Perry Mason Episode 4 Review: Chapter Four

E.B. and Perry Mason explore the limits of habeas corpus as "Chapter Four" introduces a change of venue.

Photo: HBO

This Perry Mason review contains spoilers.

Perry Mason Episode 4

Perry Mason’s “Chapter Four” is a long denouement for the Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) legal team. The woman who has been accused of, at the very least, conspiring to aid in the kidnapping which led to the death of her child, is running out of options. The entire episode shows her falling through every loophole laid out for her, except of course, the ones that Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) employs to circumvent the law.

John Lithgow can really elicit sympathy. Stephen Root’s district attorney Maynard Barnes is relishing his every courtroom punch, and E.B. gets the emotional wind knocked out of him several times. Every time it looks like E.B. Jonathan has something tangible which can help his client, even a little bit, small implosions happen in different parts of his body as they are taken away. Yes, the judge agrees Emily Dodson should be in protective custody, and yes, the cops better not pull any more “shenanigans,” like trying to beat confessions out of her, but even these small victories are ultimately pointless. She is still going to rot in jail because of a bail she can’t pay, and her husband is going to testify against her. E.B. can’t bail her out because his own financials are in shambles and each hit sinks him deeper until Barnes delivers the rabbit punch of disbarment.

After promising to bring the Charlie Dodson boy back from the dead, Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) gets a slightly less than thoughtful gift from one of her flock: a snack box filled with snakes. This is a particularly subversive and frightening scene, especially as the little kid so horribly cute she could be in a Norman Rockwell painting. Alice is teetering between breakdown and breakthrough at all times. Even in her quiet moments, there are flashes of the zealotry behind the eyes. But her turnaround moment is when a true believer delivers a blanket during a press conference because “Charlie Dodson will rise again,” and when he does, “he will be cold.” Alice drinks the entire scene, crowd and all, into her soul before she reverts to the evangelical prophet which delights her fans and frightens her handlers.

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“Blasphemer,” Elder Brown (David Wilson Barnes) screams with such fervent conviction it goes way beyond righteous indignation. This is a guy who can cast a first stone and just might get his rocks off doing it. Alice’s mother (Lili Taylor) is stuck between a hard place as Alice becomes spiritually ready to roll post-trauma into a Lazarus hat trick. Maslany brings a very delicate balance to the imbalance of spiritual sight. Taylor is amazing to watch as everything we know her character is feeling is immediately thrust below the surface, hidden from sight, but only barely. One wants so badly to immerse herself into belief. The other is almost waterproof.

No one is looking for a fourth man in the Dodson case except Mason and Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), the latter of whom quips the trail is “vanishing like the blush of innocence.” This is an endearing scene in the show for both characters as it reveals a poetic depth and a surprised appreciation in each man. It’s a fun acting moment to watch because it is almost the opposite of breaking character. Both actors break further into the character with the same ease they break into coroners’ offices.

Virgil (Jefferson Mays), the mortician, gets a day away from the formaldehyde. He wonders, hopefully, if Perry and Strickland stole him away to show him pornography and one of the funniest bits to come from the Strickland when he offers to go get some. He is never at a loss for a good comeback in general, but here you can hear how much he would actually enjoy sharing some illicit bric-a-brac. But no, Virgil isn’t picked up for that. Some people can’t get away from work.

Perry Mason broke a lot of rules in the early books of the series, and here we get an example of a very inventive interpretation of habeas corpus. I don’t know if the novelized Mason ever stole a body, Raymond Burr’s Mason would never do such a thing. But HBO’s Mason and his investigative partner take George Gannon’s (Aaron Stanford) body from the county coroner and drop it off in their friendly neighborhood mortician’s jurisdiction. This is really pretty ingenious. The police ruled Gannon’s death a suicide, and country coroner Frank Nazz “fucked up” his report “because he was told to,” Mason explains. He and Strickland try to prop Virgil up as a hero, but in the end, he feels so small he could fit in a lady’s purse.

Perry Mason is at least inventive in its portrayal of fetishes. Most shows go for S&M and leave it at that. This series already dished out a tasty helping of sitophilia. (Chubby actually takes his revenge on Mason tonight for ruining a guilty pleasure in the opening episode. He also wants his shoe back in the memorable and revealing scene.) The cathouse that Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) shakes down has ornate pages of fetishes to choose from on its sexual menu. Virgil has a shrink kink, which is an interesting embellishment for a guy who works in such proximity to embalming fluid. It probably isn’t in the books but, as a detail, it captures the pulpy flavor of the original novel series while updating it.

Also in this episode, we learn more about Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and her girlfriend, who lives with her but maintains the necessitated secrecy of the era. The lesbian relationship doesn’t really add to Della’s character, though it is a striking contrast to the shriller depictions of the time. Della’s been pushed to the limit at work, but it is still quite surprising to see her lash out at E.B. The attorney at large is shrinking as quickly as the mortician Virgil’s fantasias, but still fills an exalted position over everyone in his capsizing ship. Emily looks at him with the same desperate faith she saved for Sister Alice. Perry may play hired hand but bullies his mentor with unbridled but unspoken pleas to be unleashed.

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By the end, E.B. is a caged animal and this episode belongs to Lithgow. Not because it is the last we will see him, but for the downward arc which plays out from hairline to lower lip. E.B. is not in every scene. He’s not even the main character of the show, which is far more of an ensemble piece than the classic TV series. But he leaves his emotional imprint on every second of screen time. When Mason doesn’t find something he’s looking for, we remember how it will impact E.B.’s case. When Detective Innis shuts down a lead, we flash on how it’s going to screw up E.B.’s plans.

“Chapter Four” is a squeeze play. Outside forces push the old guard out like fingers on a tube of toothpaste. It is a great setup for a takedown. The entire episode ducks and weaves in a combination of punches which knock the wind out of the movement, not entirely unlike how Alfred Hitchcock disrupts Psycho by abruptly changing the focal point character. The actual closing statement is one of Perry Mason‘s least abrupt lane-changers. It plays out in slow motion, both as an artfully photographed closing scene, and as a forgone conclusion from the very opening shot.


4 out of 5