The Story Behind the Nursing Home Ladies Fight

Poker Face is already reinventing itself, just five episodes in. In the most recent episode of Rian Johnson’s Columbo-inspired mystery romp, amateur sleuth Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) encounters likable murderers for the first time on her cross-country journey: two elderly women, former activists, living in a retirement community.

In each episode of Poker Face, which premiered last week on Peacock and will continue rolling out new episodes weekly, Charlie faces down a new murderer in an attempt to uncover the truth. Throughout the series, we see the crime happen, but we don’t always know the motive. That’s the case again in this episode, “The Time of the Monkey,” in which Charlie, a “human lie detector,” cracks the case of the two murderous retirement home residents. It’s the best episode of the season thus far.

The two women, Irene (Judith Light) and Joyce (S. Epatha Merkerson) are, in a word, badasses. They become fast friends with Charlie, who seeks them for guidance as she races away from being murdered, hiding out as a steward in the old folks’ home. The trio play croquet. They reminisce on the old times, in which Irene and Joyce were members of a cult-like activist group akin to the Weather Underground.

But they yearn to be reunited with Gabriel (Reed Birney), the mastermind behind their underground organization who narrowly escaped when the rest of the group was raided by the cops and sent to prison. And, wouldn’t you know it, Gabriel appears at their retirement community just days after Charlie Cale. But Irene and Joyce quickly come to the conclusion that he has to die, though we don’t know why until closer to the end of the episode.

“Early on, there was this idea that one would turn to the other and go, ‘We have to kill the motherfucker,’” co-showrunner Nora Zuckerman told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed over Zoom. “That was going to be in the episode in some context or another, and that was going to define who these ladies were. They’re ride or die.”

Here, Poker Face showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, as well as director Lucky McKee, unpack Charlie’s latest escapades with the old folks.

Spoilers ahead for Poker Face Episode 5, “Time of the Monkey.”

How were you introduced to the idea of these vicious nursing home ladies?

Lilla: When Rian came to the room, he said, “I really want to do an episode in a retirement community.” My first instinct was like, “Oh my god, this is going to be like On Golden Pond or something. This sounds so dull, a retirement home.” But then the idea was: What if they were two women, what if they were best friends, what if they were secretly actually hardcore in a former life?

Nora: The other crazy thing that we came up with was that there’s going to be a fight that is epic, that is the craziest fight in all of the first season of Poker Face, and it’s in the retirement community.

McKee: Rian let me read the pilot a couple of years ago, and I instantly got a feel for it that way. As we got closer to the show getting made, he asked me if I wanted to do one. It was up in the air which episode I was going to do. Then, I read this one, and it just fit me like a glove. They assigned it, and I was like, “I’m going to have so much fun with this.” Especially with the casting, because we knew we were going to get some classic, classic people for those roles.

How did you develop their friendship and backstory?

Nora: It was just in the room, we just kept talking about who these women were, and what you would do if you were locked up with your best friend in prison for a number of years. You would have each other’s back.

Lilla: Also, we were talking about in the seventies, the Weather Underground and all of this stuff—all of these people that are in retirement homes right now are not necessarily dull, sweet, boring people. They have rich histories, and we love the fact that these two women were badasses. They were hardcore. They just happen to be old.

McKee: It was really fun to do research beforehand about the Weather Underground and activists that were active in the late ’60s, early ’70s, [and I] started to feel my way around that. The thing that’s cool about this show is that each episode is like a meal unto itself. There’s no big cliffhangers or anything. Each episode creates its own world. You get to build everything from the ground up with each episode.

And then there’s the twist that they’re actually completely evil, and that they were planning to bomb a high school’s Model U.N. club when they were sent to prison. How did you bake that in as a big reveal?

Lilla: The beauty of this structure that we have with Poker Face is that you’re always coming into these episodes through the eyes of the villain. If you aren’t making the audience empathize with a person who is about to commit this murder, then I don’t think the episode works. In many ways, you’re spending the first 10, 20 minutes of these episodes almost rooting for them. Then, of course, you bring Charlie in and they start circling each other. It’s almost like you’re torn over it.

I think the reason it worked particularly well in Episode 5 in the retirement home is that those two women were so devoted to each other. Charlie really was taken with them, so her discovering that they’ve done this thing and her having to take them down is actually really heartbreaking. That’s a really strong aspect.

Nora: Because we may not totally understand what they do, but we understand their devotion to each other and their lifelong friendship, and I think that’s something that everybody understands.

Charlie is so beat up over them being villains. She starts crying so subtly, my favorite part in the episode—how did you shoot that?

McKee: A big way you do that is just keeping an open dialogue with the actors and talking about how far you want to go with everything. We had takes where Charlie had a little bit more overt reactions to [it]. Natasha found a really, really good subtle balance. There’s a tremendous amount of hurt taking place there. In a lot of the episodes, she befriends someone that dies, but in this one, she befriends two people after she’s been on the road for a while and in rough situations. She finally found these two ladies she really connected with, so to find out that they’re rotten, that betrayal and heartbreak was a lot for her to go through. She really nailed that.

It also feels like a scene ripped from a mob movie or something like that. When we were filming it, I was like, “Oh my god, it feels like we’re shooting a scene from The Departed or Goodfellas!” There was this whole idea of, “Are you a rat? Are you wearing a wire?” It was really fun to play with that tension, and the disconnect that these ladies have because of their beliefs.

What was it like to work with Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson?

McKee: Gosh, Judith and Epatha are not only phenomenal actors, but phenomenal people, too. They had such a strong bond, right out of the gate. They were almost like two little schoolgirls hanging out between the scenes, sharing old war stories with each other. They’ve both been in the business for the same amount of time, but they’ve never crossed paths on a project together. It was really special for them, to get to do this and play with these really wild characters. Epatha especially was really excited that she got to curse so much! All the characters she usually plays on Law & Order and Chicago Med and everything are a lot more straight-laced. In this, she got to be really wild.

Let’s talk about that fight. How did those two elderly women almost kill Charlie?

Nora: You see Charlie being like, “Should I hit these ladies?” It’s like, no, they’re coming for you! That was a really fun thing to watch unfold.

McKee: It’s established pretty early on that these two ladies are no one to mess with. The surprise factor comes from it being so harrowing and being a brawl in an old Peckinpah movie. We shot that episode over the course of a day with great collaboration from the stunt team and the actors. But gosh, for the most part, it’s the actors doing that stuff. Judith was crawling on the floor for 12 hours that day. She got down in the dirt. Epatha was ready to throw down.

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