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Poker Face: Charlie Cale Might Be Television's Nicest Angel of Death

Poker Face has much in common with Columbo, but Natasha Lyonne's Charlie Cale is more than a detective - she's an angel of death! But nice.

Poker Face caused a splash when it premiered, a knowing throwback from Rian Johnson that brought back the quirky procedural detective series of the 1970s that featured a charismatic and slightly unusual detective hero at its centre. The show's secret weapon is Natasha Lyonne as the detective heroine Charlie Cale, a likable oddball do-gooder who's really an angel of death.

poker face
"Poker Face" Image: Peacock Screencap

Poker Face follows most closely the format of Columbo, not a whodunnit but a "how will the detective expose the killer?"  Charlie Cale's central quirk is her instinctive ability to know when someone lies. It's not psychic or intuitive; it's a savant-like ability to read the signs, from the tone of voice to subtle, even nearly undetectable behavioral ticks. Some of the time, she enters a story after a murder has already happened, and she's the one who sniffs out the killer and how to catch them. She's not a cop, which gives them false confidence they can get away with it, and that's when her poker face kicks in. In several instances, by the time she confronts them to get them to confess, she's already made moves to ensure their downfall.

The Odd, Subversive Edge of Poker Face

The title "Poker Face" is a layered joke. Charlie appears to have no poker face, every emotion is on it, but she turns that into a trick when she traps the killer into incriminating and thus destroying themselves. "Poker Face" comes from the card game, of course, and that's where Charlie hails – her last name is a joke with several meanings. Playing off the "Cale/hail" rhyme, when she arrives in town and steps into people's lives, she's like a hailstorm ("Cale-force winds"), and she leaves chaos in her wake. It's not her fault. She seems to meet people who are fated either to be murdered or murderers. Occasionally she's a catalyst – she inadvertently convinces a barbeque chef into recognizing animal cruelty and vowing to stop cooking or eating animals, which leads to his greedy brother murdering him to ensure their lucrative food business continues. It's then up to her to expose his murder and make sure justice is done.

Your Friendly Angel of Death

It's interesting to think of a character beyond their surface description to find what kind of archetype they might be. Charlie is like a wandering angel, but not all angels are a good thing to people who meet them. She doesn't make anyone do bad things, but she's like an angel of death. Both good and bad people die when she's around. She likes people and wishes the best for them, and is disappointed when they become their worst selves, as in when they commit murder. She can't let that go and pursues them to their doom. She doesn't cause the deaths of good people, but she has driven some of their murderers to suicide. She's like a weird harbinger of karma, and that's what keeps her and Poker Face interesting when the plots start to creak a bit in the later parts of the first season. And she will be back. More death and chaos will ensue in her wake.

Poker Face is streaming on Peacock.

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Adi TantimedhAbout Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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