Poker Face S1E9 Recap: “Escape From Shit Mountain” Breaks Free for a Thrill Ride

Morty looking over her shoulder at Charlie as Charlie drives a car, with snow outside the window

 The following recap contains spoilers for Poker Face, S1E9, “Escape From Shit Mountain” (written by  Nora & Lilla Zuckerman, and directed by Rian Johnson)

For the penultimate episode, Poker Face pulls out all the stops with a dark, moody, psychologically-intense thriller. “Escape From Shit Mountain” takes all of the beats of the show and takes them to a much darker place, without losing any of the entertainment value. Poker Face usually gives us fun times and excitement, with the occasional murder, but this episode creates a more intense experience, and everyone involved delivers incredible work.

Nora and Lilla Zuckerman have not been credited as often as co-showrunner Rian Johnson or Natasha Lyonne for the success of the series, but they have been critical to everything we have seen and this script allows them to show off the powerful thematic experience that the show can be at its best. The plot of “Escape From Shit Mountain” is just as thrilling and twisty as any other, but the twists are not the point, nor is the normal formal structure of the show. The Zuckermans have used this opportunity to give a darkly insightful glimpse into the nature of the casual murderers we have seen so far, and into the real toll that regularly dealing with the horrors we have seen on Poker Face would have on someone like Charlie Cale (Lyonne).

A brawny mountain man in a red and black plaid shirt standing in the woods in the golden sunlight

Lyonne has shown a deceptive range throughout the season, equaled only by her uniquely enthralling charisma (and her own incredible directing abilities), but in S1E9 she gives one of the most intense performances of her career. She is battered, beaten, and murdered (she gets better) and you can see each of the blows reflected on her face and through her actions. Lyonne also gets to play lustful delight for the first time this season as she spends the golden-lit prelude when she first arrives on the mountain with a hunky hiker, lost in romantic bliss. The end of that relationship seems sudden and inevitable, like the snowstorm that traps the characters on the mountain, and like the beats of this show itself, but it is also revelatory. Charlie has been running all season, but here we finally get a better sense of what she would be like if she were able to be herself as she gets her freedom.

And all of that is brought together with incredible flair and intensity by Rian Johnson’s direction. Many of the episodes throughout the season have had a unique stamp delivered by the directors, but “Escape From Shit Mountain” takes the directorial flair up another notch as well. Every moment is infused with additional thrills that can be directly attributed to Johnson’s choices. The camera angles, the intensity of the soundtrack, and even the color grading add to the atmospheric dread that pervades the episode. Each of the plot beats is upped in intensity by the way that we see them, and it is all shown in ways that are uniquely attributable to Johnson’s skills.

And so, this seems like a fun time to run through some of those plot points:

The Plot

Poker Face S1E9 begins with an extended musical montage of a man trapped alone and stuck in his routine. But we quickly learn that this exercise-obsessed music fan is no Desmond Hume. No, we are quickly informed Trey Mendez (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the villain of the episode through one clear and specific action. He orders delivery to his snow-capped mansion, where he is under house arrest, but clicks “no tip” on the app. This guy is a terrible person and a clear potential murderer from the start. By the time we see him take advantage of a winter storm disconnecting his ankle bracelet by taking his sports car out for a joy ride, we know everything we need to know about Trey and we already hate him.

Then, in what we are conditioned by Poker Face to think is the murder, he runs down someone on the road with his car, collects the body, and dumps it in a hole under the roots of a tree behind a remote—very Psycho-esque—motel on the mountain. Before dumping the body, we see Trey coerce the motel manager, his friend Jimmy (David Castañeda), to help him in these horrors. So we are left with a horrible murderer, a possibly sympathetic co-conspirator, and the expectation that we will see Charlie come in and solve it all.

Trey standing in the snow in a beige jumpsuit with his hand to his throat

But that isn’t what we get. First, we get the sunshine and kisses of Charlie living her summer of love. Then we follow Charlie as, once that relationship inevitably collapses, she tries to escape this tiny mountain village before being stuck there by a storm. She meets up with Morty (Stephanie Hsu) who tries to steal her car and, of course, they wind up forging a bond and trying to leave together. When they get stuck on the road out of town it seems clear that Morty is going to be the murder victim so it comes as quite a shock when it is revealed that the body we see stuffed under the tree is Charlie’s.

Charlie survives—somehow—and drags herself to the motel where she winds up face-to-face with Trey and Jimmy. It turns out that Trey has killed before, his girlfriend Chloe (whose tibia Charlie has used to dig herself out of her would-be grave) and will kill again—both Morty and Jimmy will die by his hand by the end of the episode. The whole second half of the episode is a thriller, set in the hotel, as Charlie and Trey match wits. Until Trey shoots Jimmy in the head, smashes Morty’s nose into her brain, and stabs Charlie in the heart. He dumps the bodies and gets home, just as the power comes back on, satisfied that no one will ever know he even left his house.

The Guest Stars

Poker Face S1E9 continues the show’s incredible run of perfect guest stars. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Trey to perfection. The normally charming actor turns those same charms on their head as he pushes the unbearable aspects of this character to the forefront. Each choice Gordon-Levitt makes seems to be designed to make the entire experience of watching the character actively antagonistic. Trey is the dullest and most hideous of evildoers, the completely selfish and apathetic kind. This guy is more concerned with his house arrest for insider trading than the fact he murdered his girlfriend. But somehow, due to sheer skill and charisma, Gordon-Levitt can add some layers to the character. To a small extent, I mean, when he shoots his lifelong best friend in the head, he almost seems sad about it.

David Castañeda may not be nearly as famous as Gordon-Levitt, or the other big guest star in the episode we will get to in a moment, but he is perfect as that friend, Jimmy. We get to see the pain Jimmy feels throughout. He had been in love with Chloe, but somehow helped his hideous friend hide her body, and so his pain and guilt have torn him apart. In the end, Jimmy finally stands up against his friend, trying to protect Charlie, but that act gets him killed. Playing a character so passive and broken can be very difficult, but Castañeda is able to pull it off.

Charlie and Morty bundled in winter clothes inside a shopping center
Photo by: Peacock

Finally, we have Stephanie Hsu. Hsu is the second 2023 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee to show up this season (and winner Jamie Lee Curtis could easily fit into the show in the future) and she doesn’t disappoint in a relatively small role. Morty is sort of like the inverse of Charlie, basically thriving off of her lies and deceptions. She even figures out that Trey is the murderer before Charlie does. Unfortunately, the gambit to turn that for her gain leads to her death. Hsu can play the character with a great deal of sympathy and pathos, though ultimately I wish we would have gotten more from the character, it would have been nice to see her survive and try to pull Charlie to the darker side throughout future seasons. Instead, she winds up another in the long line of people who meet their end in part due to meeting Charlie.

Charlie and the “Solve”

And the darkness of that, all the death that surrounds her starts to get to Charlie in Poker Face S1E9. Lyonne starts to play Charlie as breaking down under all the darkness, and we see the cracks start to form in her persona and her skills. Charlie does a lot less “solving” in “Escape from Shit Mountain” and instead she embraces her pure super-human survival skills and just somehow makes it out of the clutches of the serial murdering Trey. This works out almost literally. As Trey is stabbing Charlie through the heart she somehow slices off his ankle bracelet and grabs it. Thus when Trey dumps her body under his “murder tree” she has it on her when it turns back on. Since the bracelet is tracked, the bodies are found and Trey is caught. And somehow Charlie even survives.

Charlie’s escape from the mountain is a superhuman one, she should probably have died twice in the episode, but somehow she makes it out. And the police find Morty’s body and think she is Charlie so Charlie winds up thinking that she is also free of Sterling and Cliff. Of course, the last shot of the episode is of Cliff (Benjamin Bratt) pulling up outside the hospital where Charlie is convalescing telling Sterling (Ron Perlman), and us, that they have finally caught Charlie Cale. So we are set up for a dramatic finale that should bring the story full circle.

Final Thoughts

Poker Face S1E9 “Escape From Shit Mountain” embraces all the idiosyncrasies that have made the show so appealing and somehow also turns them all on their head. Johnson’s direction is incredible, allowing the tension to build by totally being everything that makes transcendent horror thrillers so captivating. And Lyonne gets to play more aspects of Charlie Cale than ever before. At the start, Charlie is in love, enraptured, and decadent. By the end, Charlie is broken, mentally and physically, and the painful fear on Lyonne’s face sells every moment of it. Everything about the penultimate episode of Poker Face works and leaves Charlie, and us, on the precipice of what could be an incredible season finale.

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

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