SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from “Poker Face” Episode 8, titled “The Orpheus Syndrome,” now streaming on Peacock.
“Poker Face” took on a “Salvador Dali having a party with Alfred Hitchcock” vibe for its Episode 8 — directed and co-written by star Natasha Lyonne, who provided Variety with that delightful description for the installment, titled “The Orpheus Syndrome.”
The Thursday episode of Rian Johnson’s hit Peacock howdunit followed Lyonne’s human lie-detector Charlie Cale in her latest murder mystery, guest starring Nick Nolte, Cherry Jones, Luis Guzmán, Tim Russ and Rowan Blanchard. This case, which ended up being a double homicide, hit her particularly hard after she grew very close to the second victim, a monster-movie maker named Arthur (played by Nick Nolte) whom she began working for in his creature-feature shop at the top of the episode. Arthur was murdered by Jones’ Laura, his former business partner who first killed her husband Max (Russ), after he discovered a dark secret from Arthur, Laura and Max’s early days making horror flicks together.
If Arthur hadn’t died, Lyonne says there’s a good chance “Poker Face” fans would have seen Charlie finally find a place to put down roots after her year on the run.
“Honestly, maybe. In so many ways, that’s what was fascinating about this character that we were building and that really, I think, could have been Charlie’s landing spot,” Lyonne said. “There’s this lone-wolf, heartbreak-quality to the fact that, ‘Ah, shit, man. Not even here.’ Without giving anything away about what follows in Episode 9 and 10 — and in a way, this show doesn’t really play that game, as they’re all sort of standalone puzzle boxes — but to a certain extent, as we wrap out the back half, I can definitely see the track between how Nolte not being a final home changes her point of view of it. It cements her status as a lone wolf, in a way.”
Jones agrees with her co-star and director on this one: “I do think she could have stayed there in that barn with Nick Nolte until the end of time and she would have taught the next generation. She would have become a master. And I mean, anyone who could enjoy fake blood sandwiches that much, it’s gotta be in her blood.”
Charlie pieces the whole thing together in the end, discovering that both murders were committed by Laura because the men found out she was responsible for the accidental death of monster-movie star Lily (Blanchard) on the set of one of their first big films, and had no regrets about the fatal choice she made in the name of the production’s success. But not before a tense fireside showdown between Laura and Arthur.
“I was just in seventh heaven watching the monitor, looking at their faces across those wavy flames,” Lyonne said. “It’s just a masterclass in subtlety and nuance. If you’re the real deal, it transmits at such a major level and it was just so much fun.”
Based on that scene alone, Jones understood a great deal about her character and what other crimes she could have committed to get ahead — the crimes that haunted her before she jumped to her death at the end of the episode.
“There are a couple of lines she has by the fire with Nick Nolte, I remember basically saying, ‘You have no idea what I did for this company.’ And then I did think, hm, what does that mean?” Jones said. “She probably did other wretched things, but I think these were the first actual murders.”
Throughout the episode, which Lyonne co-wrote with “Russian Doll” writer Alice Ju, Lyonne says she and Johnson were going for “throwback to old monster movies,” working closely with Tippett Studio to create the monsters featured in Arthur’s shop, that was also playing a “big ‘Vertigo’ game.”
“We had fun marrying the style of particular episode as very heightened aesthetically, while still playing all the games that Rian established in the pilot,” Lyonne said. “So it feels like ‘Poker Face,’ but from inside the warped minds of Cherry Jones and Nick Nolte.”
Working with Nolte and Jones, whom she helped cast in their roles, was a very special part of the episode for Lyonne.
“Of all the ‘Poker Face’ people, [Nolte’s] the only person I was a little bit shaking when I first met,” she said, “He swiftly handed me a copy of his memoir called ‘Rebel.’ It was sort of like, ‘You and me, we’re just the same, kid.’ And I was like, ‘OK, in with Nolte! This is fun.’ That was when I knew it was very important to have a deep and dark life experience, so that the big boys like that respect you right away. He and I had so much fun together.”
Jones praised Lyonne’s directing, saying she gave her instructions like: “In Hitchcock, the women go back into this wispy sort of memory place in the way back of their brain, and her voice would fade off — and I knew exactly what she meant.”
In fact, Jones says she admires Lyonne’s style that she was “more intimidated by Natasha in those first scenes than I was even of Nick Nolte.”
“When she sits down and she looks at you and she talks to you, she’s so appealing and so disarming and so blazing,” Lyonne said. “She’s like the sun, you can’t look directly at it, there’s so much coming out. And yet, she’s even more dazzling as a director. This sounds strange coming from a 66-year-old actress, but she’s almost like this loving older sister actor. She’s got you. She’s got you, and she’s not gonna let you fail.”