There are challenges every actor faces at one point or another, and often what divides the good from the great is their ability to meet such challenges, most of which are much harder than they might appear. Playing drunk is one such example; the best typically try to play a drunk person trying to play sober. There’s the ability to fill a silent look: with love, with fear, with reproach, with grief. There’s the stonefaced reaction shot, where a slight twitching of the muscles of the jaw or the tiniest intake of breath can indicate great emotional turmoil. And then there are two that are directly related, the latter of which is one of the most important skills an actor can possess: the ability to make thinking fun to watch, and the ability to listen. They’re directly related, and Matthew Rhys is great at both of them. At all of those things, actually.
Lucky thing, that, because any good Perry Mason needs to do all of them very well, and the last two in particular.
Anyone expecting to hear “Park Avenue Beat” or see Rhys grilling someone on the witness stand will be surprised by the Perry Mason we meet in “Chapter One.” This is an origin story. Not just that, it’s the origin story for an origin story. That list of skills an actor needs aren’t all that unrelated to the ingredients that this Perry Mason will need to become the one made famous by the Erle Stanley Gardner book series and the various films, TV shows, and specials that followed—notably the nine-season CBS series starring Raymond Burr and the television movies starring Burr made in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That Perry Mason was courtroom giant, formidable, unconventional, righteous. This one has a two-cow dairy and egg on his tie. But last-minute evidence reveals the truth!—it’s mustard.
“Chapter One” has two primary tasks. It’s setting up the Perry Mason origin story by showing us where he is now and what ultimately pushes him toward his eventual path, and it’s setting up what seems likely to be a season-long mystery (not a usual thing in Perry Mason-land). The latter is more straightforward, with a big reveal at the end. The former takes up the bulk of the episode, because we also have to meet the folks in Perry’s life: Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), his P.I. partner in crime; Lupe (Veronica Falcón), a pilot at the hangar located next to the farm and Perry’s very athletic sexual partner; Virgil (Jefferson Mays), his contact at the morgue; Detectives Holcomb (Eric Lange) and Ennis (Andrew Howard), two members of the questionable Los Angeles Police Department; E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), a reputable attorney and who asks as a client and mentor for Mason; and Della Street (Juliet Rylance), Jonathan’s secretary who also seems to be a buddy of Mason’s. We also meet some Hollywood suits and stars, a wealthy patron of the 1930s version of a mega-church (Robert Patrick) with a portrait of that church’s leader (Tatiana Maslany) on his wall, and two grieving parents.
While relatively little time is spent on the mystery itself—the kidnapping and brutal murder of baby Georgie Dodson, who loves turtles and who wound up alone on a streetcar with his eyes stitched open. Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin, absolutely invaluable here) don’t seem to be wealthy; they aren’t connected or high-profile. In short, they aren’t the Lindberghs. Yet the episode opens with them hauling a “fancy fucking suitcase” full of cash to an empty apartment with a view of a certain streetcar, waiting for word on the return of their child. What they find is a horror. It’s that horror—the horror of a compassionate man and an absent father—that will drive Perry throughout the season, if the episode’s final moments are any indication. And that final shot, of Perry putting together a drunken, floor-based murderboard, is the inevitable result of a pair of sharp tweezers depositing a thick black thread in a matchbox.
Nearly every scene falls into one of the two categories listed above—telling us about Perry, or telling us about the murder of Georgie—and while far more time is spent introducing us to Perry’s world, it’s the handful of scenes that dwell on the emotional reality of the Angel’s Flight killing that really hold the episode together. The details of Perry’s life, his stumbling descent into the shitheap, it all leads to the same place that his conversation with Emily Dodson and his moments in the morgue with Virgil lead. It’s the smashing of the truck and the rolling back of the carpet when things really get started. It’ll be interesting to see where next week takes us with regard to both the mystery and Mason’s life.
Of course, Perry Mason could be solving the Case Of The Peaceful Walk Around The Block and the show would still be worth watching, because Matthew Rhys is, as always, magnetic. He has a world-class mug. He’s got perfect timing. He uses his body to tell the story in ways that seem so instinctual it’s easy to forget that he’s acting—think of that arm awkwardly flung up against the wall after his dalliance with Lupe, or him dragging that too-thin recalcitrant cow, or the slight skittering jump back when Detective Ennis comes for him. His voice, too, is a marvelous tool: the thickness when he’s drunk, the strain in the courtroom, the effort not to scream as the barrel of his gun is branded across his chest. The whole cast is good, but really only Rhys and Rankin have meaty stuff to do here; she’s every bit as good as he is in far fewer scenes, a balance that makes the episode’s final moments possible. Without their scene together, Rhys would still be great, but the gravity of the scene in the morgue, the returned package, the drunken phone call would be greatly lessened.
Luckily, while this is clearly Perry Mason: The Gritty Younger Years, there’s also some humor. “I think it was pumpkin pie.” (She’s going to get a yeast infection.) Lupe and Perry sexing themselves right off the edge of the bed. Pete’s obsession with a pulp novel. There’s also some truly gorgeous filmmaking (from Boardwalk Empire mainstay Timothy Van Patten, who will direct most of the episodes of this season) and the occasional noir touch, such as the title card, which instantly evokes films like The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly.
Still, it’s a dark beginning for a guy who, eventually, will come to truly love his work. Right now, he seems to truly love figuring out which books have booze in them. Can’t really blame him for that.
- Welcome to Perry Mason coverage! I’m very glad to be back on the gritty-HBO-mystery-starring-beloved-actor-with-world-class-mug beat. Looking forward to reading all your thoughts about whodunnit in the comments.
- They sure had a lot of fun with the fake actor names.
- Book stuff: As a kid I read dozens of the Erle Stanley Gardner books, some of which I’ve revisited in the last few weeks. (The mysteries hold up; the casual racism and misogyny do not.) Every week I’ll try to highlight some of the connections to the books or the TV series/TV movies. The most obvious this week is Della Street, who’s going to be around all season, but there’s also Detective Holcomb, whom we’re presumably meeting before his promotion to sergeant. It’s a fair bet that he gets that promotion off of some solve of Perry’s, if the series holds true to the books in that regard.
- Costume of the week: Perry’s morgue tie is a real winner, but Emily’s housedress is an incredibly effective piece of costuming.
- Did Perry Mason put his thumbs through the armholes of his vest and pace around deep in thought? No. I will do this every week until it happens. It happens 2-3 times per book. Surely at some point, Rhys will make this happen.