“Chapter Three” was Perry Mason at its best thus far, with just a touch of the lightness and energy that the show has been lacking.
This recap of Perry Mason season 1, episode 3, “Chapter Three”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
There are many words that one might use to describe HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason, but the one which most came to mind in its third episode is “strange”. I think that’s best. It’s a strange show about strange people doing strange things, often in a strange way. Its tone veers wildly and without warning, and a knockabout car ride quickly gives way to a torch-lit close-up of a corpse’s genitals – and that’s just one example. Somehow mashing together grimy gumshoeing with fanciful evangelism, racial politics, and courtroom drama, Perry Mason episode 3 was the show at its strangest thus far, but also, I think, its best. Just.
Much of “Chapter Three” was devoted to Emily Dodson’s pending trial for the murder of her own son, and District Attorney Maynard Barnes seems to have the meek woman dead to rights. Her only hope is E.B. Jonathan, her unraveling lawyer and Perry Mason’s sort-of boss, and perhaps Sister Alice, who at the end of the episode collapses during an elaborate church service and begins seizing in a tiny wooden boat. When she wakes up she claims, loudly enough for a reporter to hear, that God has commanded her to bring Charlie Dodson back from the dead.
How seriously we’re supposed to take this is anyone’s guess – I tend to pay religious prognostications the same amount of attention that the assembled church elders paid to Alice’s seizure, which is to say none at all. But there must be something in it; the episode even sprang a churning ocean around the vessel as the camera gradually departed the scene. That’s a pretty ballsy shot, as such things go, especially for what’s otherwise a pretty straightforward period whodunit.
Only it isn’t, is it? It feels like every few minutes Perry Mason slings a curveball the viewer’s way; a dangling p***s or a brutally quartered face or some such. I took the scenes of E.B. Jonathan berating his assistant, Della, as outright comedy, and those shared between Mason and his love interest, Lupe, as a romance genuinely crackling with chemistry. There’s a lot of tonal toing and froing like that, and even though you can still spot the airless sequences, not being able to predict the show’s next move makes it more engaging. The aforementioned E.B. goes from a frazzled supporting player to a shell of himself, the decline so speedy it becomes tragic.
Having such fine actors helps. I’m a fan, especially, of Chris Chalk as LAPD patrolman Paul Drake, who has been forced to shelve his principles and cover up key facts in the Dodson case, thanks in large part to the intimidating presence of Sgt. Ennis making unsubtle threats against Drake’s pregnant wife Clara and their unborn child. When Perry later confronts Drake about his obviously shoddy police report, he deploys a racial epithet to prove a point which is quickly turned right back at him, with Drake explaining how, even as a black man, his badge allows him to mete out violence with impunity. As far as accidentally timely political statements go, that’s a pleasurably ironic one.
But what’s best about the Drake character is how bad he feels afterward. This is partly thanks to Clara, who at least for now fits a little too comfortably into the nagging spouse archetype, but you get the sense he’d have arrived at the same conclusion on his own eventually. When he meets with Perry later he admits to having doctored the facts to implicate Emily’s lover George Gannon and provides a broken set of dentures that make for the grisliest scene of Perry Mason episode 3, when Mason and Strickland race to the morgue to match the gnashers with Gannon’s torn-open mug. They fit.
This works as a case cliffhanger right before Sister Alice floats away on a turbulent sea of her own delusions; two scenes in the same show that nonetheless feel completely divorced from each other – for now, anyway. Perry Mason season 1, episode 3 proves the show so messy and weird that they’ll inevitably link up, sooner or later, and the fact it’s impossible to tell what it might look like when they do is, I think, reason enough to keep watching.
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