Perry Mason: 1.02 Chapter 2
If you weren't a fan of HBO's film-noir, gritty prequel styling last week, then you won't be convinced by the second episode of Perry Mason, which doubles down on the darkness as the events concerning the case of the dead Dodson child escalate. But for those like me, who were intrigued by the gorgeous cinematic stylings and compelling performances, you'll find that Chapter 2 is an altogether stronger entry.
The first episode had a lot to carry on its back; establishing a gritty 30's LA, where stardom and crime go hand in hand. Perry Mason was reimagined as a man suffering with trauma from his experience in World War I, all set against the shocking murder of the Dodson boy. There were times when the various narrative threads - and the introduction / reimagining of several characters - left the opener something of a meandering mix of ideas and images. While episode two builds on those themes, it also helps to have a central narrative to drive the plot - beginning with the arrest of one parent and ending on the other.
The new Perry Mason isn't quite into classic courtroom drama territory yet, but the case certainly drove the plot, with Perry looking for clues as John Lithgow's Elias Birchard 'E.B.' Jonathan tried to defend Mathew Dodson (Nate Corddry) found himself arrested for the death of his son. Cripplied by gambling debts and the surprise reveal that he was the illegitimate son of Robert Patrick's Herman Baggerly, Chapter 2 certainly showed that there were plenty of twists and turns to come as the show progressed; perhaps we'll get the shock witness turn of events on the stand come the season's end after all. Last week established Perry's credentials as a PI and that certainly came to light this week as he uncovered the secret affair of Matthew's wife Emily (Gayle Rankin), leading the extremely gruesome discovery of her dead lover. What emerged was a battle of wills between Elias, Perry and Juliet Rylance's Della Street over suspects and motive; both parents has secrets that could easily have led to the blackmail and accidental death of their son. But as Della righty pointed out, 'infidelity isn't murder'. Sadly, poor Emily found herself behind bars by the end credits.
There was a lot going on in this episode. Matthew Rhys had a bit more energy to his performance this week; the zeal of the investigation demonstrating a gumption that was not apparent in Chapter 1. The episode also explored the trauma of his past experiences in World War I, opening the episode with a vivid, brutal assault over the trenches in a stunningly choreographed sequence that wouldn't be out of place in modern war movie. The continued flashbacks, juxtaposed against the vivid discover of Emily's lover and the hint of dishonourable discharge culminated in the harrowing sequence in which Perry proceeded to shot a number of his fellow soldiers as they lay dying on the battlefield. Was it this attempt at mercy that saw him discharged? I'm intrigued to see more of this past explored.
Chapter 2 also introduced us to the brilliant Tatiana Maslany (who deservedly won an Emmy for her work in Orphan Black) and leads a staggeringly good performance as Sister Alice, based presumably on real life evangelist Sister Aimee Semple. Her two scenes at the church were electric, particularly her impassioned speech to the detectives and lawyers assembled in the congregation at the Dodson boy's funeral.
But more intriguing were the quieter moments and her relationship with mother Birdy McKeegan (Lili Taylor). While Alice may be the mouthpiece of the church, it was certainly hinted that Birdy has the real power. She certainly seemed to direct the planning of the funeral and was angered at her daughter's rapturous speech. Most significantly, there was the suggestion that Alice herself is haunted by some past trauma. The clues suggest that the church - and maybe Birdy - are behind the murder of the Dodson child, perhaps for the sins of his parents. Emily's lover's suicide note was all about sin; was it a righteous murder on behalf of the church? I'm intrigued to see where this storyline fits in.
Also joining the series was Chris Chalk as a reimagined Paul Drake, a black police officer that stumbles on the aftermath of the bloody shoot out last episode. Though him, there was a brief exploration racism in the police force as he was forced to 'change his statement' on what happened despite being a better detective than actual detectives Ennis and Holcomb. Again, he's a far cry from the detective ally of Perry Mason from the original TV series and they have yet to cross paths. But his role will certainly offer another fascinating and timely element to the show.
Chapter 2 offered a compelling narrative, fleshing out the key characters and motives and offering the first big surprises in the central case. There is still plenty of world building, particularly in the introductions of Paul Drake and Sister Alice, but the series is starting to take shape. I'm definitely on board to find out what happens next.