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Poker Face Asks If It's Possible to Dislike S. Epatha Merkerson and Judith Light

The Peacock show sends both revered actors on a rare trip to the dark side.
  • S. Epatha Merkerson and Judith Light in Poker Face (Photo: Peacock)
    S. Epatha Merkerson and Judith Light in Poker Face (Photo: Peacock)

    [Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for Poker Face Season 1, Episode 5.]

    If it’s going to work, then “Time of the Monkey,” the fifth episode of Peacock's new mystery series Poker Face, has to trick us into loving the murderers. The gut-punch twist of the final act won’t land unless we spend the previous 30 minutes rooting for a pair of old hippies who have landed in an upscale retirement community. The script does a fantastic job of making them seem like counterculture heroines, but just as importantly, they’re played by Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson, whose careers have conditioned us to trust them on sight.

    It’s not just that they rarely play villains. It’s that both actresses tend to portray characters who inspire devotion. In the last decade alone, Light has specialized in women who prove their resilience in the face of tragic events, whether that’s Shelly Pfefferman turning her horrible childhood into a musical on Transparent, Marilyn Miglin unflinchingly facing the reality of her husband’s murder on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, or Blanche Knopf confronting her failing eyesight on Julia. Always, she projects a vibrant combination of decency and resolve. Similarly, Merkerson has spent the past 30 years as a tough-but-human leader on a Dick Wolf series, first as Anita Van Buren on Law & Order and now as Sharon Goodwin on Chicago Med. Anyone who has seen Van Buren stand up for a woman that nobody else believes may be hardwired to trust this actress in any situation.

    “Time of the Monkey” exploits that trust. As the episode begins, we meet Irene (Light) and Joyce (Merkerson) as they putter around in their nursing home, arguing about this “Euphorica” show the kids are watching, and cursing out ladies who won’t let them have the remote. They’re paragons of saltiness. But Wyatt Cain and Charlie Peppers, who wrote the episode, don’t stop there: They also have these women rage against the machine that makes aging so undignified. From her wheelchair, Irene flips a bird at the orderly who wants to strap her into a creepy tracking device that will monitor her heart rate, no matter where she goes. Over a game of mahjong, Joyce mocks a busybody fellow resident who talks to them like they’re naughty babies because they grow a little weed. It’s not just that these two talk the talk of rebellion. We see them walk the walk, fighting oppression at every turn.

    By the time we learn they’ve decided to murder a new resident named Ben (Reed Birney), it almost doesn’t matter what their motives are. We’re encouraged to cheer them on, not least because they develop an ingenious plan that manipulates the very systems designed to keep them down. When they turn that tracking device to their advantage, it’s like they’re seizing power from the Man.

    Crucially, Charlie Cade (Natasha Lyonne) thinks these ladies are the greatest, at least at first. As she solves mysteries each week, she’s driven by her enormous empathy, which gets her involved in the lives of good people who are either used or killed by creeps. Thus, when she gets a friendship crush on Joyce and Irene, it confirms the positive biase that the episode has been pushing from the start: If Charlie can love these ladies, then so can we. And when their reason for killing Ben is revealed, even that seems practically justified. Back in the ‘60s, he went by Gabriel, and he recruited both women into a group of campus radicals. They thought he died in a police raid that also left Irene paralyzed, and when he turned up as Ben, they learned he sold them out all those decades ago, then went into witness protection. It’s tempting to assume their revenge is noble.

    Then the trap door opens. Charlie learns that back in their college days, Irene and Joyce were plotting to blow up the children of their perceived enemies. In a flash, their leftist ideals are exposed as a cover for their pitiless bloodlust. And in the present, they start killing anyone who might send them to jail. They even try to kill Charlie, who believed in them so much. By the time they get sent to the hoosegow, they’ve arguably become the most venal villains of the season to date.

    This revelation disrupts several assumptions viewers might’ve had about the series. Until this point, it has skewered right wing radio show hosts, incompetent nepo babies who inherit businesses, and aimless young white men who steal things from people of color in order to get ahead. The tone is satirical, but the jokes always support left-leaning views. In this episode, however, the assumption of lefty righteousness is the lure. Even Charlie briefly falls for it, and it’s the first time she sides with the perpetrator over the victim. In this light, the casting of Light and Merkerson becomes doubly shrewd, because their history of real-life activism only reinforces the idea that they can be trusted by liberal-minded viewers.

    As jarring as it might be, this sleight of hand actually strengthens the show’s authority. In its willingness to interrogate the entire political spectrum, Poker Face proves it’s more interested in exposing hypocrisy than in advancing a particular perspective. It asks viewers to recognize that anyone with any belief system can be a bad guy, and it encourages us to be like Charlie, who always finds her way back to ethically stable ground, even if she sometimes gets distracted by hippies with a weed lamp.

    New episodes of Poker Face premiere Thursdays through March 9 on Peacock. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Poker Face, Peacock, Judith Light, Natasha Lyonne, Reed Birney, S. Epatha Merkerson