Perry Mason is already being eclipsed by his more interesting supporting players in “Chapter Two”.
It’s a tough moment for any TV show when the title character is overshadowed by their second-rung peers. We’re only on “Chapter Two” of Perry Mason, and the introduction of two new players this week almost immediately pushes Perry (Matthew Rhys) to the background, even as he has poignant World War I flashbacks and discovers some crucial evidence in Charlie Dodson’s murder.
We meet Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) giving a sermon at the Radiant Assembly of God and all the listeners at home on their “radio-boxes”, flanked by Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick) and her mother, Birdy (Lili Taylor). For all of the showmanship, white satin dresses, and gleaming platinum hair, Sister Alice appears to be the first sincere character related to the entire Radiant Assembly; holding hands with parishioners of all races, crying out against the injustices of the Depression, and meeting with the Dodsons and offering to arrange Charlie’s entire funeral.
It’s at said funeral that Sister Alice completely goes off book, launching into a blistering indictment of Los Angeles high society (lambasting them for never otherwise attending her church, much to the dismay of her mother), and the numerous sinners of L.A. There’s also a full-on declaration that the Devil personally entered the world to murder little Charlie and God bless the various layers of law enforcement who will see that the murderer is punished and worms will eat his/her body.
It’s a lot, it’s a whole lot, and no one, from Mother Birdy to Perry himself, is entirely certain how to take it. If the enthusiastic reaction from the majority of the congregation is any indication, however, there might soon be some mob justice sprouting up in the name of Little Charlie Dodson.
It remains to be seen how much Sister Alice believes in her own legend. She writes the sermon for Charlie’s service as Birdy and the elders plan the seating chart for the funeral, hardly seeming to hear them bickering around her as she chooses appropriate Beatitudes, and immediately before the funeral she’s seen praying in her dressing room, hearing murmurs and a baby’s cries before Birdy comes to fetch her.
It’s early days, of course, but Sister Alice seems to legitimately believe that she’s here to spread God’s word, a God who may or may not be speaking to her personally. Is it a front? Is she pocketing the donations or sneaking out on the side to drink or see a movie? Or is it, at least to her, all real? That remains to be seen.
Sister Alice aside, this week is about Old Boys’ Clubs, and the men who perpetuate them. A Perry Mason Canon Character shows up this week: Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), a Black police officer (Mason’s private investigator in Original Canon). After dealing admirably with a domestic dispute (where even the Black man he’s arresting scoffs that there aren’t any “colored cops”), Drake is called over to a nearby hotel, where he discovers the two dead kidnappers.
Drake follows a blood trail to the roof, where we know that corrupt cop Ennis (Andrew Howard) chased the third kidnapper to his death; but when Drake mentions the blood trail in his report, he’s harassed by Detectives Ennis and Holcombe (Eric Lange), who menacingly ask if he’s trying to be a detective when he insists that the blood trail was leading from the murder scene and not to it. Ennis has reason to throw any sort of obstacle in the path of this investigation, but Holcombe is just operating on good old racism, complete with “I had a colored mammy, so I am very cool with Black people, but you just can’t be detectives” nonsense. The LAPD hired their first African-American officer in 1886, Holcombe, this isn’t new, you’re just a racist.
It remains to be seen how much Sister Alice believes in her own legend.
Though “encouraged” by his boss to alter his report, Drake does some further poking around on his own. It’s clear that Drake will soon be teaming up with Mason and the gang to continue investigating, but with the reactions of Ennis and Holcombe already and the casual racism of even the “good” characters, Drake’s circumstances have the capacity to go very, very badly. How well Perry Mason deals with their characters of color is still up in the air, since Drake is the only one to appear this week, save his wife Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick).
Hopefully Drake will join the team sooner rather than later, because Perry, E.B. (John Lithgow), and Della (Juliet Rylance) are having a heck of a time this week. Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry) is arrested for Charlie’s murder during his meeting with Sister Alice, because his alibi is full of holes (turns out he was out doing some illegal gambling the night his son was taken).
Oh, and it turns out that Matthew is also the illegitimate son of Elder Baggerly, who provided the $100,000 ransom that is now missing, ostensibly into Matthew’s debts. When Perry calls Baggerly out for hiding his son, Baggerly counters with some unpleasant facts about Perry’s time in the Great War (more on that later), so clearly the Radiant Assembly has ways of finding things out.
E.B. goes for drinks with District Attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root), in the sort of well-appointed private club that reeks of privilege and dirty dealings at the best of times and is an ostentatious bit of ugliness when one considers that people are on bread lines just outside.
Barnes just wants to arrest somebody (the second time we’ve heard this sentiment), and while E.B. speaks a good game about justice, we (and Perry) see this moral stance undercut at the end of the episode when E.B. goes over to laugh and slap backs with Barnes and his crew after Charlie’s disastrous funeral. Perry Mason doesn’t have a lot of illusions about good guys versus bad guys, but it’s disheartening to lose faith in E.B. by episode two.
Why is Charlie’s funeral a disaster? Not only because of Sister Alice’s fiery speech but also because Emily (Gayle Rankin) is arrested immediately following the service. When she freezes Perry out following her husband’s arrest, he goes next door to the local nosey neighbor, learning that Emily was on the phone all night when Charlie disappeared and is almost always on the phone all day as well.
Perry learns the number she’s been calling, earning Della’s enmity for following their own client, and goes to the address, discovering the body of George Gannon, Kidnapper #3. George is seemingly dead of a self-inflicted shotgun blast, with a handy typed confession by his side, admitting to having murdered Charlie and his dead partners. Ennis was a busy guy!
Perry, fortunately, realizes that something is off about the whole scene, especially once he discovers a cache of love letters from Emily in George’s living room. He also finds that George is missing a set of dentures, the same set of dentures that Drake finds in the alley where George actually died. By the end of “Chapter Three” we’re three kidnappers and two arrests down, and we still have no idea what happened to Charlie.
Perry Mason doesn’t have a lot of illusions about good guys versus bad guys, but it’s disheartening to lose faith in E.B. by episode two.
And now, time to talk about Perry. We learned in his first conversation with Emily that he fought in World War I, and this episode features two heart-wrenching flashbacks to his time in the trenches. Baggerly snidely notes that Perry was dishonorably discharged and known as the “Butcher of Montfaucon”, a name which Perry seems to have earned for mercy-killing his own men following a failed offensive.
The WWI sequences are as wonderfully directed as something so horrible can be, with a terrifying shot of gas-masked German soldiers approaching Perry and his woefully unprepared troops, and fade outs to Rhys’ deadened eyes that show that Perry never entirely left France. It certainly explains just a little more about our main character and his ills.
But is it enough? Much has been said (and written) about the Troubled White Male Protagonist, and so far this version of Perry Mason is more of that same, a man with demons who finds himself doing good against his better judgement. “Chapter Two” certainly ups the stakes plot-wise, and is leaps above the exposition heap that “Chapter One” was.
The characters are more fleshed out, and the introductions of Drake, Sister Alice, and Birdy do wonders for this world that’s being created. It’s just still not clear why this is a Perry Mason adaptation instead of any number of known gumshoe properties or, clutch my pearls, an original character. I want to know what’s happened and why, but I’m not entirely sure yet why Perry Mason is the person to tell me.
- Timothy Van Patten directs again this week and his eye for a period piece is just top-notch. Things are believable in this world, from battle sequences to sweet at home moments.
- To paraphrase an MST3K joke, HBO paid for George Gannon’s corpse, and they’re gonna use it. Plot-wise, it’s necessary that we see it, but that scene goes on for a while.
- Perry and Pete (Shea Whigham) make nice after last week’s Hammersmith debacle, but Pete mostly hangs around smoking and being called a “degenerate” by E.B. Here’s hoping he starts to have more to do, or else Shea Whigham is just window-dressing.
- Speaking of more to do, Della has one of the most important lines of the episode, “Infidelity isn’t murder”. Said in regards to Emily, the line sticks in Perry’s mind even after Emily’s arrest, but other than saying wise things and giving Perry a hard time, Della is mostly around to hold Emily’s hand and be a snappy ‘30s dame. Hopefully, her connection with Emily will prove to be a more important story element moving forward and she’ll start to feel like more a part of the team.
- Between Matthew and George, Emily sure does have a type, huh?