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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Perry Mason and the case of the intentionally ambiguous finale

Juliet Rylance, Matthew Rhys
Juliet Rylance, Matthew Rhys
Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO
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It’s fitting that the finale for Perry Mason’s first season begins (or nearly does) with misdirection. Petulant and clever, Perry storms around the courtroom, cross-examining Detective Ennis. He jabs and jabs again—with his questions, with faux slips of the tongue (“I got my autopsies confused”), with punchy language, with a temper that’s simmering and quickly approaching a boil. He’s dressed impeccably; Stephen Root’s Barnes sits behind the prosecutor’s table in a bowtie that’s even more ostentatious than his usual wear. Ennis snarls and sneers, and it all seems to be going surprisingly well, but all the while, Della and Burger trade looks in a manner so indiscrete that it’s easy to assume Barnes will cotton on to the fact that Burger is a supporter of the newly-formed Mason And Associates.

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And then Burger stands, right there in the courtroom, and says, “It won’t work, Mason.” The penny drops. This is all just imagined. It feels real, and it serves its purpose—it allows Perry, Della, Paul, and Burger to play out what might happen should Perry choose to call Ennis—but it’s a trick of the light. Burger shares his professional wisdom and suggests they call it off, repeating the same fact: “No one confesses on the stand.”

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Except that’s the whole deal with Perry Mason, or at least with the versions of him that existed before this one. Perry Mason loves to get a person on the witness stand; he moves the pieces around, gets into the minds of those involved, hoards information, fudges things here and there, and waits for the opportunity to drop the truth like a mighty gavel. That Perry Mason doesn’t want to see charges dropped; he wants to win in court to make sure his clients are freed for good and to make sure the true culprit is revealed in the end. Find truth, seek justice.

The cleverest thing about this gripping, if cumbersome, finale is its willingness to play with audience expectation, and that’s not limited to what we expect of the Perry Mason of yore. Throw all the TV legal dramas and all the detective shows in the world into a pile and you’d probably have to wade pretty deep to find one that is as comfortable leaving things unresolved, messy, ambiguous, and morally gray.* There is no final, climactic reveal, no surprise witness, no clear victory. There’s not even justice, not really. It ends, messily, and that’s not like Perry Mason—but it is like noir.

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We’ll come back to that, and to the resolution, such as it is, for the show’s femme fatale. But it’s worth acknowledging that for all this episode’s interest in the tension of ambiguity, there’s an awful lot of resolution (this would make a solid series finale, had things played out differently.) After their confrontation last week (and earlier in the episode), Perry summons some grown-up impulses and finds a way to bid Lupe an appropriate and warm farewell. Paul racks up win after win: He talks shit to Perry’s face (more than once) and speaks some truths, quits the police force after using all of his sick days and drops that stack of cash right on the desk next to his badge and his gun, reunites with his wife who has a beautiful baby after which he smokes a large cigar, and gets a job with the newly formed Mason And Associates. Ennis gets drowned in a big fountain destined to contain koi by the partner who can’t endure such a liability.** Even E.B. gets a farewell of sorts, with a quick shot revealing that Perry is using his briefcase.

And of course, the big news is the official opening of Mason And Associates, destined to be called Mason And Street. Della, who I think you’ll all agree is the real hero of the season, “negotiates” with Perry in a way that makes it clear that she knows her own value and will have no problem walking away. She also gets some cute scenes with Hazel, and a great moment when Perry (rightly) calls her his associate to the press. It’s a great way to set up whatever comes next.

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As satisfying as all that is, the most interesting elements of the episode are fueled by ambiguity. The high watermark has to be Emily’s testimony, which stands in stark contrast Perry’s earlier fantasy. It’s not a production. He just asks questions and operates from a place of empathy, and then The Stephen Root stands up and demonstrates exactly what needs to go into Perry’s closing argument. Root, Matthew Rhys, and Gayle Rankin are all predictably excellent, with Root going exactly as far into villainy as he can go without overdoing it and Rankin admirably underplaying some heavy, grueling stuff. It is neither a victory nor a defeat, and when Emily leaves the stand, you can see those final questions took something out of her, and she might never get it back.

It’s far from the only time that the news will be very, very mixed in this hour. Perry and Pete seem to make up, but Pete leaves him behind (for Burger’s office! Please god let Shea Whigham come back next season! He should tell jokes with Justin Kirk forever!) as Perry’s occasional fits of cruelty continue to plague their friendship. A mistrial is declared, and that’s the end of it, despite Barnes’ temper tantrum; justice remains elusive. And of course, it’s revealed that Perry had Pete bribe a member of the jury—and then we learn that there were three holdouts, not one.

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None of those moments holds a candle to the episode’s final scene, however. Now that all the shouting’s done, it’s hard not to feel a bit like Sister Alice and Tatiana Maslany were both a bit underutilized this season; there’s no bigger surprise in this episode than the fact that she’s not even a factor in the final days of the trial. Instead, she only shows up once we jump a bit into the future. Luckily, that scene in a doozy, though it’s not entirely successful. There were hints of chemistry or connection between these two people, one of whom is an atheist who’s constantly on the hunt for truth, the other a charismatic but wounded person who may or may not be the believer that she seems, but I’m not quite sure the show earned that “tired of being lonely” moment. Still, looking back, it’s an interesting spin on the traditional femme fatale, in that Alice is mysterious, duplicitous, and full of contradiction, as such characters often are.

“You can have all the truths on your side,” Perry tells Pete earlier in the episode, “but if you can’t prove it, if you can’t hold it in your hand, it don’t exist.” And that’s exactly where, after that excellent final scene, we leave things for Alice—with God, with Perry, with herself, with the truth, with the future. Where did Charlie Dodson’s body go? We’ll never know, though we could probably all make some guesses. Why did Sister Alice claim she could resurrect Charlie? Maybe she believed it. Maybe she just wanted to pull the church down around her, tired of the artifice and the greed. Maybe it’s both, or neither. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

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“You cannot seek justice without first knowing the truth,” Perry says in his closing argument, but the show’s closing argument seems to be that some truths are unknowable and that in the end, it’s the result that matters. Perry’s fantasy trial at the top served its purpose, and as this first season ends, he asks Alice if she believed she could resurrect the boy. “Didn’t I?” she replies.

* — They exist, of course.

** —The Holcomb of the novels is a sonofabitch but not, you know, a murderer; I think making the relationship with the LAPD more purely adversarial is more interesting.

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Stray observations

  • In a dark season, there are few things darker than poor Emily Dodson showing that mystery baby that turtle and simply accepting that he’s hers now. It’s horrifying and heartbreaking and Birdy is a monster.
  • Pete survives to sleuth another day (hopefully in season two!) Rarely have I been so glad to be wrong.
  • Turns out that Matthew Rhys has a top-notch Lithgow impression in his back pocket.
  • So many good Perry/Della scenes! The single most exciting thing about the second season renewal is that we’ll get more of Rhys and Rylance together.
  • The flashbacks to truth have been cool all season, but the Ennis flashbacks were so gruesome and it’s not clear in which light they should be seen. Is that also Perry’s imagination, or is that what actually happened? That said, the shot with the fireworks was a stunner.
  • The season MVP was obviously Rhys, but Rylance, Rankin, Maslany, Whigham, Lithgow, and Chalk were all excellent.
  • “What’s it like to walk around with half a fucking brain? What fucking fishwrap pays you?!... I’m fine, Ijust wanted to ask that question.”
  • Book stuff: The Case Of The Velvet Claws, the first of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, begins when a woman by the name of Eva Griffin arrives at Perry’s office, seeking his help. Della immediately suspects her of lying about something. I doubt very much that the case-of-the-season, assuming that’s what we’re in for when the second season arrives, will be Velvet Claws—although in it, Perry gets accused of the crime, which seems like a promising wrinkle. Still, but it’s a nice nod all the same. (It was also the basis for a season-six episode of the 1957 series.)
  • Costume of the week: Let’s give it up for all of Stephen Root’s bowties.
  • Did Perry Mason put his thumbs through the armholes of his vest and pace around in deep thought? Maybe next season.
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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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