SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from “Poker Face” Episode 5, now streaming on Peacock.
After last week’s four-episode release of Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne’s “Poker Face,” new mystery series Peacock went in a drastically different direction for Episode 5, featuring killers who don’t look like bad guys — until they do . .
Guest-starring Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as Irene Smothers and Joyce Harris, respectively, the episode, titled “Time of the Monkey,” follows two nursing home residents and lifelong ladies with a steady streak of free spirits who become friends with human lie detector Charlie Cale (Lyonne) while she works in their community for her latest on-the-run gig.
“You want her to be friends with these good women and ride or die with them — and instead they break her heart. And it’s really hard for her,” co-host Nora Zuckerman said Variety.
Charlie is totally confused by the women and their stories of sticking it to the man in the past, even when she discovers that they are behind the murder of a new resident in their community. But that’s because he believes he’s the man who led their rebel group and then turned them into feds, leaving Irene paralyzed in the raid. Once she learns that she led the team away because they were planning to bomb a political high school kids, Charlie decides that she can’t abide what her friends have done, or their fatal retribution.
Series creator and director Johnson says he and the “Poker Face” team thought about making this one-of-a-kind case where Charlie gets away with the murder of the week without impeaching the culprits — until she discovers the true nature of her friends, that is — but decided that the time is not yet right for this particular plot.
“That’s always the slightly tantalizing thing, because once you start doing that twist, in it, it’s the killers she’s befriending — especially when they’re as charismatic as Judith and S. Epatha, it leads to that question Johnson said. “And my position has always been, this is not off the table – but this has to be a really special case, which has to be the last resort. Honestly, it was much more interesting to me, the way Natasha plays the scene where she realizes the truth about the ladies. And the idea of thinking you’d found someone to look up to, and then they seriously let you down and being disappointed with them seemed like a much more interesting thing and the place to go.”
The “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion” director also notes that without the twist, you wouldn’t have that devastating battle between Charlie, Irene and Joyce at the end. “It also let us have one of my favorite climaxes in the show,” he said. “I called it the ‘They Live’ match. So the idea that it goes where it goes in the end made me laugh.”
In addition to the stage battle, “Poker Face” co-host Lilla Zuckerman finds the episode especially touching because of the devotion between Irene and Joyce and the way it forces the viewer and Charlie to waver. “Their friendship is so pure, it’s so real and they have so much heart. So when they do something this bad, you’re kind of surprised, but you’re also kind of on their side,” he said. “And I really enjoyed watching Charlie struggle to figure that out. It takes her a long time to accept it, and then the acceptance is heartbreaking for her. And I think there’s a part of her that thinks, should I walk away from this? I think there’s a tension in all of our episodes where it’s like, ‘Charlie, let it go!'”
So why can’t Charlie ever let go?
“Her bow bends toward justice, I guess,” Lyon said. “He just can’t help it. She really can’t stand it, even though it breaks her heart. This character just likes the truth. It was very interesting to play the scene where we are inside the table, and I don’t think we expected it to be emotional either, but there was something with S. Epatha and Judith, they all worked really organically, good work together. It was interesting to see that Charlie really has integrity on this level. He just can’t stand certain things, regardless of the circumstances.”
If Light and Merkerson’s portrayal of an undying female friendship was able to draw you in enough to worry about what’s next for Joyce and Irene, don’t worry too much about their future after they’re arrested for murder.
“Joyce and Irene are icons,” said Nora Zuckerman. “They’re probably in more trouble in jail as we speak.”