Rian Johnson brings his cinematic magic to the small screen in “Dead Man’s Hand.” It’s another intricate, clever script from the crime maestro as he introduces viewers to Charlie Cale’s origin story. This superb setup with a unique hook elevates Poker Face above the other shows in the genre.
We recap the Peacock series Poker Face Season 1 Episode 1, “Dead Man’s Hand,” which contains spoilers.
Rian Johnson is a clever man, if you’ve seen any of his films, especially his Knives Out murder mysteries, then you will be fully aware of the director’s intricate plotting and perfectly sculpted whodunits. Johnson swaps Benoit Blanc and big-screen cinema for a more personable, small-scale approach, bringing his first original series to Peacock. This case-of-the-week style detective show introduces viewers to Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, with “Dead Man’s Hand” working as her origin story.
Poker Face Season 1 Episode 1 Recap
Poker Face opens with casino maid Natalie Hill (Dascha Polanco) entering the high roller’s suite, where she discovers a horrifying image on an open laptop screen. The audience are never shown this image, but we understand it is a revolting, illegal endeavor nevertheless. Natalie takes a photograph of this heinous crime and goes straight to Cliff (Benjamin Bratt), the head of the casino’s security. Cliff takes this information to his boss, the casino’s new owner Sterling Frost Jr. played by Adrien Brody.
Sterling Frost Jr. deletes the incriminating evidence and lies to Natalie, telling her that they will sort this out and contact the FBI immediately, before sending her home. Sterling isn’t going to have one of his top players, wealthy businessman Kazimir Caine arrested on his watch though. Instead, he orders Cliff to go and silence the maid. Cliff drives to Natalie’s home, where he shoots the maid and her husband. He frames it so it looks like Jerry shot his wife and then himself. So, there’s our murder setup, but where is our intrepid investigator?
Introducing Charlie Cale, who isn’t a detective or a private investigator, but a cocktail waitress, working at the same casino as Natalie. The series rewinds back to before the murders, with Natalie driving her co-worker to Frost’s Casino. A quick montage illustrates how charming and well-loved Charlie is, as she schmoozes customers and laughs with her colleagues. It’s also made painfully apparent that she cares dearly about her friend Natalie, who will soon be brutally murdered.
Charlie is sent to meet with casino boss Sterling Frost Jr, and she assumes she is about to be fired. Here’s where Rian Johnson unveils Charlie’s superpower, which separates her from the other detectives in the genre. Sterling Frost Jr has taken over the casino business from his father and after three months on the job, his father has finally updated him on Charlie’s gift. She can tell when anyone is lying. She used this power to her obvious advantage, winning many poker games on an unbeatable streak years previously, but Sterling’s father figured her out and told all the other casinos, essentially blackballing her from ever gambling again. Sterling Frost Jr wants to utilize this gift and make her rich in the process.
The new boss proposes a plan to fleece high roller Caine. The oil rig tycoon has been spending less and less in his casino over the last few months and they have discovered that he’s been running secret games on their property. Sterling Frost Jr wants Charlie to con him out of his hard-earned money at one of these private poker games, to teach him a lesson. Charlie agrees to the deal, but on hearing of Natalie’s death, her mind wanders elsewhere. The human lie detector thinks something is off with Natalie’s death and she starts to investigate things further.
It’s a devilishly clever setup, Charlie knows something is amiss with Natalie’s death and she starts to poke holes in the case. She verbalizes her concerns with the actual murderers, but they need Charlie alive. They can’t silence her until she has bested Caine. It is a complex, yet clever plot device that Johnson uses for the utmost tension. Charlie then pays the County Sheriff a visit, played by Rian Johnson regular Noah Segan (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery). And here she spies a crime-scene photograph of Jerry holding the gun in his right hand, but she knows he was a lefty.
Next, Charlie breaks into Natalie’s home and steals her tablet. Eventually, she cracks the passcode and finds the incriminating photograph in Natalie’s recently deleted folder. Naively, Charlie takes this straight to Sterling. Again, he agrees to take it to the FBI, but first, he wants Charlie to compete in the poker match. Further clues come to Charlie that day, she sees Natalie’s husband Jerry on the news, where the drunk is escorted off the casino premises, without his gun. Charlie’s suspicions grow, and she starts to realize the perilous situation she is caught up in, now deciding to keep her cards closer to her chest.
Cliff installs hidden cameras in Caine’s suite. Then Sterling explains the setup, Charlie will watch the poker game from a distance and communicate with her player via a clicker system. On the day of the match, Caine is delayed though and Charlie arrives twenty minutes late, to Sterling’s frustration. Charlie comes outright and states that Sterling killed Natalie. She’s pieced together all the clues and figured it out. Sterling remains criminally silent on the matter. Charlie shows him the news footage, but Sterling isn’t fazed. He owns this town, he owns the police, and there’s very little evidence to go on anyway.
Viewers may start to ponder Charlie’s next move. I wondered if she was recording the whole conversation myself and Sterling thinks likewise, but she isn’t. Charlie admits that she did however record an earlier conversation when they discussed rigging the hidden cameras. Sterling says there is nothing illegal in that, which is true. But Charlie didn’t take the recording to the police, no, she showed it to Caine instead. Caine passed on the information to all his fellow high-rollers. Sterling is now blackballed by all the wealthy players. In a shocking twist, Sterling admits defeat and jumps off his balcony, committing suicide in gripping fashion.
This may be justice of some kind, but the fight isn’t over. Cliff chases after Charlie and she runs into the hallway as he shoots at her. She manages to escape though and passes the incriminating evidence on to Sheriff Parker, the FBI, and even Oprah (why not?). In the final moments of the premiere, Mr. Sterling Frost Sr. himself calls Charlie up. He threatens her, stating that he will find her, hit her where it hurts, and then eventually kill her. Charlie hangs up and destroys her phone. Is she going to live a life on the run or has the human lie detector got other plans?
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