This Perry Mason review contains spoilers.
Perry Mason Episode 2
Perry Mason, episode 2, “Chapter Two,” continues to differentiate itself from the classic TV series while taking notes from the Erle Stanley Gardner books. The novelized Perry Mason wasn’t above making up evidence, and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) was more than just an enabler. She actively misled the cops while the attorney at large pushed legal limits to get his clients off. Matthew Rhys’ Mason continues this ambiguity. He is both reluctant and determined, and it all seems to stem from his military duty.
The episode opens with a particularly nasty battle flashback, World War I trench fighting. The soldier Perry Mason has to move forward, actually push men forward, to almost certain death. In his very first step out of the trench he already has to step over a fallen comrade at arms. He’s going to have to make tougher decisions, and endure a knuckle-biting hand-to-hand combat sequence, before the full scenario plays out. The battle sequences are expertly shot, owing as much to the carnage-filled detail of Saving Private Ryan as it does to classic World War I depictions like All Quiet on the Western Front and the opening scene of The Roaring Twenties. Perry Mason‘s sequence dissolves into the ash-filled murk of the battle, which really highlights the tension and moment-to-moment peril of the squad. It also shows Mason as he hardens himself for tasks no one wants to perform. While it explains a lot about why he, as a private investigator, soldiers on, the flashback avoids answering the points which were brought up in court when he testified as a material witness in the opening episode.
To make this point even clearer, the first time we see present-day Mason after the battle’s introduction, he looks like a bum, waiting for a nickel for a cup of coffee, a doughboy down on his luck. There is even a junkyard dog nibbling trash next to him. Rhys makes more than a compelling case for his take on the iconic character in silence. We really don’t know how he’s not asked to move on by passing beat cops. The scene doesn’t quite get any brighter when we find out he’s there for a reason, as he’s led in to the dark back room of a shop. It is full of spindles of thread. This is a great metaphor on how Mason delves into his investigations. He has to find a match for the thread which sewed up the eyes of the dead baby in the “kidnapping gone way wrong case.” This Mason guy isn’t afraid to do the footwork.
The very next scene is the greatest contrast segue of the episode. It introduces us to Sister Alice, energetically played by Tatiana Maslany. It’s almost sinful how exciting it is to watch her condemn the sinners. The radio evangelist is surrounded by sin. It’s on the streets, on Broadway, and all around her on the stage as her backup singers all have sashes on their robes signifying the deadly sins they represent. Lust, sloth, greed, they’re all there, as are Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) Dodson, the parents of the dead child. They are rapt in their attention on the preacher, based on the real life Sister Aimee Semple. The thing which distinguishes the sermon scene with the bulk of “Chapter Two” is the palpable optimism in the room. Lili Taylor is almost breathless as Alice’s mom, proudly testifying behind her daughter. The rest of the episode makes a virtue of pessimism. The Radiant Assembly of God temple is footing the bill for the Dodsons funeral and ultimately their court costs. The case is a loser. It’s going to take a loser to win it.
The episode also introduces Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), a young black cop who appears to do everything right. He calms down neighborhood disputes, finds missing evidence and pieces together crime timeliness and blood tracks better than veteran detectives. He can’t do anything about it, because black officers can’t even arrest white criminals much less officially investigate crime scenes. He can forget about offering analysis which contradicts official police detectives. But he is obviously going to be central in the investigation. The crime scenes, in general, are grisly affairs, and the camera is not afraid to show us. They revel in it. Each gory discovery is shot in a tease-tease-payoff rhythm as the “Central Avenue Stiffs” get more and more company. A shot of the burnt ransom money is shot as graphically as any stiff.
Gayle Rankin brings a bereaved quirkiness to Emily. She decides she’s too hungry to pick out a coffin, she goes into an almost zombie mode when confronted by almost anything. There is something going on underneath what Rankin shows us in Emily, and her subtle implosions bring their own suspense and ambiguity. When Mason uncovers love letters between her and a dead kidnapper the audience loses its moral center and goes into an emotional free-fall. This is obviously unfair, as E.B. Jonathan continues to defend her.
E.B. Jonathan is a passionate advocate and John Lithgow is amazing as he is pummeled into defeat as the pieces of evidence build up unexpectedly against his clients. He suffers one emotional punch in the gut after another, but we can see Lithgow actually willing scabs to form on his wounds as he forces his true belief onto his legal and investigative team. His scenes with Matthew Rhys are enjoyably uncomfortable. But his scenes with Steven Root’s district attorney character are a delightfully distraught dance and I can’t wait to see them go up against each other again. Shea Whigham is pure fun to watch as Pete Strickland, the long-suffering, wise-cracking partner to Perry Mason. He’s doing this almost for free, and puts whorehouse tabs on his expense reports. Who could blame him? He consistently comes up with the goods, and never misses a chance to pour a little salt on any paper cut.
The period filming is impressive. Not only do the exteriors, the streets and byways, capture the 1930s, but everything inside people’s homes look vintage. The classic cars look incongruous parked on the street in full color, but only because they call to mind black and white film. The paddy wagon which gobbles up the grieving mother at her own son’s service is a time portal in itself. The way the men put on their fedoras as they hit the sunshine after church perfectly evokes the mannerisms of a fading generation as much as any song by Rudy Vallée.
Perry Mason may not hit the high artistic standards of HBO’s premiere showcases, but it is entirely satisfying pulpy fun. The suspense and the gallows humor flow well amongst the fire and brimstone of Sister Alice’s pulpit. The crime procedural is seen through the eyes of a disinterested party who is about to get very interested. “Chapter Two” is well-paced and deviously structured, like the audience is being led by an unscrupulous mouthpiece but followed closely by a gumshoe who plods lightly on flat feet.