In Poker Face, Natasha Lyonne's Real Superpower Is Her Empathy

In Rian Johnson's Peacock murder mystery series "Poker Face," cocktail waitress Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) has an unusual ability: she can tell whether or not someone is lying. It's a seemingly supernatural sense, as she feels a little twinge whenever someone isn't telling the truth. The feeling is never wrong, but it doesn't give her any clues on how exactly a person is lying or why they're lying, and that's where her real talents come in. There are some fictional detectives praised for their detached, logical investigation styles, but that's not Charlie. She's the anti-Sherlock Holmes, investigating the lies she's told and the murders she keeps stumbling into because of a sense of duty to her fellow human beings. She has a profound sense of empathy that allows her to relate to survivors, witnesses, and even the murderers themselves. She's non-judgmental and easy-going, with Lyonne's effortlessly cool and genuine warmth, so people open up to her and give her clues no hard-boiled game of good cop, bad cop could ever elicit. 

Johnson has said that he wanted "Poker Face" to feel like a "hangout show," where audiences just want to spend time with Charlie Cale, and it absolutely succeeds in that goal. Not only does the audience want to hang out with the delightful Charlie, but it's understandable why people in the show trust her and open up to her so regularly. Johnson's other detective hero, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), has plenty of warmth and empathy but is much more reserved and aloof. Charlie, by contrast, is rough-and-tumble, ready to rock, and ridiculously lovable. She's the rare TV detective who solves crimes using her nose, gut, brains, and most importantly, her heart. 

A friendly free spirit

Charlie Cale is easily one of the coolest characters to exist in the history of television. She's funny, wise, relatable, and she really gives a damn. Frequently throughout the series, she has the opportunity to cut and run when she stumbles across a crime, but she always ends up doing the right thing, even if it puts her at serious risk. She's a real one who is just as comfortable shooting the breeze with a foul-mouthed trucker (the always incredible Hong Chau) as she is talking to a growling, embittered rock star (a fierce Chloë Sevigny). She is as non-judgmental as possible, only occasionally muttering "bulls***" when she hears a lie, and even then she usually reassures the person that most lies are benign and that people lie all the time.

There's nothing fake about Charlie, either, which makes her the kind of open book that people are more willing to trust. She's not some Machiavellian mastermind or a deeply tortured genius, she's just someone with some street smarts, a good heart, and the ability to actually listen to people instead of just pretending to pay attention. The only people that immediately distrust or dislike Charlie tend to be those with something nefarious to hide, and that's even before they find out about her ability to sniff out lies. Her realness makes their falsehoods more apparent and she terrifies them because there's nothing more powerful than the truth. 

An accidental detectve

Being able to tell when someone is lying might seem like the ultimate detective superpower, but it also doesn't work as easily as Charlie just being able to grill people and then tell the police "I have a superpower." Charlie is on the run from a dangerous and powerful mobster who could easily convince local cops to turn her in, which means law enforcement workers aren't exactly her friends, so any crimes she solves have to be done with creativity and wit. Lyonne explained the character in an interview with Empire Magazine:

"I really love the accidental detective. You know, the person who stumbles into a life of solving things just because their brain works that way."

There are plenty of detectives, both accidental and intentional, who are compelled to solve mysteries because of the mystery itself, but what makes Charlie feel different is her motivation. In the second episode, she's perfectly willing to leave a potential mystery in her rearview mirror until she hears that an innocent person was arrested. In episode 5, one of the villains calls Charlie a cop and she's (rightfully) offended. Charlie isn't working in service of law and order or an egotistical need to prove herself and her detective skills — she's solving these mysteries because it's simply the right thing to do. 

A different kind of detective

Charlie follows in the footsteps of other cozy detectives like Angela Lansbury in "Murder, She Wrote," though she's a pretty different kind of character than any other TV detective. She's effortlessly cool and easy to relate to, with an appreciation for the finer things in life (like a good sandwich) and a willingness to let her hair down. She enjoys her vices but it's beholden to them, like many TV detectives who drink too much or chain smoke. She's incredibly wholesome despite swearing like a sailor on occasion, the kind of character who can wander into any situation and make themselves at home. A big part of the fun of watching "Poker Face" each week is seeing how Charlie is going to interact with the episode's guest stars. Will they hit it off and play shuffleboard while smoking closet weed, butt heads, or maybe even have a fun flirtation? 

"Poker Face" is getting a second season, which means we'll get to see more of Charlie Cale and her incredible capacity for empathy. She doesn't have the preternatural empathy of someone like Will Graham from "Hannibal," of course, but that's by design. After all, her lie-sniffing ability is its own kind of magical empathy and combined with her ability to get people to let their guards down, she's positioned to give even Columbo a run for his money. 

New episodes of "Poker Face" premiere on Peacock every Thursday.