"Poker Face" recap - Ep. 2 "The Night Shift"

Onto the second of four episodes of "Poker Face" that Peacock decided to drop at the same time this week. That's a bit of a puzzling choice. I fully understand the idea behind dropping at least two; "Dead Man's Hand" was more of an Episode 0 with a lot of stage setting for Natasha Lyonne's wandering detective schtick. To really get a sense for how the show will function, this episode is the first proper adventure. But I bet when the season ends, I'm going to be pointing fingers at the Universal-owned streamer for not stretching it out further. I can tell I'm going to have to rewatch these over and over like I used to with "Magnum P.I." and "The Rockford Files" during long summers of daytime TV in my youth.

The isolation of working nights, the graveyard shift, vampire hours, it can weigh on a person's mind. It makes their world feel small and largely unpopulated. In "The Night Shift," we see immediately how several folks cope with it. Damian, a former US Marine, strives to put his relentless positivity out into the world via his TikTok, where he hilariously concocts off-menu sandwiches during his shift at the all-night Subway. Jed, meanwhile, climbs atop his uncle's car repair shop every night where he feels "like a God," drinks a lot of beer, and obsessively watches the only lady in his immediate vicinity, Sara, as she works her own shift in the Mini Mart. It's one part Rear Window, two parts John Carpenter's best segment of Body Bags.

So, naturally, when Damian comes up to the roof to confront Jed, a confrontation is inevitable. Not only because Damian and Sara appear to at least be on the outskirts of a relationship, but because Damian's spidey-sense is tingling. Insisting Jed might be potentially dangerous, he hides a sandwich knife on himself before heading up. Unexpectedly, the confrontation is far more empathetic and reasonable. Damian gently talks Jed through his feelings of hopelessness and failing to meet his potential, and within a few minutes it feels as though they understand each other a little better. That is, until Damian realizes his daily scratch-off lotto ticket is a winner, at which point Jed dispassionately pushes him off the roof. Colton Haynes is one of two MVPs in this episode as Jed, putting so much genuine pain and resentment into the character that make him a fully fleshed-out person capable of such a senseless murder, and yet also equally capable of the genuinely clever cover-up. It's a very raw and bracing performance, but what really makes it shine is how assured Jed is of his own intelligence, like a real classic murder mystery villain.

Jed routinely turns off the security cameras at the garage in order to get away with his rooftop sojourns, and luckily they don't capture Damian's fall or the savage bludgeoning that follows for good measure. So, he swiftly carries his victim to a nearby eighteen-wheeler, busts into the cargo box, and deposits the body. He even returns Damian's discarded Subway apron back to its hook in the sandwich shop, brazenly snagging a slice of meat on his way out. The way he backs in and out of doors without touching them, the use of sandwich artist gloves to hide his prints, one might think Jed had some previous thought about how he might commit this crime. It's almost more methodical and smart than Cliff's murder in "Dead Man's Hand." But then, the true stroke of luck and genius occurs when the trucker investigates their load and finds the bloody evidence. Panicking, the driver swings the truck into the garage parking lot, then carries Damian to a nearby dumpster, all just in time for Jed to flip the cameras back on and capture the conveniently incriminating footage.

Meanwhile, Charlie has been on the run for less than a week and things are looking pretty dire for her. Her car has broken down at a dusty truck stop crossroads in New Mexico, she's still bleeding through her shirt from the gunshot wound suffered at the wrath of Cliff the casino goon, and she's starting to realize just how hard it is to live off the grid. Very few people deal only in cash anymore, and even fewer offer assistance just out of the kindness of their hearts. Lucky for our human lie detector, she does draw the empathy of Marge, a long haul trucker who superglues her back together and schools her in the basics of becoming an invisible wanderer of the American landscape. 

Hong Chau--as of this last week Academy Award Nominee Hong Chau for her role in Darren Aronofsky's The Whale--is my other MVP of the episode as oddball Marge. The prickly, no-nonsense introvert with a cowboy murmur is so far away from the actor's breakout roles in Downsizing, The Menu, and HBO's "Watchmen" series, and it showcases a third type of "Night Shift" isolation in complete contrast to Damian and Jed: Marge is perversely comfortable with her lack of connection to people. Credited episode writer Alice Ju slyly has Marge flip on an audiobook about Buddhist philosophy, and ambivalently make sure that Charlie doesn't want to hook up with her in the sleeper cab. It's such a big and outlandish character that Natasha Lyonne leans wisely into Charlie's "fuck it" attitude and doesn't try to match Chau for quirky energy. I'd honestly watch a buddy comedy feature of this.

But by morning, the penny drops: Marge is the very trucker who discovered Damian and has now been arrested for his murder. And meanwhile, Jed has bought himself an identical scratch-it and pantomimed his way to claiming Damian's money.

The pilot episode also opted for this same split timeline format, showing first the murder and then flashing back to Charlie's coincidental entrance point into the story some time earlier. We then chop back and forth occasionally, between her investigation and back in time to her interactions with Damian and Marge, whenever information or character development from that time becomes relevant. I wonder if the first episode's nod to Pulp Fiction (Charlie and Natalie watch it on a tablet in her trailer) is a signal that this is how every episode is structured, much like the 1994 classic. I think it's a perfectly good narrative device, even if a lack of visual cues makes it hard to parse for a minute each time.

Charlie being Charlie, she can see right through Jed's excuse for a cut on his leg--Damian's final act with his Subway knife--and finds the young mechanic's sudden windfall of $25,000 from a scratch-it highly fishy. Not to mention that Marge doesn't seem the "bludgeoning a Marine to death" type. Unfortunately, she's in a bit of a hurry, having had to withdraw money from an ATM to cover her repairs. Per Marge, she has about four hours until her casino demons catch up with her, assuming they have someone watching her cards for pings. Charlie setting a 4-hour timer on her watch in order to give the episode a literal ticking clock is a bit on the nose, but I get it. Without the ticking clock, she could hang around and investigate for days or weeks. And the show doesn't work as well without the specter of Benjamin Bratt hot on her heels.

After finding a few circumstantial bits of evidence, Charlie zeroes in on a motive when she confirms the telltale scratcher's sequential serial number times its purchase before Damian's death. The only bit left is a smoking gun piece of evidence. Luckily, Marge showed her the life of a trucker, including the ever-vigilant dash cam. After being fairly laid back for the episode, Lyonne's comedic style comes alive when she must track down the truck that was aimed directly at Jed's misdeeds. While "locker" was the word giving Charlie trouble last time, here she cannot accurately describe, draw, or conjure the word for the fox logo on the side of the truck, and her mounting frustration (and everyone in the diner's attempts to guess the animal, including such choices as "capybara") got me so hard.

The pieces fall into place so swiftly after that, I scarcely can remember after the fact how the denouement plays out. The trucker with the fox logo--"fucking Pickleback" on the CB waves--is never actually brought into the scene. Instead, Charlie quickly enlists the truckstop denizens to track him down and get his dash cam footage to the cops. She escapes town just as Cliff has arrived to track her card usage, and doesn't even see the cops arrive to arrest Jed...just as he burns the incriminating scratcher ticket. That's fine by Charlie. It seems she doesn't have a passion for seeing justice done so much as returning the favor to Marge, who we also never see again. It's a messy pacing to the resolution, but it fits Charlie's need to flee back onto the road, and it sets up that this particular gumshoe doesn't need to stick around to look her adversaries in the eyes as they get snared. She doesn't have the luxury.

Episode Grade: A

 Stray Notes:

-Beer watch: After Charlie's Coors and Heinies in the previous episode, the next tasty beverage on display is Jed's constant stream of glass-bottled Shiner Bock. It's kind of like a darker American lager, a little more flavorful than your basic Coors or Bud, and it's brewed in Southeast Texas. 

-Conspicuously, it's Jed who first calls "Bullshit" in this episode, though it is shaping up to be Charlie Cale's version of Columbo's "Just one last question." Not exactly as meme-friendly, but it's certainly on-point for Lyonne as a catchphrase.

-Charlie's outfit is absolute fire in this episode, a real Johnny Cash black-on-black, classy number with a Western-style concho belt. For someone who lives out of her car and was recently shot and superglued back up, she looks terrific.

-Little details, such as Sara's collection of 50 States quarters that Damian routinely borrows to scratch his lotto ticket every night, Marge's suction-cup toiletry bag, or Jed's uncle Abe delaying Charlie's car repairs so he can catch "Top Chef" live...these are the bits that make "Poker Face" really sing for me. It's a master class in building very real and relatable characters in quick bursts of screen time so as not to bog down the episode with a lot of expository dialogue.

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