"Poker Face" recap - Ep. 3 "The Stall"

So far, "Poker Face" has done a pretty good job of connecting Charlie Cale to various elaborate murders and coverups without making her seem cursed by the Grim Reaper. In fact, this episode points stronger than any so far to the fact that Charlie is just a naturally magnetic person. Not only does she make fast friends with open-hearted people, she also can do it with animals.

But before we bring in Charlie, we must meet Taffy and George Boyle. Two brothers who have combined their very different skills to create a beloved local BBQ hotspot in Texas. George is the talent: he's a pit master with tremendous respect and enthusiasm for his work, combining unusual wood flavors to smoke beef to perfection. Taffy, meanwhile is the mouthpiece of the endeavor. Through his radio talk show and hokey marketing ideas like handing out cinnamon dental floss with every meal, the duded-up rhinestone cowboy knows how to put butts in seats. But Taffy is in over his head with debtors, and desperately needs to sign a corporate deal to put his brother's meat rubs and recipes into mass production. Lil Rel Howery, who you may recognize from Get Out, plays Taffy with the energy of a car salesman. He's likeable, even loveable, but there's a rote precision to his personality that betrays how much of a walking manufactured gimmick he is. Only when confronted about his crimes, or during the desperate minutes he quietly commits them, does the real man emerge. It's yet another character with tremendous depth and a careful portrayal on a show that now specializes in such narrative accomplishments only in the first 15-20 minutes of each episode, before Charlie gets added to the mix.

Naturally, this family business falls into disarray when George suddenly is struck with guilt over the heap of animals he has "murdered," and decides to step away and become vegan. The opening shot of the episode, a cute misdirect, sees him fall to his knees in tears and confessing to murder...only for the audience to realize quickly that this poor guy going through a crisis of spirit is actually the victim. Larry Brown plays George as a man who has mastered not just his craft but his own peace of mind, both before and after his life-altering change. "Poker Face" has made each murder victim sympathetic at the very least, but this one hits harder because of Brown's thoughtful performance.

This being a "how-catch-em," we can put together the story quickly. Taffy is going to kill his brother in order to avoid losing the business. The "how" of it, that's far more elaborate. Taffy goes down as the most clever killer on the show thus far, planning his foul deeds and executing them without a single flaw apart from one tiny detail and one bit of just plain bad luck, both of which we'll get to. Having drugged George only a handful of minutes earlier, he starts his live radio show and quickly plugs in a USB drive with a pre-recorded clip. With sixteen minutes of canned chatter, he simply hits the mute switch on the microphone and sneaks out to George's trailer where he can stage a suicide by asphyxiation, by way of the fumes from the meat smoker. Taffy even has the presence of mind to wash out the drugged beer bottle and use some of his patented dental floss to trigger the inner lock on the trailer door. All good TV killers know that the police take "no forced entry" more seriously than any other clue.

I almost feel like this BBQ suspense thriller could have been a Coen Brothers movie in another timeline. It's shot that atmospheric, leans that heavily on the raw honesty of its characters, and despite the ugliness of humanity on display, it takes enough time to be funny and sweet. Taffy and George's final conversation, that of brothers and partners accepting that their ride together is over, is played wonderfully understated by Brown and Howery. 

But enough about understated performances, Natasha Lyonne has several surprisingly long scenes with just a yappy dog as her scene partner! Charlie's accidental gain of a nippy, mouthy pup who refuses to leave her car is the most cartoonish the show has gotten, but it's easy to forgive because every moment between the two is absolute comedy gold, especially once she finds that the dog only ceases barking when listening to a right-wing conspiracy nut on the radio.

Turns out, after the dog jumps out of the car to sample some BBQ at the Boyle pit, Charlie is forced to work as a server to pay back the cost of the gourmet meats. This is at least several days before George's untimely demise, and sure enough Charlie strikes up a friendship with him. They commiserate over a similarity in their lifestyles; while Charlie lives on the road with a lot of time to sit with herself, George spends almost all his time at his trailer keeping his eyes on his meats. Slow-smoking is a monotonous project, and as George puts it the secret is in the titular "stall," the long period of time when the meat has reached target temperature and has to maintain it. Charlie offers some relief for George's long swaths of time waiting on the stall, in the form of some DVDs floating around in the trunk of her car. 

"You like animals, right?"

It's a truly hilarious piece of irony. Charlie, having only seen the first half of her copy of Bong Joon-Ho's Okja, offers it with the casual review "Eh, it's pretty cute so far." Had she finished the movie, she'd have known that it is a scathing indictment of the meat industry and might get George feeling incredibly guilty about all the animals that have gone to their deaths to create his delicious career. We smash-cut to George stumbling out of his trailer, in tears, and dropping the Okja DVD in the grass. This is our opening scene, and George now believes himself to be a murderer. 

Charlie sees right through Taffy and George's wife Mandy, who planned the crime together. Though our nomad sleuth is not confident she can find "cop proof" that would hold up in court, she makes a good effort to find anything that makes more sense than her new friend killing himself. After all, George had big life-altering plans, and he wasn't lying to her when he said he would see her later.

The big break in Charlie's investigation is the most unlikely smoking gun: the "fascist dog" that got her involved in the first place. Taffy's one piece of bad luck: the dog surprises him during the murder and starts barking up a storm, and so our villain panics and beats the animal into silence with a log from George's smoker. But the pooch survived, and is discovered by Charlie out on the country road where Taffy dumped him. As uncanny as Charlie's lie detector ability is, I'm much more impressed with her knack for following a chain of events via connective tissue. The splinters of wood in the dog's scalp are pecan, the very unusual wood that George was using for meat. Logic dictates that someone attacked the pup for witnessing "malfeasance," a word that Lyonne gets a lot of mileage out of when Charlie confronts Taffy.

While her suspect's motive is perfectly clear, the real obstacle is opportunity. Taffy's radio show is a solid alibi, and so Charlie starts listening to the recording from the night in question and visits the studio. There she meets Austin, a DJ with a background in theater who has been filling dead timeslots with multiple fictional characters including the racist conspiracy weirdo favored by the dog, as well as a smooth jazz cat, a Mexican host flipping Tejano records ("I don't think that one is cool to do anymore," Charlie quips), and even a Julia Childs knockoff. Ever more perceptive than most, she puts together that the long, unbroken sixteen minutes of ranting about how sausage is made could easily be a prerecorded bit. But how to prove that?

Lucky for us, George had recently taught Charlie to reach out with her senses a bit. This is illustrated earlier in the mystery when she determines the type of wood used to pound on the doggo's head by...ew, tasting it and comparing it to every other variant. While a montage of Lyonne licking bits of wood is far more kinetic and funny, the solution to the murder is actually found in what Charlie cannot perceive with her senses. First off, the beer bottle found next to George doesn't smell of poison. It also doesn't smell of beer, which is far more odd. Then comes the recording of Taffy. This is the murderous brother's one fatal tiny detail I mentioned before: his recording lacks the telltale whistle of the nearby train, which blares as regularly as a town clocktower and did in fact go off during Taffy's show. The mute switch on the soundboard prevented it from being picked up. Just as with her tense confrontations with Jed in the last episode, Charlie wastes no time in provoking Taffy and throwing everything she knows at him in a barrage. It's a good little showdown, with Howery doing quite a bit to match Lyonne's intensity.

Like Charlie said, this is hardly "cop proof." But a little help from Austin provides all the evidence the local Sheriff is going to need. Putting his impression of Taffy to use, Austin calls Mandy and coaxes a confession out of her that the murder was all her idea. It's a satisfying moment, again as with "The Night Shift" leaving the villains to stew in their "gotcha" moment without Charlie even needing to stick around to see it. I do worry that every episode of the show so far has something of a lopsided outline. After wrangling a few circumstantial clues that help her piece together the truth, Charlie confronts the villain with about eighty percent of the story, but without enough to seal their fate. Then, the hammer drops on our killer of the week always in a bit of a rush to the credits. "The Stall" at least provides a happy ending for the dog, who lays content at Austin's side as he carries on with the loony "Deep-State Dispatch" show while Charlie drives off into the sunset.

While Ep. 1 was clearly a long place-setting entry, and Ep. 2 was just settling in to the formula, "Poker Face" finally finds its mystery-of-the-week groove with "The Stall." Charlie's connection point to the standalone mystery is both well-crafted and amusing, setting the standard for the rest of the series. The tale of the Boyle brothers succeeds in immediately immersing the audience, which I feel is the real challenge of bringing back this subgenre.  

Episode Grade: A

Stray Notes:

-Beer watch: George is knocked out by an Ambien-laced beer, and understandably no existing beer brand wants their product used as a tool for murder-most-foul on a television show. Thus, the one last cold one the Boyle brothers share together is "Iron Spur," a fake brand from the prop department. However, eagle-eyed viewers can still see a real beer brand in Taffy's office, in the form of stacked up kegs of product-placement partner Heineken.

-The episode has an ongoing theme of sound. The dog is soothed by the sound of a MAGA conspiracy talk show. The villain uses his own radio show to cover his tracks, the victim likens the taste of his barbecue to a symphony for the senses, and ultimately it's a prerecorded confession and the lack of a blaring train whistle that screws the murder conspiracy. It's a great thematic through line.

-George schools Charlie on his craft: "Barbecue means a lot of things in a lot of places. But in Texas, it means beef." And the three animal movies Charlie loans to him that convince him to go vegan are about exceptional pigs. Of course, all Pulp Fiction fans like Charlie know that pigs are far more charming and personable animals.

-The quick cut to Charlie racing to time out Taffy's 16-minute path to murder George, complete with miming beating the unwanted pooch and saying "Fuck you, dog!" is a testament to Lyonne's command of her physicality. 

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