This Perry Mason review contains spoilers.
Perry Mason Episode 3
Perry Mason, episode 3, “Chapter Three,” thickens the plot and solidifies the characters while delivering the biggest twist from on high. Matthew Rhys’ Perry Mason is still taking it all in. He’s surrounded himself with an idiosyncratic crew who bring their own tangents into the work play. But beyond that there is a master villain type who is rigging the game at every step.
Los Angeles district attorney Maynard Barnes makes the opening statements of the episode and Stephen Root delivers them with a dire glee. Oh, the things people will read in these love letters are “not for the faint of heart,” but salacious, tawdry and damning evidence of a horrible conspiracy. We’re rooting for the DA already based on Root’s exorbitant exuberance and alliterative public litigation. He’s positively showboating.
E.B. (John Lithgow) is already on his back when he responds. He’s getting a shave as he speaks to reporters. This encapsulates how the Dodson case is being tried in public, but the DA gets in the last words. Right now Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) is being charged with a murder which occurred as a result of a kidnapping she was complicit in. “But should we find it was Emily’s needlepoint that was used on that blue-eyed boy,” Barnes says, with a twinkle in his eyes and a hand already adjusting his suit for the perfect camera angle, “I’ll strap on tap shoes and add murder charges, don’t you doubt it.” Root is eminently enjoyable to watch, consistently.
E.B. is fading, though. He’s flubbing facts, losing thoughts, blowing up at Della and Perry and, most disconcertingly, looks more and more like he’s ill. His private club friends are saying “don’t call me.” It is actually suspenseful to watch, and is being filmed accordingly. Every time E.B. gets flustered it feels like a flare gun is being shot in the air to help him find someone to save him. Usually Della pops right in. She is fully attuned to his rhythms, although we can see her sea legs get a little shaky when he rages against machines. It is positively frightening when E.B. occasionally forgets his lines.
Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) has also been going off script. Her mother (Lili Taylor) and the church elders want to rein in her religious exuberance, but she goes where the spirit takes her. Maslany is filled with spirit. Her sister Alice blesses the hangman, calls for the vengeance of hellfire, speaks both Spanish and the language of tongues, and still has the time to chide Perry for the horrendous state of his nails. All with not only ease, but a sense she’s breezing through this on a joy ride. Maslany gave fully formed performances of multiple characters on Orphan Black. Here she allows multiple characters to form one larger than life persona and she looks like she’s enjoying it.
When Mason balks at her magnanimous benevolence, saying the lord left him in France, Alice becomes more benign. Everyone else around her seems like they’d prefer to have Mason tossed in a trash bin. Check the way the doctor administering Alice’s intravenous line tells the detective it’s filled with vitamins and saline. It sounds like he’d rather be administering a lethal injection into the gumshoe. Mason and Alice both shine in each other’s presence though. He brings out an earthy defiance in her. She finds a spiritual soft spot in him. They both look at each other with a wary admiration.
The courtroom scenes are as well shot and tense as they should be, given the premise of the show. DA Maynard Barnes and E.B. are well-matched in arrogance and courtly manners, but Emily Dodson steals the scene in a whisper. That misspoken guilty plea has immense reverberations. “We have a weakness for degenerate femininity,” Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick) tells his bastard son Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry). Della Street (Juliet Rylance) stands up for Emily because bastard men will never see her.
Emily is turning out to be quite a tour de force for Rankin. It is playing out naturally over the course of the narrative, but she puts it all out there in the jailhouse scene. Emily is being baited by her husband while E.B. is trying to calm them down and Rankin goes through five stages of grief, seven levels of hell and all but the last step in a twelve step program before she finally erupts in a burst of rage and shame.
Shea Whigham’s Pete Strickland is also surprising but in the opposite way. The tough ex-cop exterior drops away when he’s asked to turn over a dead body. But he declines the same way as a kid who absolutely refuses to even think about eating his vegetables. It’s just as funny as any of his wisecracks while at the same time giving a glimpse into his inner workings. The same scene showcases how much Mason has learned about basic forensics. Rhys allows the audience to see most of Mason’s deciphering being done nonverbally, but he and Whigham also have full conversations with nods and grunts under the nose of the people around them. The actors and their characters have developed an easy shorthand which makes it look like they’ve been working together forever.
The strong arm scene is very subtly effective, both as art and in the furtherance of corruption. LAPD Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) comes across as cheerily intimidating, like he can really kill someone with kindness. When he pats Officer Paul Drake’s (Chris Chalk) wife on the belly and predicts a boy, it is such an unwarranted intrusion it is only shocking but Ennis pulls it off with a greasy aplomb. When the upstart detective working the Dodson case out of E.B.’s office comes up against Drake for the second time, the officer is down with towing the thin blue line. Mason goes down for the count after two punches in the gut, something which might not have happened in the book but is satisfying here.
You have to admire Innis. Robert Patrick may have played the Terminator, but Howard’s dirty cop is a master villain. Mason made him lose his cool in the opening episode by saying all cops are stupid, but Innis’s ignorance is a willful one. He is willing an outcome with his very being and doing the legwork to make it all happen. He is also a perfect foil to Mason. Whenever a revelation comes to the private detective, he visibly files it away for future mental reference. Whenever Innis gets wind of Mason’s presence on a crime scene he shouldn’t have known about, we see Innis file it away so he will remember to kick Mason in the nuts the next time he sees him. Maybe not literally, but he connects repeatedly.
Howard also looks perfect as a 1930s flatfoot or mobster. He could have been cast in any part the magnificent character actor Joe Sawyer played during the decade. He’s not only got the patter down, he pulls off the faces which 1930s actors strutted their non-verbal acting chops on. Sadly, his character also pulls out a little too much flesh and bone when he’s doing his job. Mason learns the former accountant who had the affair with Emily quit his job counting money for a mob to pocket money from the pews. When George Gannon (Aaron Stanford) quit the gambling den of vile inequity to make book on the Radiant Assembly of God he was so full of righteous indignation his cheap dentures were dancing in the wind. Innis gets wind while he’s shaking down a house of ill repute and grits and bears it. Mason goes a long way and against legal ethics to make sure the teeth fit.
The Holy Spirit fills the ending, changing the very ether of Perry Mason’s atmosphere. Sister Alice has what looks like an epileptic fit, but it is shot ambiguously so we don’t know whether whatever is coming over her is the voice of god or a neurological reset. It happens right in front of her congregation and the responses are very telling. Elder Brown, played by The Son‘s David Wilson Barnes, throws his hands together applauding the fact the famed evangelist is incommunicado. But when she comes to, she makes a promise only her savior has delivered until now.
Maybe the Dodson case shouldn’t be about murder at all. If only someone can bring Charlie Dodson back from the dead it could all go away. The episode ends with her floating out to sea, is she crazy or caught up in a heavenly tide? In a series soaked with twists, “Chapter Three” sets Perry Mason up to go off course into uncharted waters.