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

Perry Mason remains a mystery, but not in the way you'd expect

Stephen Root
Stephen Root
Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO
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In back-to-back episodes, Perry Mason attempts to find an answer to a question that has plagued viewers of premium cable shows since such things were first created: How many great actors does it take to mask the fact that there’s not a lot going on beneath the surface? Call it the Case of the Exemplary Cast.

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That’s perhaps not an entirely fair description. Three episodes in, Perry Mason is still laying a lot of groundwork; the audience knows more about the kidnapping and murder of Georgie Dodson than anyone else, save the killers, and Perry and Pete (and Della and Paul) are still playing catch-up in a major way. It is far more interested in doling out little clues about the characters we’re getting to know, and in threading together little moments that may point to how this miserable P.I. becomes a jubilant superstar trial attorney. So perhaps it’s not that there’s nothing going on beneath the surface; perhaps it’s better to say that the show’s delight in the mysteries of its characters and its choice to give viewers far more information about the case than its detectives have created a strange imbalance that makes Perry Mason less compelling than it might otherwise be. But hey, the acting’s great.

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“Chapter Two” (6/28/20)

That great cast begins to take shape in a major way in “Chapter Two.” Tatiana Maslany. Stephen Root. Chris Chalk. Lili Taylor, for crying out loud. To create such a murderer’s row of talent, the show presumably made like a member of the Radiant Assembly of God and dug as deep in its pockets as god would allow. The result is an episode that’s gripping, despite some wheel-spinning, because whether or not there’s a person of interest, the most important thing a good mystery can have is interesting people.

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Enter Sister Alice, played with Alison Hendrix-like fervor (and Helena-esque hair) by the magnetic Tatiana Maslany. The leading lady of the Radiant Assemby of God, she’s a purposefully enigmatic figure; despite apparent sincerity and singularity of focus, her precise motivations remain almost as unclear as what she sees when her eyes shift to... somewhere. (The audio indicates maybe a memory of a child? It’s difficult to hear precisely what it is, and deliberately so.) Maslany is fascinating, as is the character, who seemingly steps into the place a femme fatale might normally fill in a story like this one, particularly given Mason’s sharp focus on her in that final, terrifying sermon—but she also clearly doesn’t fit that mold.

If “Chapter One” was the origin story for Perry Mason’s origin story, then the primary mission of “Chapter Two” is to get the audience to the place Perry himself arrives at by the episode’s end: perplexed and compelled by this magnetic figure. Luckily, that effort lines up neatly with the other major development of this hour: positioning Emily Dodson as the person Perry will (eventually) work tirelessly to free, a person whose crimes consist only of not being perfect and lying to her lawyers. Rule number one of a Perry Mason mystery: Don’t lie to him, he’s just going to figure it out anyway and you’ll wind up wasting his time.

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In fact, it’s actually worse for Emily than that—while her secrets aren’t the primary reason she winds up being arrested at her infant son’s funeral (a horrifying, heartbreaking scene powered by Gayle Rankin’s top-notch performance), they certainly don’t help matters. Nor does the fact that Perry has the good fortune to spot a neighborhood busybody next door (a cat-drowning busybody), a break that ultimately sees him tailing Della and Emily to a diner where he’s able to pull a fast one on a telephone operator and discover a number that the distraught Emily has tried to call, again and again. And that number ultimately leads to a truly gruesome stiff, a secret cache of love letters from Emily to a man named Gannon, and some nightmare teeth.

Not-so-coincidentally, Perry isn’t the only person whose dreams will be haunted by fractured dentures after this hour. Paul Drake (Chalk), a young beat cop who’s clearly a much better detective than anyone we’ve met so far (Perry included), is alerted to scene of the bloodbath we witnessed at the end of “Chapter One” and quickly discovers the blood trail leading up to that too-short leap off the roof. But after he files his detailed, honest report, Detectives Ennis (who’ll you’ll remember created said bloodbath) and Holcomb descend on him and intimidate and threaten him into changing his report. But like Perry, Paul just can’t stop himself from chasing the truth, and he returns to the crime scene to discover where the body hit the stairs, bloodstain and dental apparatus and all.

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Paul, Perry, Pete, and Della seem to be the only folks interested in actually finding the truth, something made clear when Stephen Root and John Lithgow get going. Watching Lithgow and Root spar is one of the purest pleasures of this hour, and the revelation that E.B. is as focused on furthering his career and getting a win as the scheming, press-hungry Maynard Barnes may not be as disquieting as a grinning corpse at a staged crime scene, but it’s still pretty distressing.

And none of that, including the corpse, is as upsetting as Emily’s arrest at that funeral, the scene in which all of these pieces seem to converge and the highlight of the series so far. E.B.’s posturing and Barnes’s ambition, Perry’s guilt and personal baggage, the machinations of the police force, the imbalance of power underlined by the revelation that Baggerly is Matthew Dodson’s father, the visibility of the church—all come together in that horrifying scene. While Perry and Sister Alice both seem to be haunted, he by his time in the war and whatever is going on with his family and she by those unsettling sounds, it’s Della’s assertion that infidelity isn’t murder that seems to resound through those final moments.

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“Chapter Three” (7/5/20) 

That same idea also rings through “Chapter Three,” an hour that underlines, again and again, exactly how screwed Emily Dodson is in this situation. Her angry husband blames her for the death of their child, regardless as to whether or not she played an active role. Her lawyer threw her to the wolves, confident in his ability to get her off but underestimating the physical and psychological toll it would take; he also seems to wholly overestimate his own abilities and influence. (Also, he seems pretty sick? And has a mysteriously dodgy backstory of some kind?) The private investigator who was meant to be working to identify her child’s murderer instead found a bunch of love letters and the dead body of the person to whom she wrote them, and as far as she knows, he’s off the case. She can’t make bail, her legal team’s no longer being bankrolled by her husband’s secret dad, and the whole world, including her fellow inmates, assume her guilt is certain.

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But hey, at least she’s got Della Street. “Chapter Two” concerned itself with introducing the Radiant Assembly of God, showing us Perry’s wartime backstory, and positioning Emily as the fall guy; “Chapter Three” is back to the business of showing us how this Perry Mason becomes the Perry Mason. He’s met (and had his ass kicked by) Paul Drake. He’s seen the power of working the press (as masterfully demonstrated by Barnes, and god Stephen Root is so good at this kind of thing). But most importantly, he’s got a great example in Della Street, who is in this episode far more like Perry Mason than Perry Mason has been thus far.

It’s Della and Sister Alice who ultimately help Emily out this week—well, right up until the point when Sister Alice comes out of a seizure with a to-do list from god that begins with “resurrect murdered infant.” Perry’s still chasing information with the help of a gloriously squicked-out Pete (Shea Whigham is great at loathing dead bodies), and he’s certainly come around to the fact that Emily’s affair doesn’t make her a murderer, but it’s Della who strong-arms her way into a room where Detectives Ennis and Holcomb are essentially beating a confession out of her. (It’s a real fist-pump of a moment.) It’s Alice who says bluntly that if she didn’t suffocate her child and stitch his eyes open, then she is not his killer no matter what her husband says. Della, clearly, is just the best; Alice remains a mystery, but in that scene, at least, she does right by the woman she’s pledged to help.

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Still, Perry does better this week. (Matthew Rhys does exactly as well as he did last week; he is excellent, always.) It’s a relief to have reached a point in the series where the evidence that’s being chased is largely new to us; it seems that both Perry and Paul have a sense that Ennis might be hiding something, but they know for sure, and can prove*, that Gannon’s suicide was staged. All the Ps—Pete, Perry, and Paul—have become invested in discovering the truth despite the fact that they’re not being paid to do so and may put themselves (and in Paul’s case, their families) at great risk. And on a personal level, while Perry does hide the fact that he’s traveling there for work, he does attempt to make up for that disastrous New Years Eve by bringing Lupe to a casino and wining and dining her a bit. (Veronica Falcón remains a highlight of the show, even if she’s not given much to do.)

But the big development is that final scene and the declaration that Sister Alice—whose fiery sermon at the end of “Chapter Two” managed to piss off her mother and the other church higher-ups—makes about what she saw and heard while seizing in the bottom of that rowboat. First, it’s frankly thrilling to see Perry Mason lean into some weirdness with that beautiful final shot of Alice amidst the waves of a real sea, the flashbulbs and singing remote, a faint buzz in her ears. This glimpse of life inside her head is both a stylistic and storytelling leap, and a welcome one. But it’s also the first genuine wild curveball the series has thrown thus far, an indication that we may be headed into choppier psychological waters, and that’s very good news. With a cast like this, why wouldn’t you?

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* Presumably? Given that Paul found the teeth after falsifying his report, and that Perry and Pete then broke into a morgue and shoved those teeth into Gannon’s nightmare mouth, it seems unlikely that they will be admissable, but what do I know.

Stray observations

  • Apologies for the double review this week. A publishing error led to the loss of the initial review for “Chapter Two,” so they were combined here for ease. Back on the weekly schedule next Sunday.
  • Some background information on the historical figure on whom Sister Alice is modeled. There’s a chance that this will ultimately be a little spoilery, so proceed with caution.
  • “I’m a quarter Welsh and queer only once.”
  • If we don’t pay a visit to Jefferson Mays in the morgue at least once a week from here on out, I’m going to be very disappointed. What about the mayonnaise and Cupid now?
  • Book stuff: It is, uh, perfectly in keeping with the novels that “Chapter Three” contains both a jarringly matter-of-fact racial slur tossed off by a character we’re meant to like and some gross stereotypes. On the plus side, Paul Drake is a character who’ll be familiar to both readers of the books and viewers of the original series, and he’s as resignedly frustrated with Perry and as reticent to break the law as ever.
  • Costume of the week: For both episodes, it’s Sister Alice for the win, first in the robe in which we first see her, and second in her glorious prison-visiting ensemble. That robe Lithgow was wearing was pretty great too.
  • Did Perry Mason put his thumbs through the armholes of his vest and pace around in deep thought? Not yet, but hey, he climbed in a fountain. That was fun.
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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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