Poker Face and the Power of the Unremarkable Woman

Julia York

About midway through the first episode of Poker Face, now streaming on Peacock, protagonist Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) stands alone in an upstairs room of a casino, facing a large set of windows which look out over the casino pit. Slot machines glitter and patrons mill around craps and roulette tables, unaware of the woman behind the tinted windows. The room itself, called the “crow’s nest,” is meant to serve as a space of secretive observation. Here, clientele can be discreetly surveyed from above, never knowing a hidden figure watches their every flip of the card or pull of the slot lever.

Charlie possesses another observational advantage: an uncanny, unexplained ability to discern when someone is lying. She observes people and perceives their actions while they remain completely unaware, unable to hide behind a facade. “There’s nothing mystical about it,” Charlie tells casino owner Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrian Brody). “[I can just tell] when someone is intentionally lying, that’s it.”

While the polished mahogany and luscious leather sofas of the crow’s nest radiate an understated elegance, Charlie herself stands out like a piece of odd furniture. With her unkempt mane of frizzy hair, cowboy boots, and can of cheap beer clutched in her hand, the rough-and-tumble Charlie seems distinctly out of place in the sophisticated room. Though now she finds herself in the inner sanctum of the casino, rubbing elbows with the posh Sterling Frost Jr., she could easily be mistaken for just another shabby tourist who wandered out of the surrounding desert and into the casino.

In fact, this is more or less what Charlie has done. Down the road from the glittery casino, Charlie lives alone in a trailer park and begins her days drinking cans of beer from an old cooler, sitting on a rickety lawn chair as she surveys the sagebrush. As the sun rises over Charlie’s trailer, a tinkling score of banjo music plays, suggesting a simple, rural setting inhabited by simple, unexceptional people.

Barred from gambling due to her unique ability, Charlie works as a cocktail waitress in the casino, smoking on the roof of the parking garage on her lunch break and wearing a grimy bathrobe as she purchases more beer from a rundown convenience store. She has little money, few friends, and few aspirations of a different life. By all accounts, Charlie appears to be an unremarkable woman existing in an unremarkable place.

And yet, Charlie’s gift for discerning lying is anything but unremarkable. When her best friend and coworker Natalie (Dascha Polanco) is murdered, Charlie uses her ability to single-handedly uncover the identity of her killer. As Charlie makes her way across the American Southwest, she continually finds herself in rural or dead-end settings: an isolated truck stop, a failing country BBQ joint, a rustic dive bar. The fabricated atmosphere of Poker Face, meant to resemble the gritty style of a 1970s noir, imbues these settings with a dark melancholy. Dim lighting and fixtures appear intentionally dated, as if these present-day towns are perpetually stuck in the past, along with their inhabitants.

Even in these settings, Charlie is often viewed as an outsider and quickly brushed aside. That is, until something pulls her into the orbit of various nefarious characters and their attempts to hide their crimes. When this happens, Charlie subverts the expectations of those who would write her off as a mere cocktail waitress, transient, or even criminal, using her gift to play an indispensable role in the pursuit of justice. Suddenly, the presence and actions of this seemingly unremarkable woman have a profound impact.

Charlie subverts the expectations of those who would write her off.

For Christians, the character of Charlie brings to mind similar “insignificant” women found in Scripture, such as Rahab, Hagar, and Mary, mother of Jesus. These figures lived in unextraordinary places and were deemed unimportant in society, yet found themselves divinely tasked to carry out extraordinary callings.

Rahab, a prostitute, used her wit to save Joshua’s spies from the king of Jericho, an action that marked her as a hero of faith. Hagar, an enslaved woman who fled into the desert, played an integral role in fulfilling God’s promises and declaring his faithfulness by giving birth to a son, Ishmael. Though she was overlooked and cast out, the Lord’s profound attention to Hagar compelled her to declare him “the God who sees me.” And Mary, who lived in a small village and lacked wealth, power, or influence, literally became the holy vessel which brought Christ into the world. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sang in response, “for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”

In Christianity, the Lord’s steadfast faithfulness to “the least of these” stands as one of the greatest sources of the believer’s hope. To know God is to know that a lack of status, power, wealth, or intrigue is not a barrier to living an extraordinary life. With this truth, the believer is freed from the endless—and often empty—pursuit of such things, because she knows that ordinary or unremarkable circumstances do not signify an absence of profound calling.

In Poker Face, it's not as if Charlie “rises” above her circumstances or even intends to do so. (As she tells Frost Jr., “I like my life. I like my job. [If I lose my job] I’ll find another. And I’ll probably like that one too. I’m doing just fine.”) Rather, Charlie uses her gift in the midst of her circumstances. In doing so, this rough, unassuming, and seemingly unexceptional woman emerges from the sidelines as a remarkable force, embodying an invaluable role only she could truly fulfill. This too is the hope for all believers: it is the call of Christ, not our circumstances, that ultimately renders life extraordinary.

Topics: TV