Poker Face’s latest episode explores the very idea of what a performance is, mining both comedy and tragedy in the process. Titled “Exit Stage Death,” the latest episode of Rian Johnson’s Poker Face is a deliriously meta episode that sees Natasha Lyonne’s human lie-detector, Charlie Cale, facing off against some of the biggest liars in the world: actors. “Exit Stage Death” sends Charlie careening into the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the contrasting small-time antics of local stage plays, mining both the tragedy and comedy therein to wondrous effect.
“Exit Stage Death” centers on guest stars Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows. Their characters were once co-leads of a successful cop procedural on television who are looking to recapture some of their former glory in their twilight years by staging a revival of the stage play that started both of their careers, the aptly titled “Ghosts of Pensacola.” However, things go awry when someone is murdered at the first performance of the play, leaving Charlie Cale current part-time server at the senior citizen catering podunk venue where “Ghosts of Pensacola” is being performed to solve the mystery.
Written by Chris Downey, the script for “Exit Stage Death” digs profoundly into an influence that Rian Johnson has turned to before to spectacular results: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Not to spoil the nearly seventy-year-old masterpiece, but Vertigo explores the meta textual layers of the idea of “performance” with a narrative hook that reveals a great portion of the first half of the story has been deliberately staged for the main character’s benefit. “Exit Stage Death” embraces this idea and opportunity afforded to it by its own killer stage-play-set narrative hook in much the same way.
Downey’s script revels in the opportunity to stage the grand deception in an even more layered and complex fashion. Simultaneously, director Ben Sinclair and cinematographer Jaron Presant take the ball and run with it, staging and framing so much of “Exit Stage Death” like a bona fide stage play. This includes keeping the frame wide and in deep focus when the audience is actively watching the play itself and utilizing longer takes. One long shot features over a dozen characters coming in and out of frame, all delivering crucial dialogue and performance beats, and it’s absolutely amazing.
Meadows and Barkin give phenomenal, layered performances. For Meadows, it’s wonderful to see the longtime scene-stealer step into the spotlight and deliver work that leans into his comedic talents and gives him room to expand into dramatic territory in striking ways. Barkin truly shines as the proclaimed Femme Fatale of the episode, delivering a robust performance with remarkable depth. Similarly, Audrey Corsa, Jameela Jamil, and Chris McKinney all do terrific work. And, of course, Natasha Lyonne is stone-cold perfect as Charlie.
In working so deliberately to explore the notion of performance throughout the episode, Sinclair and his team also highlight the technical prowess on display. Trayce Gigi Field’s costume design continues to be immaculate, Judy Rhee’s production design feels wonderfully articulate and alive (further accented by Presant’s tremendous lighting), Paul Swain’s editing is sublime, and the sound work throughout “Exit Stage Death” is powerful. Every episode of Poker Face has been a tour de force of cinematic craft, and “Exit Stage Death” proudly continues that tradition.
“Exit Stage Death” is yet another fantastic episode of Poker Face. Rian Johnson and co. continue to deliver phenomenal work weekly, making each episode feel fresh and invigorating. Having Lyonne’s Charlie get to test her bullshit detector on actors is such a killer concept. With everything from Hamilton gags to Vertigo influences to split diopters, “Exit Stage Death” is a cinephile’s delight.