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Chris Chalk shines in Perry Mason and the case of the ball of fear

Illustration for article titled Chris Chalk shines in iPerry Mason/i and the case of the ball of fear
Screenshot: HBO
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Last week’s excellent episode of Perry Mason felt like something of an unleashing. The tension and momentum present in this week’s similarly solid “Chapter Six” seem to reinforce that impression. While perhaps not as nervy and irrepressible as “Chapter Five,” “Chapter Six”* maintains the energy and verve established by its predecessor despite the fact that it spends much of its time setting the table for the final two episodes of this first season. That’s no small feat—and as was the case last week, no small portion of its successes can be laid at the feet of one person in particular. Last week, it was credited writer Eleanor Burgess (this week’s similarly strong installment is credited to Kevin J. Hynes). This week, that person is Chris Chalk.

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That’s not to say there aren’t other excellent turns in this hour, including yet more impressive work from director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Hynes’s teleplay, and strong performances from Shea Whigham, Juliet Rylance, Gayle Rankin, Nate Corddry, Stephen Root, and much of the rest of the cast. There’s also Mr. Matthew Rhys, somehow making a coughing fit both stressful and very, very funny, tearing into dialogue like it’s a sandwich and he missed his lunch break, and making it possible to forget, however briefly, that he himself is a charisma factory.

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It does not seem totally unlikely that Rhys and/or Hynes and the rest of the writers’ room took some inspiration from Marco Rubio’s 2013 water break; Rhys shows us the same deer-in-headlights desperation, the same mounting panic, the same painful pretense that this is all no big deal. It’s only one of several great (great) scenes Rhys has in this episode, and in that respect “Chapter Six” is exactly like every other episode this season.

Matthew Rhys might be incapable of being anything other than utterly compelling, because even when the series was not quite this good, he was excellent. Perry begins this episode in an impossible position and things just get worse, even as Pete and Della start to till patches of soil that may prove fertile. With a lesser performer, Perry’s bursts of temper and constant frustration might prove somewhat wearying or run the risk of becoming one-note, but this is Mister Matthew Rhys, and he simply would never do such a thing. These breaking points never feel indulgent from an acting perspective, but are rather the outbursts of a tired, frustrated man who cannot tolerate injustice and cannot stomach lies. Each and every one is different. Make Matthew Rhys the new spokesperson for AT&T and AT&T commercials would suddenly become can’t-miss television; he is, quite simply, very good at his job.

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He’s never alone in that with this show, but this week he’s matched step for step by Chris Chalk. (Last week it was Juliet Rylance, the week before John Lithgow; Perry Mason does an excellent job of making all its supporting characters as vital as its lead without ever sidelining the titular character.) Chalk’s Paul Drake has been a highlight since his first appearance, but this episode gives him his best scenes yet and sets him up for more great stuff in the future (in both this season and, one assumes, the next.) Chalk and Rhys both thrill by doing the same thing in two very different ways. Each shows us a character’s mounting frustration and the inevitable cracks that begin to show as the internal pressure builds and builds. In Rhys’s hands, Perry’s tends to explode out in short, sharp bursts. But Chalk’s is a slow, steady, relentless leak, carefully controlled and potentially lethal. Paul Drake is not a guy you want working against you, and Chalk makes that clear with his physicality, his hushed voice, his almost gentle use of the text, and without so much as a single unnecessary movement or moment of effusion.

Much of the action in this episode takes place in the courtroom, and it’s all great. Stephen Root excels, grandstanding and making the D.A. just that much more hateable; Gayle Rankin renders Emily Dodson’s face a portrait of rage, despair, confusion and shame, often without a word; costume designer Emma Potter lends the scenes layer upon layer of texture and detail, making the rage and disgust of both the jury and those in the cheap seats all the more potent by allowing their wardrobe choices to tell us a bit about who they are; the list goes on. But the best segment of the bunch is the one in which Perry and Paul face each other, one deciding whether or not to break his word to a guy who helped him out, the other deciding whether or not to tell the truth and put himself and his family at risk. It’s a hell of a duet, an unspoken conversation happening between and beneath the lines, and we watch both characters teeter on the edge together, almost as if they’d join hands and jump into the abyss in unison, consequences be damned.

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They don’t, of course, and that leads to Chalk’s second outstanding scene in the episode. Having been given a bonus by the Commander for keeping his mouth shut, Paul turns up at Perry’s farm dairy airfield-to-be and confesses that he nearly told the truth. It’s the best of several great monologues in this episode—Whigham and Maslany each get one too—in which Paul talks about what it cost him to tell that lie, what it costs him to walk his beat, and what he knows lies beneath the surface of the police department. He talks about walking around with a ball of fear in his gut, and you can see that fear in his eyes, as well as something like rage, but Paul Drake doesn’t have the luxury of kicking boxes or losing his shit in his car. He’s got to keep things controlled, but Chalk is so good that when he delicately picks up the fragment of dentures and drops it in a neatly labeled evidence envelope, it’s got all the power of a punch behind it. A masterful piece of acting, and one that will hopefully earn him some well-deserved buzz come next awards season.

A big part of the reason that the Paul scenes hit so hard is that his tempo sits in contrast with just about everyone else’s, especially in this episode. For example, Whigham’s great monologue takes the form of a pricky imagined conversation (as does Perry’s “chat” with E.B. in his car), and his actual conversations are nearly as engaging, zinging with sharp one-liners and carefully pitched responses. (His scene with Stephanie “Dead, dunno, dunno, dead” Hodge is a particular highlight.) Della’s scenes are all about the wit and weariness of a woman accustomed to being the smartest person in a room full of oblivious people, and she somehow finds a way to amuse herself (“pertinent curiosity” being a great example). Perry is, of course, a force; Sister Alice is a mystery. They all pop and hiss and dodge and flick, but Paul steps carefully. Paul glides.

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There’s a lot going in this episode, from Holcomb’s inevitable realization that Ennis is involved with the crime to Paul and Della’s literal hat trick, and the ties between the murders and the Radiant Assembly begin to come into focus. But “Chapter Six” seems to be at its heart about what pushes someone to the breaking point, in scene after scene. That makes this a Paul Drake episode, and it’s a damn good one.

* – Where on earth do they come up with these episode titles?


Stray observations

  • Nice to see a legal show in which the Good Cop is the one who is obviously going to quit, having recognized that the institution has been corrupted at a fundamental level and that the color of his skin is being weaponized against his community.
  • Shea Whigham is so, so good in this series, and I have become increasingly certain that poor Pete is doomed. I hope he and Betty had a real nice time.
  • One of my favorite detective-story tricks is the ability to make monotonous work seem suspenseful, even thrilling; with the best ones, you can always tell when the shoe leather is about to pay off. That happens twice here, with Della and with Pete.
  • Jefferson Mays is so good. Here’s hoping Virgil is one of the characters who returns for season two.
  • “I mostly use stalls.”
  • “You stole a title?” “You stole a body.
  • “Dogfuck if I know.”
  • Book stuff: “I could kiss you, Della Street” is the kind of thing Perry says all the time in the novels. Book Della always blushes. I prefer Show Della’s response.
  • Costume of the week: Hazel’s second appearance at Perry’s place is gorgeous, but really, spend some time just pressing pause at random points in the courtroom scenes and take in all of the exquisite details. Give Emma Potter the Emmy now.
  • Did Perry Mason put his thumbs through the armholes of his vest and pace around in deep thought? Not yet.
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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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