Perry Mason Episode 5 Review: Chapter Five

Perry Mason finally learns the law, but not until one last break, on "Chapter Five."

Perry Mason Episode 5 Chapter Five
Photo: HBO

This Perry Mason review contains spoilers.

Perry Mason Episode 5

Perry Mason episode 5, “Chapter Five,” delivers what viewers expecting the classic series were waiting to see happen. The scruffy private investigator who has maintained a three-day stubble for five weeks cleans up and gets an education, not necessarily in that order.

The first cleanup is actually done by Della Street (Juliet Rylance). “Chapter Four” ended with the suicide of E.B. Jonathan, esteemed but broken attorney at law. That act began almost imperceptibly at the start of the episode, as John Lithgow, who plays E.B., masterfully allowed his wounds to bleed out long before he turned on the oven, blew out the burners, and said a long goodnight to the hummingbirds. Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) sits on the threshold of ethics and has no problem turning the suicide into something more insurance friendly. He knows the difference between what’s legal and what’s right. It is a staple characteristic of a post war character.

The camera continues to function as an emotional storyteller. Kids are running happily through the cemetery where Mason is coming to drop off E.B.’s remains. And we see the suicide started much longer before last episode. This is a sad and cold family, and it is in the blood. When E.B.’s son asks if Perry or Street need a ride back to the motel, he sounds eerily like Lithgow.

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His visit to the graveyard hits a visible chord and we can see Mason see himself in the eyes of the not-so-grieving son with Lithgow’s voice. Ever the doughboy drifter, Mason rides to his family to visit his son Teddy (Cooper Friedman), in the back of a truck with some day laborers, checking out of the hotel before Street wakes up. Gretchen Mol is thoughtful and indulgent as Perry’s ex-wife Linda. She tells the history of the relationship with the pauses she takes between the decisions, but she is firm on the idea Perry is not going to play any kind of father role. “That ship has sailed,” she says.

Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is also adrift. We first see him at what his wife calls an agitation meeting at the church, where most change occurred in the earliest days of the civil rights movement. The system won’t change if people don’t fight, the minister preaches. The officer’s wife is on the other side of the argument, and Drake agrees with her in public. But we see the inner revolt growing on Chalk’s face until his reluctantly duplicitous character is finally asked to leave a Santa Monica beach. Cop or not, he is still Black, and this is the deciding factor to confront his wife with his moral choices.

The camera work is again put to good use as a storytelling device during the Strickland (Shea Whigham) stakeout sequences. The establishing shots are made through rear glass mirrors as he attempts to surreptitiously shadow his prey. Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) and Strickland’s scene inside the cathouse is fun to watch, in a guilty pleasure way. Ennis is positively greasy, he’s so nice. He’s almost convincing, he’s got the patter, the face, everything.

“Pete Strickland, burned on a tail job? I never thought I saw the day” is one of the warmest sentences in the entire series so far. It might not seem like the kind of exchange to carry that kind of weight but it reinforces both the relationship between Mason and his partner and the code of ethics they live by. Strickland had just finished offering his services for free just because a vice cop was trying to buy him off with pussy to rolling over his partner.

Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin), at the graveside of her son, brushes away the flowers and buries her face in the dirt as the soundtrack swells into the drama, while retaining a sanctified air. “Will you have to dig up Charlie,” she asks Sister Alice. While the famed and newly infamous minister has promised to bring the dead boy back to life, this looks like the first time the spiritual vision has taken on a visual form based in reality. But she is very convincing when she makes the lame walk.

The congregation scenes are exquisitely set, the crowds sufficiently enthusiastic. “Robert, the chair is an excuse,” Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) whispers to the desperate immobile man, and only him. The audience doesn’t hear that, and it appears she’s using charismatic NLP. Maslany is giving it all she’s got. The Holy Ghost is coming out of her pores and ducts. He feels it, moments later, before Alice speaks in tongues, rises on the strength of her conviction and the followers who prop his every ligament with belief. Meanwhile Elder Brown (David Wilson Barnes) is testifying on the sidewalks outside the church The new head of the former Radiant Assembly looks like he’s been waiting to do this all his life. Surrounded by the grim spectacle of a small gang of dolls with sewn-up eyes, he is a born showman just a tent shy of a revival.

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Sister Alice is a saint. She gives up her very bed for Emily. The evangelist could probably get a whole new four-post canopy for all the money stuffed in the envelopes inspired by her legally impaired young friend. But this is still a big personal gesture. She bails Emily out of prison, but with the death of E.B., the grieving mother loses her legal team. The case is a preordained loser, Della is told by J.B.’s friend, Lyle, in a moving and revealing scene. Della, subtly desperate, but very well prepared and Lyle is appreciative and fully generous with everything but an offer to defend Emily.

District attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) is angling to put a spy on the case, and Street is intent on doing the right thing, even if she has to break the law by hiding evidence to do it. The court appointed lawyer Frank Dillon (Matt Malloy) horribly underestimates Street and puts in a call to the DA’s office while she is still in the room. It’s like begging her to listen in. We finally get to see Mason win a fight in this episode. He chases Dillon from right out of the office. He is probably still reeling from the crack his ex-wife made about him coming home with loose teeth twice a week. Mason pummels the incompetent mouthpiece with books while talking about his kid and how important it is to read a book. This is also foreshadowing.

Street starts maneuvering Mason into lawyerly duties early, while telling him how annoying he is in the aftermath of the E.B. suicide cover-up. She has been selling Mason to Emily and Sister Alice on blind faith, something they are both susceptible to. When Mason finally breaks down and channels his inner master litigator, it is actually quite an exciting performance. It is a duet, like Fred and Ginger, except he’s not wearing a tux, and she is certainly not letting him lead. When Street starts typing it is viscerally exhilarating, as triumphant as any soundtrack. It would have been a perfect place to introduce the theme song from the original Perry Mason series.

After signing on Mason meets his mentor. Although he is well known, Mason doesn’t know him because he’s not there. He’s not a figment of Mason’s imagination, he’s Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk), the deputy district attorney and he’s gunning for Barnes’ job. The people in city hall are scared of the Dodson trial and Burger blatantly sees a weapon in Mason. Burger also serves as a timesaver. He’s got a Yale degree and knows all the questions on the bar.

This spares the viewer of having to sit through the study process, although we can imagine it looking like a dark take on Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. Instead of a montage, we cut directly to Mason taking the pledge to fight for legal justice.”Chapter Five” is a satisfying installment. It is the turning point in the series in which it is preordained. Perry Mason is a courtroom drama and the evidentiary portion has been presented in discovery. It is a relief to see Matthew Rhys finally accept Mason’s destiny.


4 out of 5