Poker Face S1E10 Recap: “The Hook” Brings You Back (Season Finale)

Charlie looks frightfully out the passenger side window with Cliff in the background wearing sunglasses with his hand on the steering wheel
Photo Credit: Peacock

 The following recap contains spoilers for Poker Face, S1E10, “The Hook” (written by  Nora & Rian Johnson and directed by Janicza Bravo)

“The Hook,” the Poker Face Season 1 finale, has been the most divisive entry of the entire season, with some viewers and critics wondering how it could miss the mark so badly, while others think it lived up to the great moments that preceded it. As with some other Rian Johnson properties that I love, this one seems destined to be debated forever. Or at least until Season 2 comes along and we get to watch Natasha Lyonne and Rhea Perlman face off against each other in person.

As far as I am concerned, “The Hook” isn’t the perfect season finale for the show, especially after two straight incredible, deeply affecting, episodes. But it does do a great job at everything the Zuckermans, Johnson, and Lyonne set out to do by making the series in the first place. The mystery, despite being set against the season-long arc, is actually contained entirely within this episode. With the emphasis then set not on the overall machinations of how Charlie (Lyonne) will escape Sterling Frost Sr. (Ron Perlman) but rather on how she will solve his murder.

This is because it turns out that Sterling was not after Charlie to kill her after all, he had come to realize that her skills would be of better use to him than getting revenge for his terrible son’s death. Cliff (Benjamin Bratt) however, had other ideas and decided to use this opportunity to rid himself of both Sterling and Charlie by framing her for Sterling’s murder. It is this twist that seems most divisive to the fans of the show, with some loving the idea that Sterling turned out to be on Charlie’s side while others seem to think it is something of a personal affront.

Frost Sr. sitting at a card table wearing a black suit and hat, holding a glass of whiskey

Which is strange. Leaving aside the fact that creators have the ability and responsibility to tell the story they want to tell, not the one we want to see, this just doesn’t hold up as a critique. Even if you think that Sterling should have remained the ominous villain we expected him to be, it doesn’t invalidate anything we have seen. First and foremost, Poker Face is about Charlie. We see things from her perspective and are always set up to be on her side. Throughout the season Charlie thinks that Sterling is trying to kill her, so that makes our experience of watching all of those events through her eyes incredibly valid. Not to mention the fact that even within the universe of the show Sterling did send Cliff to kill Charlie, the change of heart came much later after Sterling Jr.’s crimes came to light, and we learn in the finale that Cliff plays by his own rules anyway. So you can quibble with some of the execution—and I do have some quibbles—but the ideas behind these twists are completely valid.

The Poker Face finale once again toys with the familiar structure we grew used to earlier in the season. With the way things end in “The Hook” I expect that next season will mostly return to the familiar format, but until then here are the basics:

Cliff’s Flashbacks

“Escape From Shit Mountain” left us watching Cliff as he calls Sterling to inform him that he has finally caught Charlie. “The Hook” immediately lets us know why this is actually an even bigger accomplishment than we would have realized otherwise. It turns out that Charlie has been crisscrossing the country evading Cliff for over a year. And a full year of driving around chasing false leads while Sterling tells him he is terrible at his job has broken the spirits of our heinous henchman. This of course leads, as so many grievances on Poker Face have already done, to murder. We learn in a later flashback that Cliff used this time to make inroads with Sterling’s enemies in the “Five Families” and plot to murder his boss and frame Charlie for it.

The Murder and the Solve

Cliff easily collects Charlie (who hilariously thought her lush accommodations in the hospital were the result of “Obamacare” and not the work of her rich adversaries) and the two take a road trip back west. During the ride, Cliff manipulates Charlie into grabbing a gun and dares her to shoot him and escape. Our good-hearted hero can’t do it, which was all part of Cliff’s master plan as he then manipulates events so that the gun, with Charlie’s prints on it, will be the weapon that kills Sterling.

That happens at the meeting between Sterling and Charlie. Sterling tells her that she is forgiven for his son’s death because he learned his son was a murdering idiot. So he offers her basically the same job Jr. did in the pilot, he will pay her a huge sum to listen to a conversation and tell him if his foes from the Five Families are lying. Then the lights go out, guns go off, and Sterling winds up dead. Charlie winds up holding the murder weapon in her hand and immediately has to go back on the run, this time as the fugitive.

Charlie standing in a dark room wearing a floral dress
Photo Credit: Peacock

Luckily, Agent Luca (Simon Helberg) is the main investigator on the case, so he helps Charlie escape until they can figure out the next moves. Her trip takes her through a bachelorette party on a party bus—where gets she a plot-essential, comedy-crucial, dick-shaped glow-in-the-dark ring—and straight through a secret passage into her childhood home. Here we get more insights into Charlie’s past as we see her frigid relationship with her sister Emily (Clea Duvall) and her very first interactions with her 10-year-old niece, Shasta (Willa Dunn). The sisters and their father, before Charlie betrayed the family somehow, used to sail, and Emily agrees to let Charlie have the boat.

Charlie never makes it to the boat, though. Once at the docks she runs back into Cliff. It is this plot contrivance that didn’t work for me. There is no reason for Cliff to be here now, or for the boats to be at the same dock. Or for them to run into each other. It is all just so the episode can wrap up neatly. And that is a shame because a couple of episodes of Charlie at sea while Cliff thinks he has escaped and Luca chases them both would have been captivating television. As it is, it just finally gives Charlie a chance to solve the case and end the season. The solution takes too long, but thanks to her trusty penis ring and a blacklight, she realizes that Cliff killed Sterling and so the two fight it out until it turns out that Charlie had already alerted Luca and he arrives to save the day.

The Guest Stars

Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff Legrand has been looming all season. We saw him murder Natalie (Dasha Polanco) and her terrible husband at the start of the pilot and he has been an ominous threat on Charlie’s trail ever since then. Each check-in was brief but allowed Bratt to expand on the character’s charismatic malevolence. Here in the Poker Face Season 1 finale, though, Bratt gets to take the wheel. Both literally and figuratively, as a good portion of the episode is him driving Charlie back west to meet Sterling and the entire plot revolves around his double-crossing his long-time boss.

Bratt and Lyonne get to spend extended screen time together and that is fantastic too. Lyonne’s chaotic exuberance masked by cynical life experience is a great balance to Bratt’s calculated, but equally quirky, malevolence. These two would have clearly hated each other even if they weren’t personally incompatible, but their opposite energies are an explosive combination. Near the end, when Sterling is dead and Charlie is being surrounded by the FBI, Cliff thinks he has won and the smugness and self-assurance Bratt plays in that moment is matched only by the intensity of his downfall when Agent Luca puts the handcuffs on him, arresting him for Natalie’s murder and bringing the whole season full circle.

Also, watching the scene of Cliff explaining his life philosophy to Charlie—through the lyrics of the Blues Traveler song that gives this episode its title—on a loop is a must.

It turns out that Ron Perlman’s role in the series was really a guest stint after all. We do crucially get to see his side of the phone call from the end of the pilot and it is fascinating how Johnson used the ominous quality of Perlman’s voice to create the fear and dread that Charlie has felt all season while in reality the phone call was made out of grief and pain. But it would be a mistake to say that Sterling Sr. was never a threat to Charlie; Perlman’s performance includes a lot of nuances to indicate that his forgiveness did not come easy. By the time we see him shot he has moved entirely back into a father figure mode for Charlie, the menace replaced with affection. Ron Perlman ultimately is only on screen for about 12 minutes of the entire season, but he makes the most of his time.

Clea Duvall also makes the most of her all-too-brief appearance, though thankfully Emily and Shasta survive the finale and will almost certainly return in Season 2. While Duvall is playing Lyone’s sister here, the two have a long connection going back to But I’m a Cheerleader, and the memories of that rapport inform their frosty scenes here. The sisters are estranged and the family is broken—somehow because of Charlie’s gift—but they were once all super close. Emily seems to love and resent Charlie and everything about her, but Duvall plays even the harsh scenes with a softness that makes the character more likable than she probably should be based on the script. “We don’t need you,” Emily tells her sister, and it is intense.

Emily in her laundry room, bathed in warm light, looking irritated
Photo Credit: Peacock

Simon Helberg is great in his long-anticipated return as FBI agent Luca. Helberg and Lyonne have quirky energy that would be translated into a “will they or won’t they” relationship on a different series. Thankfully Poker Face hasn’t gone there yet, as I tend to prefer the occasional televised portrayal of a friendship between people of different genders. But if they do decide to do more with Agent Luca, it would certainly be entertaining to watch.

And of course, in a great mirror to the pilot, we get a new Perlman set up to be the “big bad” of Season 2. We don’t see Rhea Perlman but, as with Ron before her, her phone call with Charlie sets the ominous tone that sends Charlie back out on the run. Hopefully, Season 2 will have a structure that allows Rhea to have a more direct impact on the events of the season—it is at least possible that she will play the roles of both Cliff and Sterling—but even if she doesn’t, Beatrix Hasp and the “Five Families” should be formidable foes for our loveable lie-detector.

Final Thoughts

So we leave Charlie right back where she was at the end of the pilot. Smashing her phone and taking off to live a life off the grid. Which will certainly lead to a second season full of all the murder and mayhem that Lyonne, the Zuckemans, and Johnson can think to throw at her, and at us. Poker Face S1E10 “The Hook” may not hit the heights of the best episodes of Season 1, but it does a great job of expanding the world, deepening Charlie, and setting up the status quo for Season 2, and that is “a hook that will bring you back.” So to speak.

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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