Written by Rolin Jones & Ron Fitzgerald
Directed by Tim Van Patton
Original Air Date: July 5th 2020
Performance is very much at the heart of Perry Mason’s third episode, and I don’t necessarily mean in the sense of its actors putting in good performances, although they do, just to be clear.
Right from the episode’s opening scene, we are treated to the sight of prosecutor Maynard Barnes (an always brilliant Stephen Root) and attorney EB (John Lithgow) whipping up a frenzy amongst the media and the press as they each basically put on slick performance as they crank up the PR for their sides of the judicial bench.
The irony of a LA lawyers and prosecutors hamming it up and putting on a pre-trial show in the land of Hollywood, movies and make believe will not be lost on anyone, and it makes for a hugely enjoyable open to what is Perry Mason’s best episode yet.
It almost falls into cliché, the image of big city lawyers talking with pomp and circumstance, and one is reminded of that time Homer Simpson outed Ned Flanders’ age in The Simpsons to a flooded church congregation all the while intoning in the style of a big city lawyer that he wasn’t a ‘big city lawyer’, but then performance is at the heart of nearly every aspect of Perry Mason’s depiction of the corrupt and hollow quality of much of its Los Angeles world; nearly everyone here is having to playact a role in order to get what they need or want.
Dirty cops playing nice, all the while laying in their threats via subtext, Perry taking Lupe on a date, but only because he’s looking for information at the casino they’re visiting, and Drake playing tough dirty cop to keep himself and his pregnant wife safe, but who the mythology and history of the original series tells us is making a new best friend in doing so, with the final scenes setting in stone the possibility of their future working relationship.
Maybe because it’s the third episode and the series has now settled into a groove by this stage, but any reluctance at the series because of the Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe of it all feel redundant because the series is actually firing on all cylinders here.
The trial begins to get ugly, the spectre of dirty cops is everywhere, and the treatment of Emily Dodson becomes ever more toxic and misogynistic.
The moment when Della Street explains the gender imbalance going on to Perry should be a massive failing of the episode; any time a movie or television episode stops to explain its themes, it feels like the writing doesn’t have the confidence to let the audience figure those things out for themselves, but the series has been gifted a brilliant performer in Juliet Rylance and the scene in question is magnificent because in reality we know that a guy like Perry in this environment and this world needs to be sat down and actually told it. This is after all the 1930’s and it is sadly a largely white man’s world.
Even though the episode opens with a magnificent pair of performances from John Lithgow and Stephen Root, it quietly becomes an episode centred around tremendous work from its leading actresses, with Rylance at the heart of some of the episode’s very best scenes.
Tatiana Maslany and Gayle Rankin (a superb performance, and one a million miles away from her scene stealing turn as She-Wolf in Glow) shine in some of the episode’s most genuinely darker moment, particularly in that crowded jail cell where Emily even finds herself being called guilty by other criminals, and the series’ indictment of a system that is willing to throw away a woman in jail for the murder of her child without asking questions and all in the name of pomp and show makes this a very cynical depiction of the criminal justice system.
Things comes to a head when Della discovers corrupt detectives Ennis and Halcomb (Andrew Howard, always giving good villain, and Eric Lange) trying to coerce a confession out of Emily, a moment that we’ve seen coming and yet still powerfully incurs the wrath of the audience because of how unfair and horrifying it all is.
The series has not for one moment made it clear that Emily is not guilty. In fact, her demeanour might suggest that she is and it wouldn’t be above the darker, cynical nature of the show to throw in a twist that makes it that she is very much responsible, but the angry heart of the episode that because she is a woman she doesn’t get the easier treatment that her husband got only an episode ago makes the blood boiling anger of Della here all the more palatable for the audience.
Given that it’s taking its cue from one of the most famous crime procedurals in all of American television history, that’s really saying something, but cynicism is fuelling a lot of this story in an increasingly enjoyable manner.
For all the grand performances that its characters are revelling in to sell their needs, the most honest character ends up being Drake’s wife, Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick). Although race hasn’t become an upfront theme of the series yet, it’s there, bubbling away under the surface, seen in the billboards when Perry visits Drake, or in the way that Drake himself is talked about by his fellow officers, and yet even after being threatened, albeit subtly by Ennis and having their food paid for, Clara accepts it for what it is, the system and the way of the world is very much against persons of colour during the period and they may as well make the most of it when they’re getting a handout.
It’s a small moment, but it is a powerful one in an episode quietly full of them, and it comes from a character who is truthfully the only person being honest in a world that is happy to lie to get what they want.