Perry Mason wraps up its first season with some satisfying character arcs and expectation-defying narratives.
No one confesses on the stand. No one ever confesses on the stand.”
As the first season of the prequel series came to a close (with a second on its way), Perry Mason set up all the key characters into the positions audiences we’re familiar with in Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, the original 1950s series and subsequent TV movies, while still refusing to play to expectation. Case and point the opening sequence in the courtroom, in which Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) delivered a masterful interrogation of hostile witness Joe Ennis (Andrew Howard), knowing that this corrupt detective was behind all the death and bloodshed. At the moment it looked as if Mason would deliver that masterstroke and reveal to the world just how great a villain Ennis was, ally Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) called him out on it. It won’t work. This isn’t going to play out as you expected.
Realising it was all a run through of the case in Mason’s office was a masterstroke, allowing Rhys to finally embody the courageous courtroom antics of the attorney we all remember, while recognising that it doesn’t realistically play out that way. In fact, very little of Chapter 8 played out how you might expected. There was no ‘not guilty’ verdict, validating the heroic efforts of Mason and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) to save Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin). No crushing defeat of Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root), who had spent the last four episodes laying out to the jury ever sinful action Emily committed that led to her child’s death. As mesmerising as Rhys’s performance was in Mason’s closing argument, it wasn’t enough to acquit Emily of her crimes. Instead, it all amounted to a miss trial, with the Jury unable to reach a unanimous verdict (and PI Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) paying off a jury member or two). This is after all, the beginning of Perry Mason’s career and he has a long way to go.
But there was also plenty of satisfying moments that – had this been a limited series – served to bring to a close the prequel narrative of how Perry Mason became the attorney of the beloved books, series and TV movies. By the episode’s end, Perry Mason had his name on the door, Della was working for him and pulling no punches with her own planned career as a lawyer and Paul Drake had refused to yield to the corruption and institutionalised racism of the police department, instead taking on the role of Mason’s PI. The trio were in place and the case was, for the most part over, despite Barnes’ political career-motivated assertions that Emily would be re-tried again.
Once again, there is a great focus on the relationship between Mason and Street; the episode offers a tempestuous argument that sees him go too far in his attack on her sexuality, while hinting that she will share a similar working relationship with Mason that she had with Elias. Rylance and Rhys bounce off each other superbly, balancing their antagonism with some profound moments of respect for each other. I am looking forward to seeing their relationship explored further in season two.
Other moments were more open-ended, some to allow for further stories in season two and beyond, others because that is life. Not everything gets wrapped up in a neat bow. Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany) finally fled from the arms of her abusive mother and church, while Birdy McKeegan (Lili Taylor) continued to find new opportunities for power and manipulation, using Emily to create a new church based around the resurrected Charlie Dodson. I’m not sure what to feel about how Emily’s journey ended. She is neither acquitted or reunited with her own child, instead playing into Birdy’s manipulation by knowingly taking on this baby as her own. Flashbacks showed just how much she loved Charlie and she never finds peace; presumably she never knows that Ennis killed him and it is never explained what happened with the missing coffin last episode. Her child really has vanished. But she also finds peace as a mother again, and there is hope she might be free of her experiences in LA.
As for Alice, the final scene where Mason tracks her down in the cafe, the former sister now living out her life in quiet as a humble waitress, offers a very new side to her. Maslany gives a much more subdued performance; Emily is now free of the corruption, manipulation and abuse she suffered since she was a child, but she recognises that she will likely die alone. It’s a bittersweet ending to her story, but I wouldn’t mind seeing her again in season two, perhaps exploring her own connection to Mason.
Her former church never quite gets the fall from grace it deserves, though Burger and Strickland look set to expose its corruption. It isn’t Perry Mason’s story and while it played a vital role in the first season, is one of the open-ended moments that will likely never be fully explored. Giving the extensive world building, I’m okay with that; at least there is a hint that it the church’s corruption will be exposed to the world, even if Birdy has successfully evaded it all. Perhaps more satisfying is Joe Ennis’s murder, arranged at the hands of Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange), who finally wakes up to the monster his own partner is. While the episode makes it very clear that Perry Mason will not be the one to bring to light his actions in the death of Charlie Dodson and many others surrounding the case, seeing him drowned for his actions offers some measure of closure for the audience.
Ultimately, Chapter 8 is a satisfying end to Perry Mason, setting up the titular’s characters role as a public defender in 1930s LA. The showrunners have hinted that season two will again follow a season-long case (as opposed to ‘case of the week’) and will look to Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels for inspiration. Given the high standards sets by season one and the immense amount of world building across the eight episodes, I can’t wait to see what another season of Perry Mason brings us…
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