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SYFY WIRE Poker Face

Rian Johnson & 'Poker Face' showrunners on almost killing Charlie, reuniting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Charlie is put through the wringer in the darkest Poker Face episode yet.

By Tara Bennett
Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face

This week's episode of Poker Face initially gives us quite a blissful version of Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) as her travels lead her to the Colorado Trail. There she goes full smitten kitten for a hot outdoorsman — ignoring her own advice to never let a guy take you to a second location — and ends up shacking up with him for a few blissful months. And then it goes from Magic Mountain to “Escape From Sh** Mountain" in the blink of an eye.

Arguably the darkest episode of the season, “Escape From Sh** Mountain" was written by showrunners Lilla and Nora Zuckerman and directed by Rian Johnson. Circumstances put Charlie in mortal danger from the winter elements and a psychotic white collar criminal, Trey Mendez (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and his self-esteem lacking friend, Jimmy (David Castaneda). The penultimate episode of this freshman season, audiences may be surprised to find out that it was actually the very first episode shot for the series, and had quite the impact on all the stories to come.

For our exclusive SYFY WIRE Poker Face post mortem, Rian Johnson and showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman give us the origin story of this bloody tale and how Joseph Gordon Levitt and Stephanie Hsu added to the fun

**WARNING: There are spoilers for Episode 8 of Poker Face below.**

It must have been interesting to shoot the penultimate episode of your new series first. How did this episode impact the series overall?

Rian Johnson, Creator/Director: It was really interesting. The reason we did it is because Episode 9 takes place in the winter. We're shooting [the series] in upstate New York and honestly, we are racing the leaves; the leaves can't go back on the trees. So we shot Episode 9 first then Episode 1. And because so much of those first few episodes were Natasha and I dialing in the character, I think it ended up being a blessing because Episode 9 is so action heavy and intense.

Who came up with the main conceit of this episode, having an injured Charlie stuck inside a cabin with crazy people?

Lilla Zuckerman, Showrunner: Actually, it came from this inkling of an idea that Rian pitched to the room. He said, "I want to do an episode that takes place in a motel in a snowstorm." That's all we had tasked to us as the room. It was early on in the season too as I think we were trying to come up with what Episode 4 or 5 were going to be. I remember having insomnia one night, and I was lying up, like I do, thinking, "Snowy motel. Snowy motel. What am I going to do in a snowy hotel?' And then like this lightning bolt, I had this idea about a car crash where you think it is a random victim, but then you realize it's Charlie in Act II. And then I was like, "Are we even allowed to do this?" [Laughs.] 

Nora Zuckerman, Showrunner: When Lilla pitched me the idea. I was like, "I'm super excited about this. But yeah, I don't know if we can do it." I was like, "Rian is either gonna love this, or hate this and think we're crazy." But, he really embraced it. As we talked more and more about the idea and what Charlie would have to go through — and how to weave a mystery through that story, which is where you get the Chloe Jones story — we all decided as a room that this has to be the second to last episode. Because we leave Charlie in such a state that you can't just pick her up and move her to working with go karts. [Laughs.] It really had to be the second to last episode. We broke it in the middle of the season, but we knew it was going to be the second to last episode, which is also part of the fun of working on a show like this, where every episode is basically standalone and you don't necessarily have to have them in order when you're breaking them. 

Did any other aspects of it come from Rian or the room?

Nora: The idea of the spot where bodies disappear, that was something that had come up in the room based on a different idea. I think at some point Wyatt Cain had pitched more of a notion of if you had hit somebody on the side of the road and wanted to get away with it, who in your life would you call? It was an interesting question. For Trey, that person is Jimmy. Do you have the person in your life that is probably a little bit shady, would pick up the phone and say, "Yeah, bro, I'll help you." So that was like a fun notion that got pulled into this episode as well. 

Lilla: I think the best thing we brought to the room was this pitch because Rian didn't know where we were going at all. We pitched the idea of this guy in his house. "Is he quarantining? Oh my God, he's got an ankle monitor. Oh, my God, he gets in his car. Oh my God, he hits a figure in the road. And then we go back and we meet Charlie and she's walking down the road. And Boom! She gets hit by a car!" I will never forget the room and Rian were like, "Holy sh**!" [Laughs.]  And then I was like, "Okay, I think that this episode is gonna work even if it's breaking a little bit of the rules." It still feels like it's within our structure. But now it's landing on Charlie in such an appropriate way for the end of the season. 

Nora: And we had talked about Charlie lives her life on the road. And most of the time that we've picked her up at the beginning of these episodes and she's in a pretty good place. She's started a job somewhere. She's doing all right. In this, once you get past the Magic Mountain part when you find her at Sh** Mountain, she's not in a good place. She's really struggling and we liked that because I think that's realistic. Life on the road is not always easy. She's just desperate to get off Sh** Mountain. 

Going back to this being the first episode filmed for the series, how difficult was it for Natasha to start in such a dark place with Charlie?

Lilla: It was certainly a challenge to step into the role, and then also to be instantly put through the wringer. I think the wonderful thing that happened while Rian was directing her is that it really did help ground the character and establish the grounded-ness of Charlie for the rest of the season. It helped from Charlie becoming a caricature. Natasha was asked to access all of these very real and raw human emotions from the jump. So, she could carry some of that weight throughout the rest of the season in a really lovely way.

In every Rian Johnson project going back to BrickJoseph Gordon Levitt is involved. Did you know he would be attached to your episode?

Nora: I think it actually just worked out that way. Although, I think you'll talk to Rian now and he'll say he secretly had Joseph in mind for this. He didn't quite tell us that as we were writing Trey. But it all worked out wonderfully. To have this actor that Rian was so close with and was familiar with as the show began was part of the serendipity of this episode. He brought so much to this character. He's an incredible physical actor. He's very funny. He's very charming. In some ways, even if he's being a devious asshole, you love him on screen. But the physicality he brought to this part if you think about reaching for the food, stumbling through the snow and all of that stuff. He's just so gifted and nailed all those parts so well. It was really exciting to watch. I can't picture anybody else in it. 

You also perfectly cast Stephanie Hsu as Morty the thief, and she has such great comedic chemistry with Natasha. How did you land her?

Lilla: I was a fan of hers from Mrs. Maisel. When her name came up, I was like, "Oh, that's really fascinating" because she has such an innate charm to her that I was like, "Oh, she'll bring it with Morty." But the weekend before we started shooting, Everything Everywhere All at Once came out. Me and Nora and Rian and Steve Yedlin all went to the Poughkeepsie multiplex and saw it, which is something I will always remember because it was the first film I had seen since the pandemic began. We had a completely transformative experience. We came out of that theater, all of us, a little bit shaken and pumped. And then we were like, "I can't believe we get to work with her tomorrow!" She showed up on set, we were like, "Sorry for being such geeks, but we just saw your movie yesterday and we're starstruck!"

Nora: And Rian kept singing, "The bagel." [Laughs.] 

Nine episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on Peacock. Check in weekly at SYFY WIRE for our exclusive Poker Face post mortems with the creators and cast of the new series.