Some time ago, I wrote a piece about how hard it is for me to quit shows, and how that refusal led me to watching all the seasons of Dexter, an experience I look back on with a mixture of fondness and regret. I am not saying that watching the first seven episodes of this first season of Perry Mason is equal, at all, to the pain of Dexter. That was a unique, slow-burn torture I might never surpass in my lifetime!
But more than once while watching Perry Mason, I’ve wanted to grab Matthew Rhys’s sad perfect lovely tragic face and yell into it, “WHERE IS THIS GOING?” I do not need this much time with the Radiant Assembly of God! Yes, I know cops in the LAPD were dirty in 1931, LAPD cops are still dirty now! Are we ever going back to the shadowy corners of Hollywood? The dark shadow of cinema’s Golden Age is fascinating! I miss it! Why can I never remember Shea Whigham’s character’s name? SHEA WHIGHAM SHOULD NEVER BE FORGETTABLE.
The pacing has been uneven. The plot has been needlessly convoluted. The first four episodes of this season did not need to last four episodes, and then all of a sudden Mason was a lawyer! I’m not saying I wanted to watch my man studying for the bar, but, I do think that was a very jarring transition!
I’ve kept watching, though, because these performances are so damn good. Much has been written about how Matthew Rhys, thanks to his work on the stellar The Americans, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and now Perry Mason, is our new sad king, and I do adore him. LOOK HOW SAD.
I would watch Rhys do anything. He excels so stupendously at communicating a fascinating mix of downtrodden cynicism and mercurial anger, and I love that combination now that Mason is in the courtroom. My current favorite subgenre is righteous legal shit! I am happy we are finally here! Give me all the gifs of Rhys grimacing in disgust or maniacally laughing!
Rhys is surrounded, though, by people I’m now desperate to seek out in other work. As Della, Juliet Rylance exudes intelligence and weariness; I love how every one of her interactions with Rhys’s Mason ends with a bemused eyeroll.
Her scene with Justin Kirk in Sunday’s penultimate episode “Chapter 7” was so low-key but so illuminating, a glimpse into how these two closeted people bond together over their shared secrets and shared goals. I am not sure there is a more affectionate relationship on the show, and we’ve only seen them together for maybe a combined 15 minutes! That is good acting!
Equally unbelievable is Chris Chalk, whom I remember being unimpressed by during a short stint on Justified. But I see now that my issue with that guest star turn was the writing of his character, who was a sort of corny criminal, because he is phenomenal here as Detective Paul Drake. He is stealing scenes from Rhys every time they are together! His big speech about constantly living in fear, and his decision to help Mason because he wants to do something right and good, was amazing! As was how deftly he shut down Mason’s sadness about losing his father’s land, piercing the detective-turned-lawyer out of his white-privilege fog. And, like Della, Drake is most often reacting to Mason with some amused bafflement. Remember this?
And can we talk about how I want to be Veronica Falcón’s Lupe when I grow up? I thought her character couldn’t get any better than when she basically shoved Mason between the bed and the wall while chasing her own orgasm—get it, girl!—but then she went and bought Mason’s land from under him. Heartless! Aspirational! Do not fuck with this woman. I adore her.
So yes, I’ve been watching mostly for this cast—how Whigham says “co-inky-dink,” how Jefferson Mays snaps at Mason every time the man shows up at the morgue …
… And I’ve been, well, sort of bored by every cut back to the Radiant Assembly of God, and I think revealing the guilt of the LAPD’s dirty cop Joe Ennis (Andrew Howard) from the beginning was a mistake, because it got rid some of narrative tension for me. BUT FINALLY, FINALLY, in “Chapter 7,” did pieces move forward! Writer Howard Korder, who used to write for the very similar Boardwalk Empire, did not fuck around in linking together pedophilia with religion, depravity with the church, the church with financial corruption, the police with immorality, and the church and the police together.
Phew! That is dark shit! Who could have guessed that Lili Taylor’s Birdy would have essentially sold her young adolescent daughter Alice to a passing man for enough gas to get to the next town? I could not have!
I knew their relationship was weird, but I did not guess that sort of abuse! And that flashback also showed us that Tatiana Maslany’s Alice really believes she hears voices of some kind; Birdy’s whole deal with the Radiant Assembly of God might be a charade, but it feels real for Alice. In those final moments of “Chapter 7,” where did Birdy get that baby? Did she engineer the removal of little Charlie Dodson’s body? I do not know!
Then you have the church elders, in all their misogynistic, opportunistic glory. Stealing from themselves to line their pockets! Taking out shady loans! Engineering kidnappings to strongarm cash out of one-time benefactors! Was I watching Perry Mason or The Righteous Gemstones? Some things about American religious institutions never change!
Look, maybe it’s because I just rewatched Spotlight, but I am really here for another piece of media that underscores how certain institutions of power cling to their superiority in the worst ways. It’s bleak, yes, but I also think it helps us remember to be vigilant regarding to whom we grant our trust. “The fuck’s going on in this town?” Whigham’s Pete (I had to look up the damn name!) asks Mason, and that’s a question always worth asking. I’m glad Perry Mason finally is, although I’m equally disappointed we’re only getting a final hour for answers. BECAUSE, IF THIS STORY STRETCHES INTO A SECOND SEASON, I WILL LOSE MY MIND. LET STORIES END! IT’S OKAY!
[But also please bring Lupe back for a second season, thanks.]
Perry Mason airs Sunday nights on HBO. The first season wraps with finale “Chapter 8” on Sunday, August 9.
Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Media, HBO