The devil is in the details: how Charlie plays her cards in Poker Face

By Gen Terblanche11 December 2023

The devil is in the details: how Charlie plays her cards in Poker Face

For his first trick, Rian Johnson revived the eccentric amateur detective vs country house murder mystery tale in the film Knives Out. Now he’s taking that show on the road in Poker Face, with Natasha Lyonne as his eccentric crime buster Charlie Cale, a former gambler-turned-casino waitress and “human lie detector”.

Charlie is forced to flee her job and she wanders down the famed Route 66 meeting strange folk (played by a series of famous people including Big Love star Chloë Sevigny, Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had a cameo role in Knives Out) and uncovering their stranger secrets. Sometimes these folk end up dead, sometimes they’re the killer. Regardless, knowing what she knows, Charlie feels compelled to help. But since she’s not a PI or a cop, the issue comes in with how she’ll get the criminal to expose themselves.  

Watch the trailer for Poker Face

It’s a case-of-the-week series, but instead of a defective detective, we have a charismatic civilian with the Dr Gregory House/Sherlock Holmes-style knack for solving a mystery. It’s Murder, She Poked. 

Binge Poker Face S1 now » 

Poker: a liars’ game 

In poker, you don’t just play the cards and the odds, you play the players. You study them for tells – tiny physical hints that they’re bluffing, or that they have something big in hand that they’re trying to be super casual about. Whole books have been written about how to spot all those little physical signs that a player might not even be aware of, and how to interpret them not in isolation, but as part of a larger pattern of common behaviours – like the quick, confident seeming placing of bets that points to a player with a weak hand wanting to avoid anyone studying them for too long. Or the taunting and irritable behaviour that hints to a player being relaxed enough about their cards to loosen their grip on their emotions.  

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in Poker Face S1 on Showmax
Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale

Even at the upper reaches of the high stakes gambling world, where experienced players are in full control of those minute tells in how they hold their cards or move their chips, there are things you have to hide. Some around the table might even be taking drugs like beta blockers to rein in involuntary stress responses like sweating and increased breathing and heart rate. And some players wear dark glasses to hide the pupil-widening response to seeing something that gives us pleasure.  

This is the world Charlie comes from – where you learn to take in everyone’s physical tells in an instant, or you’ll lose your shirt. Added to that, she’s like a mosquito: tiny, persistent, annoying, and quick to find that little spot where you didn’t realise you were exposed.  

Three ways to tell on yourself 

Here are just three of the “tells” that Charlie spots in the wild, for a peek at how she plays her cards in Poker Face

A gap where the truth should be 

Danielle MacDonald as Mandy in Poker Face S1 on Showmax
Danielle MacDonald as Mandy

Charlie follows her nose in episode 3, which centres on a murder at a barbecue restaurant. Instead of a giant shoe print, her real clues are the things that aren’t there: a beer bottle that doesn’t smell of beer, a radio show that’s missing a certain telling environmental noise, a witness to murder who can’t talk…because it’s a dog, and a man who works at a barbecue place who claims to have no idea where the paprika is (and Charlie knows he’s lying).

It all forms a pattern around a killer who thought they’d perfectly covered their tracks – without realising that the blank spaces are as big a clue as physical evidence left at the scene. Telling blank spaces in recorded footage also come into play in episodes 2 and 8. It’s something that would instantly ring alarm bells for someone who worked in a casino like Charlie did.  

The killer switch 

John Darnielle as Al, Chloë Sevigny as Ruby Ruin, G.K. Umeh as Eskie in Poker Face S2
(From left): John Darnielle as Al, Chloë Sevigny as Ruby Ruin and GK Umeh as Eskie

Episode 4 centres on Charlie becoming a roadie for the one-hit-wonder heavy metal band, Doxxxology, with their lead singer, Ruby Ruin (Chloë Sevigny), and guitarist Al (John Darnielle of the band Mountain Goats, who also worked on writing the songs for the episode). Ruby is famous for her stage outfit, including her red leather corset and metal studded Alexander McQueen pumps.

So when she and the band all mysteriously try out chunky “new” shoes the night of the crime, Charlie’s lie detector goes off. It’s as big a tell as the killer burning the clothes they committed the murder in, and it points to a conspiracy…with one member of the band tellingly left out. Deliberately avoiding something you do, or wear, almost ritualistically on the day that something fishy happens? That’s a huge tell, which also comes up in episode 7.  

The devil in the details 

Jack Alcott as Randy, Angel Desai as Jean, and Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in Poker Face S1 on Showmax
Jack Alcott as Randy, Angel Desai as Jean and Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale

In episode 7, Charlie picks up that someone talking about an “accident” is lying, because the incident that put a racing car driver in a coma was no accident; it was sabotage. But while another driver confesses to the crime, Charlie soon realises that a supposedly innocent driver was rather specific in describing how the car was sabotaged. The guilty party “coincidentally” describes the sabotage, which could be achieved in a few different ways, in exactly the way in which it was achieved.

This is exactly why police leave certain tiny but telling details out when they describe a crime scene in the media – so they can dismiss both false claims that get key details wrong…and snatch up anyone who lets slip their knowledge of an unusual combination of elements where other options would be available.  

Of course a card sharp like Charlie has plenty more tricks up her sleeve for Poker Face’s first 10 episodes. Intrigued? Stream Poker Face on Showmax now.

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