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

Perry Mason and the case of the little dark halo

John Lithgow
John Lithgow
Screenshot: HBO
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This case is getting to you. You have a little dark halo around your head.

That’s Perry Mason in two lines. In the first breath, you get boilerplate language, something you might hear on both Nancy Drew on The CW and on HBO’s True Detective, the kind of sentence that could be flung at both Harriet the Spy and Sam Malone. If there’s a detective solving a case anywhere on film, television, or in the pages of a book, odds are that case is getting to them.

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But that next breath? That’s another show entirely. (It’s also expertly delivered by a top-notch performer in a scene that’s lit like a Chagall painting somehow tripped and fell into a Raymond Chandler story, which is also Perry Mason in a nutshell. 3 for 3 in that scene.)

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There’s nothing that says that those two things are mutually exclusive. Some incredible stories live in both those worlds, quilting a tapestry of metaphor and existential dread and using hoary old tropes to bind the pieces together. Many such stories can be found in the film noir genre, in which detective stories, heist movies, and other pieces of crime fictions serve as the basis for moody explorations of mortality, evil, lust, self-loathing, self-destruction, power, and violence. Perry Mason, this version of it at least, very much exists within that space, and in “Chapter Four,” the balance finally lands in the right spot, with the potency of the murky, psychological stuff and the captivating atmosphere outweighing the more familiar, run-of-the-mill moments.

After all, this is an episode that begins with a giant snake springing out of a box at a woman who believes she’s been touched by god.

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Perry Mason itself has a dark halo around its head in “Chapter Four,” and so do nearly all of its primary characters. Perry (Matthew Rhys) does, certainly, but he and Pete (Shea Wickham) seem to be the only two of the bunch who move forward with purpose and even enthusiasm. For nearly everyone else, some internal or external darkness throws barrier after barrier across the path (and to be fair, Perry’s choices once again land him in shit.) The pressure mounts and mounts until the lid flies off and all that darkness and fear and anger spills out into the ether. Della (Juliet Rylance) finally well and truly loses her cool, letting her frustration bubble over and explode, leaving her sad and spent. After weeks—let’s face it, probably years—of being shouted at and ignored while picking up the slack and keeping the trains running, she finally shouts E.B. down, pointing out that amidst all the bullshit E.B. is pulling down on his own head, she’s the reason his life holds even a little bit together.

But the release doesn’t erase the dark halo, and as she climbs into bed alongside a fellow inhabitant of her boarding house (Molly Ephraim, in excellent pajamas) and claims she’ll be taking a day off to see how he copes without her, she’s somehow more hopeless and weary. It’s familiar stuff—an overworked, loyal person has finally had enough—but steeped in dread and laced through with touches of the surreal (such as the sales pitch for a cemetery delivered by another boarder, this one played by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Michael McMillian, or the gloves that Della pulls from her paramour’s fingers).

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E.B.’s precarious position in the world, which has only grown more unsteady week after week, also reaches a fracture point (and come on, once he started strolling down memory lane with Perry, you knew he was doomed, no?). It seems as though every week we’ve watched confusion and frustration run ever more frequently across John Lithgow’s mug—he’s playing a game in which the rules and the players seem to have changed without him noticing, with ‘old friends’ uninterested in throwing him a bone and opponents seemingly unfazed by even his biggest bombshells, such as the “fourth man” Pete and Perry deduce must have been involved in the killing. (A shame E.B. didn’t get to watch Stephen Root yelling in that bathroom.) That confusion, which has seemed to indicate that not all is well with E.B.’s health since the premiere, has hinted perhaps at the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia, but here it seems more like he’s become so adept at pretending nothing is wrong that he’s blocked out exactly how troubling his present situations seems to be.

So after he infuriates Della, misthrows his narrative Molotov cocktail, gets totally outmaneuvered by the D.A., is denied for a loan, reminisces with Perry, sleeps in his office with swollen feet, and finds himself attempting to convince an innocent woman to plead guilty to the murder of her baby in order to save his own skin, he goes home to turn on to fill the hummingbird feeder, brush his hair, turn on the oven, and watch the birds flit toward the sugar-water as gas fills the room.

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It’s an image of beauty that E.B. sees, but he positions his chair out the window and the camera’s pointed not at the birds, but at the dying man. There’s beauty, but we can’t see it—and while the man who runs toward Sister Alice, a blanket bundled in his arms, is driven by love and wonder, it’s an image more distressing than holy. To Alice, the man and the blanket stand in stark opposition to the snake in the box, the shimmering air in the kitchen, the diorama of tombstones, the path of the Angel’s Flight. But to outside eyes, it’s just another threat, more darkness waiting for its turn to enter. It’s not about a clue. It’s about a feeling. And for the first time, Perry Mason seems to manage to do both, expertly.


Stray observations

  • Beautifully directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who’s probably best known for directing Mustang, one of the best films of 2015.
  • Gayle Rankin is once again so good.
  • Jefferson Mays’ Virgil remains a high point of the series. He deserves to be carried around inside a woman’s purse any time he wants.
  • Book stuff: Della! In the books, Della’s got a will-they-won’t-they/office makeout but nothing serious kind of relationship with her boss (Perry, not E.B.), but that scene certainly implies that Della is primarily attracted to women, if nor exclusively. Good. They are a zillion times more interesting as co-workers.
  • Costume of the week: The pajamas! My god, the bed jacket! The gloves! The cut of the trousers! Just divine.
  • Did Perry Mason put his thumbs through the armholes of his vest and pace around in deep thought? No, but maybe his thumbs are tucked into his arms under this blanket?
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Illustration for article titled iPerry Mason/i and the case of the little dark halo
Screenshot: HBO

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.

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