And just like that, the first season of Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne’s case-of-the-week detective series, Poker Face, has come to an end. Over the course of its first 10 episodes, the series has delivered more than its fair share of memorable murders and mysteries, all while paying homage to a bygone, procedural-driven era of television. Thanks to its loose, strictly episodic structure, Poker Face’s first season can, for the most part, be watched in whatever order you want, too.
That makes ranking Poker Face’s 10-episode first season considerably easier than it is to do for most of the serialized, prestige TV shows that are on the air right now. So, without any further ado, here’s a ranking of Poker Face’s first 10 episodes from worst to best.
10. Season 1, Episode 6: "Exit Stage Death"
Directed by Ben Sinclair and written by Chris Downey, this over-the-top installment of Poker Face has the good fortune of counting Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows as its two main guest stars. Despite that fact, “Exit Stage Death” falls somewhat flat. Of all of the Peacock series’ debut chapters, this mid-season adventure gives the smallest amount of screentime to Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, who — despite Poker Face’s star-studded lineup of guest stars — is the real reason why viewers should tune into the series.
The episode’s central murder mystery also proves to be a bit too easy to solve, which makes its third act fall short of the high standard set by Poker Face’s other episodes. Even “Exit Stage Death” has its fair share of highlights, though, including one brutal twist involving a trap door and Jameela Jamil that is both genuinely shocking and creatively ingenious.
9. Season 1, Episode 5: "Time of the Monkey"
You know you’re working with a high caliber of material when an episode featuring a pair of elderly hippies (played by Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson) who regularly make fun of Zoomer shows like Euphoria ends up ranking this low. For all of its many humorous charms, though, “Time of the Monkey” just doesn’t quite hit as hard as the rest of the Poker Face episodes on this list.
Directed by Lucky McKee and written by Wyatt Cain & Charlie Peppers, “Time of the Monkey” is just as structurally inventive as Poker Face’s other episodes, but it doesn’t have nearly as strong of a grip on its farcical tone as the series’ other installments. As fun as its third-act brawl is, the episode never manages to generate much tension, either.
8. Season 1, Episode 8: "The Orpheus Syndrome"
Directed by Natasha Lyonne herself and written by Lyonne & Alice Ju, “The Orpheus Syndrome” is simultaneously the trippiest and campiest episode of Poker Face’s first season. As a reclusive, guilt-ridden creature feature filmmaker, Nick Nolte has some of the best chemistry with Lyonne of any of Poker Face’s guest stars. Opposite him, Cherry Jones goes for broke as the episode’s villain, the owner of a special effects company who is willing to do whatever she must to preserve her legacy.
Behind the camera, Lyonne brings a real visual flair to “The Orpheus Syndrome,” including in its third act, which combines live-action and stop-motion filmmaking in a truly disorienting way. The episode’s overall mystery, however, doesn’t quite stack up to the rest of the “howcatchem” adventures that Poker Face delivers in its first season.
7. Season 1, Episode 4: "Rest in Metal"
This fun-but-slight installment of Poker Face features what might be the most creative murder of the series’ entire first season. Led by Chloë Sevigny’s over-the-hill rockstar (and featuring a surprise acting turn from The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle), “Rest in Metal” revolves entirely around a bunch of has-been rockers who desperately need to produce one more hit song. Their desperation leads them to stage a murder during one of their live performances, which director Tiffany Johnson (working from a script penned by Christine Boylan) films with impeccable style and flair.
Like some of the other entries on this list, “Rest in Metal” forces Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie to be a bit more passive than we’d like, but it still emerges as an hour of pure entertainment that no one could rightly regret watching.
6. Season 1, Episode 10: "The Hook"
Poker Face wraps up its first season with a finale that is as shocking as any of its other installments. After sticking to its formula for nine episodes straight, Poker Face subverts its own episodic structure in “The Hook.” Unlike every episode that came before it, this Rian Johnson-penned, Janicza Bravo-directed episode doesn’t wait to reveal Charlie Cale’s role in its story until after its central murder. Instead, “The Hook” lets Charlie watch as its victim is gunned down right in front of her before switching midway through its runtime to the perspective of said victim’s killer.
From that point on, Charlie is forced to go on the run from the police and confront her own shortcomings in a bittersweet reunion with her estranged sister, Emily (Clea DuVall). In other words, even if its heavier second half doesn’t quite stack up to its first, “The Hook” still sends Poker Face’s debut season out on a comfortable high.
5. Season 1, Episode 3: "The Stall"
In its third episode, Poker Face delivers one of the most specific settings — a Southern, family-run BBQ joint — and elaborate murders of its first season. Frankly, who would have ever thought a TV character would kill someone by feeding the smoke from a wood-burning grill through a hose into their victim’s trailer? Featuring two truly despicable, against-type performances from Lil Rel Howery and Danielle Macdonald, “The Stall” is brimming with memorable twists and gags, including the introduction of a racist dog who only stops barking whenever he hears a conservative radio program.
The episode also features a joke about Bong Joon-ho’s Okja that, for those familiar with the film, will likely rank as one of Poker Face’s greatest gags. It certainly made this writer burst into a sudden laughing fit.
4. Season 1, Episode 1: "Dead Man's Hand"
A show’s premiere episode has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and you can certainly sense that in “Dead Man’s Hand,” the debut chapter of Poker Face. The episode is arguably the slowest of Poker Face’s first 10 installments. Over the course of its runtime, the episode gradually stacks layer after layer after layer onto its story until it has not only finished telling a self-contained murder mystery, but also paved the way for Poker Face to continue on after it.
Despite its slow pace and necessary moments of exposition, though, “Dead Man’s Hand” does what all great pilots should: It effectively sets up the premise of its show and makes you fall in love with its lead. Natasha Lyonne shines throughout this Rian Johnson-penned and directed episode, which also benefits greatly from Steve Yedlin’s sun-soaked cinematography and Adrien Brody’s slimy one-off turn as the spoiled, ambitious owner of the casino where Lyonne’s Charlie works.
3. Season 1, Episode 7: "The Future of the Sport"
No episode of Poker Face Season 1 manipulates its viewers’ emotions and sympathies as intensely or masterfully as “The Future of the Sport.” Written by Joe Lawson and directed by Iain B. MacDonald, this late-season episode forces viewers to constantly second-guess who are the villains and heroes of its story, and it uses the charisma of its two lead guest stars, Tim Blake Nelson and Charles Melton, to help it do just that. In “The Future of the Sport,” the pair star as a couple of racecar drivers whose rivalry drives them to throw caution and safety to the wind.
The episode is a total breeze to watch, and it ends with a climax that is among Poker Face’s best — if only because it uses Charlie Cale’s inability to deliver justice through official means to reach a conclusion that is simultaneously surprising, clever, and cathartic.
2. Season 1, Episode 9: "Escape from Shit Mountain"
“Escape From Shit Mountain” reunites its director, Rian Johnson, with longtime collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a claustrophobic, subversive story set at a roadside motel in the middle of a Colorado blizzard. In addition to Gordon-Levitt, the Nora and Lilla Zuckerman-penned episode counts David Castañeda and Everything Everywhere All At Once star Stephanie Hsu among its guest stars, and it ranks firmly as the most brutal and intense episode of Poker Face’s first season.
From the decades-spanning murder mystery at the center of its story to the wounded state that Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie is forced to be in for most of the episode, “Escape From Shit Mountain” is an hour of television that’s filled with so much startling darkness and moral corruption that it’s genuinely hard to shake. Charlie’s hard-won victory is among the best that she experiences in any of Poker Face’s first 10 chapters, though, and the episode features a performance from Gordon-Levitt that will make you wish he got the chance to play villains more often.
1. Season 1, Episode 2: “The Night Shift”
Directed by Rian Johnson and written by Alice Ju, “The Night Shift” is the most elegantly written, filmed, and executed episode of Poker Face’s first season. Freed from the responsibilities of a pilot episode, the series’ second installment unfolds with masterful levels of grace and patience — delivering an impromptu murder and cover-up that is just complicated enough to prove to be a real challenge for Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie to unravel.
The episode, which feels like it could have been pulled right out of the 1970s, is as strong of a showcase for Poker Face’s star as it is for the show’s Columbo-inspired “howcatchem” structure. Featuring standout guest performances from Hong Chau, Colton Ryan, and John Ratzenberger, the episode turns a middle-of-nowhere, Route 66 collection of gas stations, diners, and convenience stores into a dangerous arena where deceit, murder, and the pursuit of justice all clash.
In case that wasn’t enough, “The Night Shift” also features a rooftop confrontation between Lyonne’s Charlie and Ryan’s bitter repair shop worker that ranks squarely as one of the best that Poker Face’s first season has to offer.
Poker Face Season 1 is streaming now on Peacock.