Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Perry Mason really arrives in the case of the frightful penmanship

Tatiana Maslany
Tatiana Maslany
Photo: Merrick Morton/HBP
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Well, that’s a stark difference in tone—and is it ever welcome. It’s an odd thing to say about an episode that begins with Della (Juliet Rylance) finding the dead body of someone very close to her in circumstances that are more than a bit traumatic, and odder still to say about a series that begins with a dead baby with stitched-open eyes, but this is the first episode in which Perry Mason has been undeniably fun. Still grim, yes, and still packed with great performances and quiet menace (more than usual, even), but that’s still the best word for it: It was fun.

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Much of the credit for that is due to the lively teleplay by credited writer Eleanor Burgess. It doesn’t diminish or skate past the heavy emotional stuff, and actually gives Rylance, Matthew Rhys, Gayle Rankin, Shea Whigham, Chris Chalk, Tatiana Maslany, and Lili Taylor all some solid, subtle, meaty scenes to play. (It also gives Maslany the chance to do a little light speaking in tongues. No complaints there.) Burgess’s confident script doesn’t feel any flimsier for all its welcome buoyancy, and instead gives the impression that somehow the show we’re watching has finally and fully arrived.

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Please don’t let my enthusiastic use of the word ‘fun’ (with italics and everything!) give the impression that those early scenes are jam-packed with hijinks or something. As mentioned above, the episode opens with Della discovering E.B.’s body, a tense, mournful sequence that, once Perry arrives, becomes a silent act of love. A complicated one, but an act of love nonetheless.

This is a great episode for Juliet Rylance, whose Della not only anchors that excellent opening sequence but also gets some solid comic beats, a handful of complex little character-developing scenes, and (most importantly) the biggest lightbulb moment of the series so far. Della’s first move—besides turning off the gas and doing some horrified grieving—is to call Perry, who arrives on E.B.’s doorstep, ready to “turn [his suicide into something more respectable.” It’s the kind of scene that says more about a relationship than any dialogue could, as Perry and a weeping Della hug*, then get to work moving E.B.’s body from the kitchen to the bedroom, from a suit to pajamas, and from bloodied and staring to serene.

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It’s the transition from that scene to the next that exemplifies the excellent tonal balance this episode achieves. First we hear Della’s voice, monologuing about the surreality of knowing you’ll never again see someone you once saw every day, and it seems as though she and Perry have gone somewhere to mourn and maybe share a drink. (Well, Perry would for sure drink.) But we then see that she’s speaking to a representative of E.B.’s life insurance firm, and his response is a very polite take on “Sir, this is a Wendy’s.” And once again, what we see tells us a great deal. Not only does it set up the clever, almost effervescent energy of the episode, it also allows us to see Della’s emotional state (she’s pouring her heart out to the insurance guy) while also hinting at the indifferent funeral to come.

When Perry and Della do finally get to have that drink and do some reminiscing, it’s only the second of the several excellent scenes Rhys and Rylance get to play in “Chapter Five.” Each underlines a different, sometimes seemingly contradictory aspect of their relationship. When Della finds E.B., Perry is her first phone call. When he says that there’s “what’s legal and what’s right,” she replies with a gentle jab about how his self-destructive tendencies are the shield behind which he hides his intelligence and decency; she later repeats the line when explaining her decision to hide vital notes and evidence from the lawyer thrust upon Emily (Rankin) and by extension Della. When Perry just doesn’t show up for their journey back to L.A. in the morning Della’s disappointed but not surprised; when he begins to address an imagined jury, she listens, delighted, while typing up the letter outlining Perry’s “apprenticeship.” Each is a little piece of truth about that relationship, and once again, theirs is a connection far more complex than the one in Gardner’s novels.

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Each is also an example of what a knack both Rylance and especially Rhys have with a good line of dialogue. Take the marvelous lightbulb scene, in which a grandstanding Perry inspires Della to fake the paperwork that will send Perry down the road that made the character famous. Perry gets really wound up, works up a big head of steam, and then a wryly amused Della asks Perry if he wants coffee.

“I’ve got coffee.”

“That’s whiskey.”

“Oh, yes it is!”

That’s one of many sharp lines or exchanges in Burgess’s script, and Rhys seems to relish every one. (See also: “My penmanship’s a fright!” “What if I just popped your head like a tiny pus-ball full of rot?”) As mentioned above, there’s lots of great character stuff here, but it’s also just a pleasure to listen to, moving nimbly even through its darkest scenes and achieving something like light patter in a gritty crime series on HBO. By the time the episode arrives at Della’s proposal that Perry act as Emily’s lawyer, it’s fallen into a rhythm so appealing that it’s just a little exhilarating.

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That last act is particularly impressive, as it reveals that we’ve already seen both what moves Della to propose the idea in the first place, and what convinces Perry to accept. He’s lost someone who was a father figure of sorts, who wanted him to make good. He goes to see his kid (spurred by that dreadful encounter with E.B.’s grown son) and is told, calmly and flatly, that he’s missed the window in which he could be a dad. As he swears that oath in the closing moments, it’s clear he’s doing for Emily Dodson, but also for E.B. and for his own young son.

The scene in which Della proposes the plan has the energy of the moment in which a superhero first discovers he has powers. It’s got a little sparkle on it. It’s the energy that you get in the last minutes of a really great pilot or an especially satisfying cliffhanger. It’s all about possibility, about opening the most exciting door; such moments are the deep breath one takes before walking across the threshold. The pieces of the crime are still coming together, but the Perry Mason journey is now truly beginning.

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In the rest of the episode, the plot marches forward. The contradictions and ambiguity of the Radiant Light storyline continue to be intriguing, and Lili Taylor gets to really dig into Birdy’s frustration with, concern for, and resentment of her daughter. Maslany’s scenes with Gayle Rankin remain excellent, and we get a return to the Radiant Light stage as Maslany shows us Sister Alice’s charisma, manipulation, and fevered belief. The speaking in tongues scene (expertly directed, edited, and performed) has layers upon layers upon layers, and not even some knowledge about the life of the person who inspired Sister Alice can convince me where this storyline is headed. And Paul Drake inches closer toward the path we know he’ll eventually take, when a political debate at his church and a discriminatory, confrontational episode with a white police officer seems to push him toward leaving the force. (Though not, as Chris Chalk makes clear, toward driving a truck.)

And then there’s Pete (Whigham), who’s definitely in trouble. After Detective Ennis spots Pete, who’s tailing him, he takes him to a bordello and tries to sell the idea that it’s actually Detective Holcomb that’s screwing things up. But Pete’s no fool, and not even an attempt to bribe him with the attentions of a sex worker can stop Pete from making connections, suspecting that Ennis might be the fourth man. It sure seems like he’s got a target on his back, no?

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But the excitement of Pete, Perry, and Della making progress in proving Emily’s innocence can’t compare with the thrill of seeing Justin Kirk (as Hamilton Burger) sit down in a booth with Perry, order a tea with lemon, and start reciting questions and answers from the bar exam, which had not changed in many years. Kirk is yet another top-notch addition to the cast, and I hope he’ll return—that was yet another scene with incredibly appealing energy, even if Perry is “just a little guarded about tea drinkers peddling free legal advice.”

The best scenes in “Chapter Five” have the same energy that comes near the end of any good detective story, when the pieces begin to come together and our hero starts to do the impossible. Here, it’s Della that does the impossible, setting Perry up to do the same. And while the show remains gritty and character-driven, it also now feels like many of the clever, quick-witted mysteries associated with the name Perry Mason. It’s still layered and mournful, still grim, but having a great deal more fun. With that development, it somehow feels that much more like itself. It’s like what Perry Mason quoting Leo Tolstoy said before legally pouring another flask down his throat: If you want to be happy, be.

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* — Is Perry Mason, who gives two hugs in this episode, a great hugger? Or is it simply that Matthew Rhys is a great hugger and he can’t turn that shit off?

Stray observations

  • As with last week’s episode, this hour was directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who’s probably best known for directing Mustang, one of the best films of 2015. Another superb turn.
  • Hats off to John Lithgow, who was terrific in this series. There’s a chance we might see a flashback or two, but the meat of his role seems to behind him, and he was just superb.
  • Speaking of: you’re not hearing things, that really is John Lithgow’s son Ian.
  • This is the second episode in which a memorable piece of dialogue concerns cats and violence. Who in the Perry Mason writers’ room hates cats? Because one of them really hates cats.
  • Perry Mason becomes the latest fictional character to rough a guy up with a book.
  • Book stuff: Hamilton Burger will be a name familiar to anyone who’s seen the 1957 series or read the books. A great character, often in opposition to Perry while also serving as an occasional ally or reluctant foe. Kirk’s casting is inspired; I’m now really hoping that Rhys will sign on to do more seasons as Lawyer Perry and that Rylance, Kirk, and Chalk will all stay on.
  • Costume of the week: The suit Perry was wearing to see Emily near episode’s end was killer, but Rhys really made it sing. He looked like a five year old furious that he was forced to dress up for family photos.
  • Did Perry Mason put his thumbs through the armholes of his vest and pace around in deep thought? Not yet, but I won’t give up hope.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

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