Perry Mason crams a whole lot of story into Chapter Three, almost to its detriment.
Having settled into its story and introduced a bevy of supporting characters, Perry Mason decides this week to give each and every one of them some air time. That’s right, everyone is on deck for “Chapter Three”, from Perry (Matthew Rhys) to E.B. (John Lithgow) to Lupe (Veronica Falcón) to George Gannon’s poor ravaged corpse. It’s so much story crammed into 50 minutes that one might start to worry that there won’t be enough to propel five more episodes.
Thankfully, there is forward momentum with the Dodson case, so the show isn’t spinning its wheels just yet. There are more sad backstories, more police corruption and brutality, more racial slurs, and one CG hummingbird that haunts my dreams. Basically: it’s a new episode of HBO’s Perry Mason!
We open with dueling press conferences, one hosted by Maynard (Stephen Root) and the police, who have gotten ahold of Emily’s (Gayle Rankin) love letters; and the other E.B. and Della (Juliet Rylance). Both conferences are equally gross in their own way, with E.B. avoiding any real discussion of the case with quips and Maynard all but declaring Emily a whore and murderer. The public revelation of Emily’s affair with George propels most of the action this week, and since George is dead, all eyes fall solely on Emily.
Emily is in jail, where she’s visited by Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany). Sister Alice assures Emily that she was misled by wicked men and that any woman could be there in her place, even Sister Alice herself. Emily waves this away but Alice is insistent that she knows about being lied to. Emily says that she killed her son, but when Sister Alice asks her directly if she murdered him, Emily admits that she did not but feels responsible. Sister Alice isn’t here for that, however, telling Emily that “bad men did that” and that Emily cannot and should not take on the sins of said men.
Della too points out that Emily is being condemned for her affair and that people are just tossing murder on top of that, but despite this support, Emily pleads guilty at her arraignment, though E.B. swiftly covers it up and she pleads not guilty the second time. The weight of the accusations, on top of her son’s death, are slowly draining Emily of everything.
Rankin is doing amazing things with a role that could be just a sad face in a jail cell: you can see the light going out of Emily’s eyes. Even at the end of the episode, when Della catches Ennis (Andrew Howard) and Holcombe (Eric Lange) beating Emily into signing a false confession, it’s clear that Emily simply doesn’t care what happens to her anymore. Della is on fire, but Emily is barely there.
Rankin is doing amazing things with a role that could be just a sad face in a jail cell.
E.B. gets his largest amount of screentime so far and it’s not a good time. He loses his trail of thought in the press conference and has to be nudged by Della, he’s physically sick, there’s the business at Emily’s arraignment, and after the team has been fired by Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), E.B. tries to get his former law partner to help him but is cruelly rejected.
It’s not quite enough to overlook his callous treatment of Emily’s arrest last episode, but it’s hard to see anyone beg for help and be entirely shut down. However. He’s another sad white male protagonist in a show that, so far, seems to be constructed entirely of them, and after a while it becomes a checklist. Is he sad? Is he lonely? Is he tormented? All of the above? At this point I give us two episodes before we learn the tragic reason why Detective Ennis is the way that he is. (It will not matter.)
Ennis is all over the map being Bad Cop this week, intimidating Drake (Chris Chalk) and Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick) at the market, following Perry, taking protection money from local businesses, and assaulting Emily. He is the busiest character on this show, I swear. His harassment of Drake has one positive-ish outcome: Drake meets with Perry and tells him about the blood trail and gives him George’s dentures. Perry and Pete drive out to the morgue and match the dentures to George’s body.
Perry learned about said dentures’ existence while at the Lucky Lagoon, a casino where George used to work, and to which Perry takes Lupe. Other than the information about the dentures (and that George suddenly got religion and quit the job), it’s really just a lengthy sequence to show us Perry having a nice time with Lupe and….okay?
It’s easy to handwave that we’re only three episodes in and there’s so much more we’re going to learn about Lupe and Perry and their relationship, but I’m not holding my breath. And it’s a shame, because Veronica Falcón is charismatic and gorgeous and would that she had anything else to do except for, well, Perry.
Perry also meets Sister Alice officially for the first time, where he learns some generic information about George and makes an off-color joke that’s only appreciated by Sister Alice herself. We also see during this meeting that she’s given IVs between services, which we’re told are “vitamins and saline” but even if so, it’s even more evidence that she’s really just a tool for those around her. Sister Alice invites Perry to return to church, but that goes over as well as could be expected, though she seems undeterred.
[I]t’s a shame, because Veronica Falcón is charismatic and gorgeous and would that she had anything else to do except for, well, Perry.
Remember how we weren’t sure where Sister Alice stood on the Legend of Sister Alice? Turns out she’s all in. She’s chafing at her mother Birdy’s (Lili Taylor) overprotectiveness and doesn’t like to have the weight of the Radiant Assembly entirely on her shoulders, but nonetheless she sees herself as a true mouthpiece of God. Though just a little bit extra–Alice visits Emily in jail accompanied by a female choir and later dons a comically large captain’s coat and hat for a nautical-themed revival performance–Alice is quietly determined and sympathetic with Emily. Birdy accuses her daughter of using Emily to alleviate her boredom, but it’s clear that Alice has a sincere place in her heart for lost souls like Emily and Perry.
It seems like Birdy and the Elders will have more PR work on their plates coming up, as Sister Alice has a seizure during the performance and comes to telling her mother that she’s spoken to God, and God told her that she’s going to resurrect Charlie Dodson.
Every week I ask, “Why is this Perry Mason and not literally anything else?” and I still don’t have an answer for that, but darned if it’s not enjoyable anyway. Aesthetically, it’s fantastic, and so far the team of Timothy Van Patten, Ron Fitzgerald, and Rolin Jones have managed to walk the line between “gritty for the sake of” and “gripping mystery” as far as the plot goes. It’s hard to say that a show about the murder of a baby is unnecessarily dreary, but I do wish that the people trying to solve the crime didn’t have to be so bleak as well.
- If we didn’t see him interact with other characters, I would fully believe Pete was imaginary at this point. He finds out some useful information this week, but it’s Perry that investigates the lead, and Pete…eats a steak and cheats on his wife. Good talk, Pete!
- The character actor bench for this show is deep, this week featured appearances by Matt Frewer as the judge at the arraignment and Andrew Divoff as the boss at the Lucky Lagoon.
- The scene where E.B. spits blood into his sink, indicating some illness, is such a cliche that you could almost count down the moments until the blood hits the porcelain.
- Yes, it’s HBO, but did we really need not one but two fully nude corpses in the closing scene? The camera lingers in a way that’s unnecessary.
- Baggerly and Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry) only show up briefly. Baggerly has a plan, you see, to build a “city of faith” aka a planned community for Assembly members. It’s L.A. in the ‘30s, we’re getting a land development plot!
- “God left me in France, Sister.” It’s an overcooked line that Perry gives to Alice, but still poignant, and also I knew something like that was coming. Oh Perry Mason, you and I understand each other.