The Dodson case becomes a spectacle while Perry Mason’s investigation continues…
The Dodson case kicks off in a glossy public spectacle of celebrity and mob mentality as Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) finds herself in court and forced to defend herself against the charge of murder of her own son. While Elias Birchard (John Lithgow) leads the charge against the charismatic performance of DA Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) tries protect Emily from police brutality, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) is on the case of Emily’s dead lover, discovering that his ‘suicide’ may just have been faked.
There are a lot of plates spinning in this first episodes, which continues to flesh out the corruption and spectacle circling the case of the dead Dodson child. Perry Mason is starting to move into familiar territory, with the debut of the central court case, but there’s still a long way to go for the titular character himself. Lithgow does the heavy lifting as the public defendant of Emily, who is quickly getting out of his depth against the sheer grandeur of the DA’s case and there are hints that his health might be failing. This is a case that might break him and you can’t help but feel sorry for Elias as he laments this isn’t his world anymore.
Rylance is also a tour de force as Della Street; not only does she play off Lithgow well, there’s a great passion to her performance as she marches into the police station and confronts the corrupt detectives Ennis and Holcomb over their attempts to strongarm a confession out of Emily. Even without back up, she is ready to take on the establishment for what is right. I’m looking forward to see how she develops over the course of the series. Of all the ‘recast’ characters, Rylance’s Della might be my favourite.
Talking of corruption, it’s clear this week that Detective Ennis is far more dangerous than we first thought. Andrew Howard gives a disturbing, off-putting performance, The scene where Ennis confronts officer Paul Drake and lays a hand over his pregnant wife’s belly is incredibly uncomfortable to watch; the suggestion that if Paul doesn’t fall in line then something will happen to his wife and child is insidiously clear. As for Paul (Chris Chalk), we get his first meeting with Perry, who comes to him for answers over the discovery of the shootout from the end of Chapter One. It is clearly not the best start to the friendship that will evolve into the original series; Paul punching Perry in the gut after he tries to question him a second time – and after Ennis’s threat – show he’s wise to how the world works. But in the end, the encounter in the alley proves that his heart is in the right place, giving Perry the information he needs uncover what happened to George.
With the behind the scenes investigation underway, we’re really seeing the fire now in Rhys’s performance as Perry. Much of the episode serves as a double act with Shea Whigham’s Pete Strickland as they delve deeper into the case, using forensic skills to determine that George was murdered (the entire morgue scene is equally unsettling, broken by the dark humour of Pete’s tension), all the while demonstrating that these two men have a strong history of working well together. Perry is a far cry from the courtroom, but I’m liking these investigative sequences. There’s also an amazing chemistry between Rhys’s Perry and Veronica Falcón’s sultry pilot Lupe Gibbs; while the scenes at the casino also allow Perry to showcase his detective skills, the best moments are reserved for sexual tension between Perry and Lupe, on the dance floor and the fountain. I like the fondness that comes off them too. It’s not a conventional romantic relationship but there’s something more than ‘friends with benefits’ in their interaction.
And finally we have Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice McKeegan. She made a huge impression last week and while she becomes more part of the ensemble this week, she shines in every scene. Whether it’s calling out Perry for his dirty nails or defying her mother to visit Emily in prison, she is a force of nature in the show. As to what the ending means – her apparently epileptic fit mid-performance followed by the revelation she could bring Charlie Dodson back is something of wildcard in the whole series.
Perry Mason isn’t afraid to keep the audience guessing. Once again, there’s a lot to unpack. Just what is Robert Patrick’s Herman Baggerly really up to? Is Lili Taylor’s Birdy McKeegan working with him? How high does the police corruption go? And what about Sister Alice’s dark, hidden past? I like that this is far bigger than just one murder case. The world and character building has been superb and with five more episodes to go, I’m sure there will be plenty of surprises before the real killer – or killers – are brought to justice…
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