The latest episode of “Poker Face” solidifies it: Rian Johnson’s work as a visual storyteller is fundamentally conservative.
Johnson, infamous among fanboys for “The Last Jedi,” is probably best known for the “Knives Out” films. The writer-director’s latest project — a foray into the world of streaming — fleshes out some of the conservative ideas in Johnson’s work, ideas he probably isn’t even aware rebuke leftist arguments. And it might be the best thing he’s done so far too.
“Poker Face” is a new show on Peacock about a wandering amateur sleuth with an infallible (but unexplained) ability to tell when someone is lying. The journeyman detective is named Charlie Cale, and she’s wonderfully portrayed by the idiosyncratic Natasha Lyonne, best known in recent years for Netflix’s “Russian Doll.”
Each episode follows a case of the week, wherein Charlie solves a murder through the use of her special lie-detecting ability, simple logic, and personal sense of justice. It’s essentially a detective show in the tradition of “Columbo” but where the whodunit structure is inverted into a “howcatchem.” This means the audience knows whodunit from the beginning and gets to see how the detective “catchem.”
Of Johnson’s six feature films as a writer-director, three are whodunit stories. Though people may not think of it this way, the detective genre is inherently conservative. Most of the greatest detective stories involve murder, a violent revolutionary act that’s usually about an imbalance of power or stolen property. Either way, it’s the job of the detective to uphold natural rights or law and order against agents of chaos, usually by discerning the truth.
Leftism and conservatism are fundamentally differentiated by the idea that human nature is in some sense fixable. The conservative understands reality is external to the individual and not something to be overcome. The leftist thinks ideological solutions can actually change human nature. While humanity is a problem to be solved for the leftist, the conservative sees his nature as a tragic and beautiful thing to be embraced and inhabited, not tinkered with in the Frankenstein laboratory of political revolution.
Thus, in many ways, the detective is the ultimate conservative character. Their logical deductions are built on knowledge of the human heart and their quests are constantly in search of truth.
Villains in these stories often long to “be their own truth” or create a new reality, which is why they violate so many norms. Johnson, it’s worth noting, made some of the finest episodes of “Breaking Bad,” arguably the most powerful commentary on this tragic tendency.
Fighting the Revolution
“Poker Face” is an extension of Johnson’s conservative tendencies. One of the weirder aspects of American history is our collective amnesia over the violent tradition of the American left. For instance, the 2008 controversy over Obama’s connections to Bill Ayers is barely remembered. But in episode five of “Poker Face,” our detective character is brought face to face with the ugliest form of American leftism: domestic terrorism ripped straight from Ayers’ playbook.
Radicalized in the ’70s, the villains are two old hippies who were caught building bombs to blow up a model United Nations. The women’s justification for their violence was that children of “war criminals” should be eradicated to prevent future atrocities. After decades in prison, the women are now old ladies wreaking havoc in a nursing home.
The show’s decision to pit a detective — the classic conservative hero — against two aging terrorist hippies is one that simply cannot be ignored. Case in point, there’s already some griping in the blogosphere about how the episode is an unfair depiction of leftism.
Johnson didn’t direct or write this episode, but as the show’s creator, he’s defined its themes and tone. The villains so far have been a dirty casino runner, a lazy misanthrope, two adulterers, and a trio of untalented metal musicians. All those characters violate fundamental aspects of what conservatives see as the good life. They’re inherently anti-social, immoral, and bohemian. They’re also deeply human, driven by greed and jealousy.
The same can be said for the villains in Johnson’s two “Knives Out” films, with which he’s explicitly sought to be “political,” poking at elites and highlighting “intersectional” characters as heroes. But there’s a problem with this interpretation of his own work.
The films’ main hero is a southern gentleman detective, the most conservative character one could possibly imagine. And unless Johnson has been living under a rock — or within a coastal echo chamber — it’s easy to see American conservatives have grown deeply tired of our so-called elites. Telling stories that make wealthy New England liberals look like hypocrites (“Knives Out”) or expose the men of Silicon Valley as buffoons (“Glass Onion”) surely delights the right.
Like Johnson’s prior work, “Poker Face” is a great show because it understands the darkness of the human heart and spins its yarns with a light-hearted touch. It’s wonderful television that unites the old TV tropes of “Columbo” with contemporary sensibilities. Though it’s not serialized, “Poker Face” is bingeable — each episode is so delicious you want to taste more. It’s proof positive the best stories are always fundamentally conservative because they get human nature right.