With its central thematic concern with death and duplicity, the hit Peacock series Poker Face consistently conveys an American Gothic vibe. Today’s episode release, “The Orpheus Syndrome,” though, steers the narrative straight into horror-genre territory.
This week, protagonist Charlie Cale’s cross-country odyssey lands her in a “house of horrors”: her latest gig has her assisting a filmmaker/special fx monster maven. Arthur Lipton (played by the disheveled-looking, gravelly-voiced Nick Nolte, who could be Charlie’s long lost uncle) toils in a workshop stocked with macabre props, including impressive renderings of Cerberus and Medusa. His handiwork extends to the fabrication of an uncanny maquette of his dead friend Max (veteran actor Tim Russ, who, to be perfectly honest, is pretty creepy looking in real life). The reclusive Arthur is also hard at work on the titular stop-motion film, which Charlie recognizes as an artistic attempt at atonement (since Arthur blames himself for the death of an actress during the filming of a never-completed, Black-Lagoon-evoking monster movie he was directing three decades earlier).
An elderly femme fatale (Cherry Jones) goes to diabolical lengths to conceal the truth of that tragic on-set mishap. But she is haunted by the sins of her past, and in a climax strikingly reminiscent of a Poe tale, the criminal mastermind crumbles under the strain of her own guilt. Her near triumph morphs into spectacular ruination, as she perceives a horrorshow unfolding during a memorial service. The scene plays out like a carnival dark ride, effectively arranging a rapid-fire sequence of eerie thrills.
Finely crafted and featuring terrific performances (starting with star Natasha Lyonne), Poker Face is certain to be an Emmy and Golden Globe darling. But with any more horror-heavy episodes such as “The Orpheus Syndrome,” the show might also find itself deservedly listed on a Stoker ballot next award season.