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Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne banter banjos and Barracudas in 'Poker Face' Episode 2
"The Night Shift" brings director Rian Johnson back to New Mexico for the first time since Breaking Bad.
The first episode of Peacock's new series Poker Face ended with Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) on the run. As depicted in the second episode, "The Night Shift," which was written by Alice Ju and directed by series creator Rian Johnson, Charlie's first stop after hightailing it out of Nevada ends up being a desolate truck stop in New Mexico. Charlie's classic Barracuda breaks down which gives her a chance to address her wound and make friends with an unorthodox trucker named Marge (Hong Chau).
In our weekly, exclusive Poker Face post-mortem, SYFY WIRE got Johnson and Lyonne to share stories about shooting in New Mexico and the ultimate difficult co-star — that temperamental Barracuda.
**WARNING: There are spoilers for Episode 2 of Poker Face below.**
As Johnson explained last week, Poker Face was actually shot out of order, because most of it was shot in upstate New York and they needed to chase the seasons during the shoot in order to let the landscape stand in for the various parts of the country Charlie visits on her roadtrip. But, even with the greatest locations manager in the world, making rural New York look like dusty New Mexico is asking too much. And so, Episode 2, "The Night Shift," was actually the very last episode shot of the show's inaugural season, and it was shot in New Mexico — a place that Johnson, who directed several of the best episodes of Breaking Bad, is familiar with. At a the recent TCA press day for Poker Face, Johnson said it was a homecoming of sorts for him.
"We did go to New Mexico to shoot it because we needed a vast desert landscape. And it was also fun because it was the first time I had worked in Albuquerque since I directed "Ozymandias" for Vince [Gilligan] for Breaking Bad," he explained. "So I e‑mailed Vince, saying, 'Guess where I am?' It was fun."
The episode also helps put into perspective how fraught Charlie's trip is, considering she's bleeding from her chase with Cliff (Benjamin Bratt) and that she doesn't really have the savvy and skills to stay off the radar of her pursuers. The loneliness and rambling nature of her new existence is best personified by the Poker Face theme song and score, which relies on the banjo as the instrument of choice to represent Charlier.
Nathan Johnson, Rian's cousin and music collaborator going back to Brick, composed the score for Poker Face. Johnson reveals to SYFY WIRE that the banjo became a character inspiration going back to the writing of the pilot.
"That's something that I really fixated on, and they called me crazy. Like say the word banjo out loud when you're making a series for millions of dollars and see what happens," he jokes. "No, I didn't actually get major pushback from anyone. Well.. .Natasha gave me a little side-eye when I mentioned the banjo. She kept referring to it as 'that ukulele.'
"Being a fan of banjo, I knew that there were so many more flavors to it than bluegrass," Johnson continues. "And knowing the depth that you can go into in terms of the tonal elements you can pull out of a banjo, and knowing what Nathan would do when he got his hands on it. Also, it's just Charlie's theme and knowing that would be kind of an anthem after that first act that introduces her into the story. There's an earthiness. There's a gentle welcoming to it. And there's a sense of Americana to it too, which fits the road trip."
The episode also afforded Johnson the opportunity to finally get to work with actress Hong Chau, now a first-time Academy-award nominee for The Whale. "It was so beautiful," Johnson says of how she came to work on the series. "Hong and I had been trying to work together for years, actually. It made me so, so happy that she was able to come out, and for an episode that I directed, so I got to work with her. She's just absolutely incredible."
Marge, the gruff but sympathetic loner who takes Charlie under her wing on how to be clandestine, becomes Cale's lifeline in plotting out her next travel steps. And then Cale ends up returning the favor by getting Marge's arrest for murder dropped when she discovers the actual culprit. Johnson says he loved the extended scenes with Marge and Charlie in the diner, which also ended up being the very last scenes shot for Season 1.
"It was just a beautiful, beautiful way to end the shoot," the director remembers. "The dynamic between her and Natasha, and just like the seeing these two amazing actors play off each other, that was kind of everything that I wanted to do the show for... there, all together, at the very end. It felt pretty good."
Of course, not every co-star was as amendable, as in Cale's broken down Barracuda, which turns out is just as fussy in real life. "You know, it looks great. It's not super efficient to drive," Lyonne lamented in her dry way at the TCAs. "Also, I would say the windshield wipers don't always work on command.
"But it is fun. Okay, I'll be honest," she added with candor. "The problem with the car is the brakes. The brakes are not what I'd call reliable, which is really a major, major asset on a car. You don't know that until you're in a car that has delayed reaction brakes. You don't realize how much the brakes come up in driving. But the Barracuda is gorgeous. It's gorgeous."
The first four episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on Peacock. Check in weekly for our exclusive Poker Face post mortems with the creators and cast of the new series.