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Rian Johnson & 'Poker Face' showrunners unpack that twisty season finale, tease what comes next
Charlie Cale's road trip comes to an end...for now.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. Rian Johnson creates a road trip series with Poker Face, so how could he not use a Blues Traveler song to both frame and surprise audiences in the season finale, "The Hook"? Yes, Johnson wrote the finale which put Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) in Atlantic City sitting face-to-face with Sterling Frost Sr. (Ron Perlman), and the ire of Cliff Legrande (Benjamin Bratt) whose been playing quite the long game.
There were also appearances by Charlie's sister Emily (Clea DuVall) and a return of intrepid Charlie fan/FBI Agent Luca Clark (Simon Helberg).
For our final exclusive SYFY WIRE Poker Face post mortem of Season 1, we got Johnson and showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman to tell us how they crafted this showstopper of a finale and what it could mean for Season 2.
**WARNING: There are spoilers for Episode 10 of Poker Face below.**
Rian, most creators like to end a season directing the finale. But you brought Janicza Bravo of Zola fame to come in and direct?
Rian Johnson, Creator: Not only is it the last episode, it's the only thing that I've ever written but not directed. I am such a fan of Janicza and I knew she was going to direct it. So I think I found myself kind of writing, in a way, to her sensibility as I was writing and it was almost like writing a character for an actor. It was just doing that for a director. I think she has knocked it out of the park. I'm such a fan of hers, and I feel like with all the directors, but with her especially, I really got to learn from watching her work and seeing her. I'd put something on the page and then [convey] tone to her in the tone meeting. But then seeing how she executes it in a way that I never would have thought of that really elevates it. For me, it was a real joy to get to learn from watching her work.
Nora Zuckerman, Showrunner: Janicza brought this lovely style to it. She and Natasha are friends, so there was a familiarity and a closeness there that I think helps with the performance. It's got some of my favorite scenes in the series. It's a really wonderful episode.
Ok, let's talk about how this episode was crafted. Since Rian wrote it, did it still get built in the writers' room together?
Nora: When it came to the finale, we broke a version of it in the room all together. And then we handed it off to Rian. He went away with this outline. Lil and I made it very clear to him, "You brought this show to life. This is the finale. If you feel like you need to change things, if you feel like there's stuff that we didn't talk about and we need to cover in the finale, the possibilities are endless. Once you get into the script, do what you need to do." Then Rian came back with this wonderful, quirky, cool script. It was kind of what we talked about in the room, but amplified, more so. There was just these weird quirks to it.
Like we knew that that Cliff and Charlie we're gonna have this tense confrontation in the car with the gun. But we didn't know that Cliff was going to recite, "Hook" by Blues Traveler. [Laughs.] Rian had teased Lil and I with it. He said, "It's getting weird.There's gonna be a song in this episode. And you'll never guess what the song is." At some point, Lilla was like, "Rian, is it "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga?" [Laughs.] So when we read Rian's draft, we were super excited. It's funky. It's cool. It's such a weird, but beautiful end to the season.
Let's run through just some of the highlights that come fast and furious in this episode. Who knew Charlie had a sister and that their relationship was so fraught?
Lilla Zuckerman, Showrunner: It was funny because our instincts as writers in the room is to always delve into backstory, backstory, backstory. The lovely thing about this show is that we had the freedom to just let that go and discover who Charlie is in the moment. Discover who Charlie is as she's moving forward through this season. I like how we approach this relationship with her and her sister because we just drop the audience right into it, without a lot of explanation. And you just get to see in real time them unpacking their issues. It was a conscious choice of Rian's to leave a lot of things unsaid, a lot of things unexplained and unexplored. It feels very profound to do things that way because I feel like as writers we're always being pushed to explain. And it's more emotionally resonant when you are watching this all unfold without knowing them.
Nora: Watching that scene being shot with Clea and Natasha — because they've been friends for so long and they have this history — that was immediate when we watched the scene. There was no chemistry that had to be built. It was already there. Getting Clea as Charlie's sister was such a gift for us. They had such a familiarity with each other and it's all there on screen. It felt very real. Lilla and I are sisters, obviously. We know the complications of sisterhood. And seeing that scene play out in such a real and bittersweet way, was really wonderful.
And Clea's speech that "Other people need you, but we don't," it's such a knife in the heart! But she understands Charlie's value to other people. And she understands how she's able to connect with the rest of the world. It's really beautiful, but it's also very sad. You know that that relationship is not over, but it's very plainly said about how difficult it is for the two of them to see each other.
Lilla: One thing I'll add about that scene — because I'm just thinking about it and smiling right now — is that it's such a Rian Johnson move to have this wrenching, emotional scene, and then you button it with her climbing out of the laundry room. [Laughs.] That's what Rian is the master of, as soon as things are getting very heavy and emotional and wrenching, it's punctuated with this moment of humor. As you saw it in the pilot too. As soon as things get a little breezy and victorious, then all of a sudden, you'll have a moment of extreme horror. That gear switching is something that we brought from the pilot all the way to the end of finale.
Luca returns in a big way this episode. And I've gotta say, Charlie and Luca have this great chemistry that alludes to maybe heart-shaped things. Was that intentional or did it come organically out of Natasha and Simon on screen together?
Lilla: We created Luca as this character for "Time of the Monkey." And then as soon as we saw him on the page, we realized that this is a character that can kind of dip in and out of our series. When we were breaking the finale, all of a sudden, it was a light bulb moment to bring him back in a really delightful way. And it feels like the final chapter of this season. But what was really exciting, as soon as they got to set together, Simon is doing these really interesting things with his performance. He's so disarming, and that's usually what Charlie is doing. But now he's disarming her. We realize that they have this great chemistry. I told Nora, "I'm kind of shipping these two. Am I crazy?" [Laughs.]
Nora: When they shot that scene at the diner at the end, I told Simon as we were finishing, "I think audiences are really going to ship you guys." And he was like, "They're going to what?" And I had to explain the whole fandom concept of shipping characters, so I felt like really nerdy in that moment. [Laughs.] But I was like, "You guys are so great together on screen." I definitely felt that just watching them film the scenes together. And so I'm really glad audiences are embracing it too. He's FBI, but he has such respect for the weirdness that she does. And he's obviously somebody that's not totally by the book. When we find him in this episode, his career has progressed. He's definitely benefited from time with Charlie, but you get the sense that he's still not totally comfortable in it. He would probably rather be sitting across the table with Charlie at a diner.
The last beat of the episode has Charlie choosing to go back on the road, rejecting Beatrix Hasp's (Rhea Perlman) offer to work for the Five Families. It gracefully opens the door for more adventures, but doesn't feel like a traditional cliffhanger. Talk about crafting an ending like this when you didn't have the second season pickup order yet.
Nora: Well, I think we always knew we wanted to leave it that way at the end of this season. When Rian and Natasha even started talking about the show, and Rian conceived it in his head, he always imagined it to be a multi-season show. They joked in interviews they want to do 76 seasons. It was always going to be something that would continue but there's now a new threat. And in some ways, a more complicated situation for her than just Cliff chasing her across the country. The stakes are, in some ways, a bit higher at the end of this. It's not necessarily a cliffhanger either. Lil and I have worked on some genre shows where you really have this pressure to have a huge cliffhanger at the end of the season, even if you don't know the show is coming back. Sometimes it feels a little like, "If we don't get another season, are we cheating our audience? Are we robbing them of this closure that they deserve for sticking with the show for as long as they have?" So this was a lovely way to say, even if there's never another season of this, Charlie is out there....somewhere. She's getting justice for somebody. And that's the feeling that I think you want to leave the audience with.
A second season was officially green-lit last month. Click here to watch the all the first season episodes of Poker Face streaming now.
Looking for more gumshoe work? All seasons of Columbo and Murder She Wrote are now streaming on Peacock!