the solve based on the sequential numbering of lottery tickets is smart.
8. Episode 10: "The Hook"
It’s always a tricky thing for any episodic series to execute a more serial-focused story, and that’s the challenge in Poker Face’s Season 1 finale, “The Hook.” Because the episode is tasked with wrapping up the narrative that launched in the pilot (more on that in a bit), the solve of Ron Perlman’s Sterling Frost, Sr. isn’t as clever as what’s featured in the preceding pocket mysteries, but the twist with Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff Legrand is certainly well-earned, and an exciting future is teased with the introduction of Rhea Perlman's Beatrix Hasp (I weirdly hope all of the primary antagonists on the show going forward have the last name “Perlman.”)
7. Episode 4: "Rest In Metal"
“Rest In Metal” is where Poker Face really hits its stride in Season 1, and it comes from the episode featuring both killers with fantastic motives and Charlie Cale demonstrating some impressive skills sniffing them out. The idea of a desperate band being terrified of being screwed over again is a tremendous setup, and the magpie solve is wonderful. Let’s also be real and recognize that while it may be based on the Benson theme song, “Sucker Punch” rocks and is an effective earworm.
6. Episode 7: "The Future Of The Sport"
The genius of Poker Face is that you think you’re getting the full story in the Charlie-less first half of each episode, and then find yourself pleasurably slapped in the face by details that were subtly kept hidden. “The Future Of The Sport” does this incredibly well, starting with the big reveal of the victim’s identity. The mystery does a great job playing with your expectations when introduced to Tim Blake Nelson’s Kyle Owens and Charles Melton’s subtly psychotic Davis McDowell, and I also appreciate that Jasmine Aiyana Garvin’s Katy Owens doesn’t actually die, as a death-less episode is a nice change of pace for the protagonist’s 10-episode journey.
5. Episode 6: "Exit Stage Death"
“Exit Stage Death” finds itself with the middle spot on this list primarily because it features one of the best first halves in Poker Face Season 1, as it delightfully plays with your presumptions regarding who the victim and who the murderer are going to be. The murderous plot by Tim Meadows’ Michael Graves and Ellen Barkin’s Kathleen Townsend to take out Jameela Jamil’s Ava is terrifically wicked, and the twist with Audrey Corsa's surprisingly sociopathic Rebecca is a great cherry on top.
4. Episode 1: "Dead Man's Hand"
History is full of terrific shows that rebounded from mediocre pilots, but Poker Face is not one of those shows. There’s a lot of heavy lifting that’s done – from setting up the basic narrative structure of the series to introducing Charlie Cale’s whole deal – but it’s an effortless and engaging ride that instantly draws you in. The handling of the big exposition is wonderful, as we’re immediately made fascinated by the bullshit detector hero, and it’s law enforcement-less conclusion demonstrates that it doesn’t operate by the same rules as a lot of mystery shows, leaving imaginations running wild about all of the twists and turns to come.
3. Episode 8: "The Orpheus Syndrome"
If I need a laugh at any time during the day, I can now just conjure the image of Charlie Cale’s eye twitching in "The Orpheus Syndrome" as she hears Cherry Jones’ Laura blatantly lie declaring that the deaths of her husband (Tim Russ) and former business partner (Nick Nolte) were not a result of her actions. Natasha Lyonne makes some big stylistic swings in the episode that she both directed and co-wrote (along with Alice Ju), but it’s among the funniest and most thrilling episodes in Poker Face Season 1 and a remarkable tribute to the filmmaking genius of Industrial Light and Magic legend Phil Tippett.
2. Episode 9: "Escape From Shit Mountain"
Given that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Rian Johnson’s lucky charm, having worked with the writer/director on all of his projects since Brick, fans knew it was only a matter of time before the actor made an appearance on Poker Face, and he happens to do so in what is the second best episode. While there are a lot of laughs on the Peacock show, “Escape From Shit Mountain” is one of the scariest and most thrilling as Charlie finds herself as a victim trying to solve her own hit and run while stranded in the Rocky Mountains. The backstory with the missing snowboarder and the dark history between Gordon-Levitt’s Trey Mendez and David Castañeda's Jimmy is layered in perfectly, Stephanie Hsu’s “Mortimer Bernstein” is among the best supporting characters introduced on the series thus far.
1. Episode 5: "Time Of The Monkey"
“Is Charlie going to discover the murder but question whether or not she should reveal it?” That was the first bit of plot prognostication that went through my head watching “Time Of The Monkey” unfold, but it was definitely not the last, as the episode features some of the best and most insane twists in all of Poker Face Season 1. Epatha Merkerson’s Joyce Harris and Judith Light’s Irene Smothers seem like groovy and fun rebels at first glance (even Charlie is fooled), but the revelation that they are some of the scariest characters on the show is spectacular, and their murder plan is one of the best executed in the series thus far. The fact that the conclusion features Charlie battling the senior citizens before ultimately tasing herself to alert help secures the top spot in this ranking.
Poker Face Season 1 is now available to be streamed in its entirety with a Peacock subscription, and there’s never a bad time to rewatch as fans await the release of Season 2, which was confirmed to be in the works in February 2023. If you’re looking for similar shows to watch, check out our Poker Face-based recommendations streaming guide.