John Lithgow Delivers a Masterful Performance in 'Perry Mason' Episode 4 (RECAP)

Martin Holmes
John Lithgow in Perry Mason Episode 4
Spoiler Alert HBO

[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Perry Mason Season 1 Episode 4, "Chapter 4."]

Perry (Matthew Rhys) comes close to cracking the case—but not quickly enough to save lawyer EB Jonathan, whose failure to help his client leads to a tragic end and an Emmy-worthy performance from John Lithgow in the latest installment of HBO's Perry Mason.

Above all else, the acting is Perry Mason's selling point. Everything else is done well; the drama has gorgeous sets and great cinematography, and the story is engaging enough, if somewhat uninspired. But it's the masterful performances of the stellar cast that bump it up a level. And this episode belongs to the legendary Lithgow, perhaps his best performance since his incredible run as the Trinity Killer in Dexter. The way he portrays EB's fragility and barely-keeping-it-togetherness is so poignant; Lithgow makes you feel for a character who, let's face it, we've only known for four episodes, and is a lawyer at that! 

EB Jonathan wants to do right by his clients; he is a fighter for truth and justice. Sadly, truth and justice are not always values respected by society, even by the institutions meant to uphold them. EB has been ground down over the years by a corrupt system that cares only for results. To put it bluntly, EB is getting too old for this s**t. It's hard enough railing against the unscrupulous on your best day, let alone when the hands of time are striking against you. EB's memory isn't what it used to be; he misplaces files and is easily caught off guard by his enemies. He's prone to temper tantrums, many of which come at the expense of those trying to help him, like his legal secretary Della (Juliet Rylance).

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His career is hurtling off a cliff, his law practice barely keeping afloat, propped up by loans he can never pay back—a fact that comes to light when his bank refuses him the cash to bail out Emily (Gayle Rankin). The last thing he wants to do is roll over, but he sees no other choice. A broken EB tells Emily that it's his duty to get the best deal for his client, and right now, that's accepting a plea for a reduced sentence. "Twenty years, tops," he says as if he's trying to convince himself more than Emily. Emily knows it's ridiculous. She is innocent, her only "crime" having an affair. "The power of the state wants to crush you, no matter how minor your transgression," a desperate EB tells her.

Lithgow and Rankin are both sensational in this scene, probably the strongest of the season so far. It's a role reversal from last week, as now Emily is the one refusing to give in, and in turn, not allowing EB to stop fighting either. "No, we won't do this, we're going to fight, you're going to fight," he says upon seeing Emily's despair. Unfortunately, EB is putting on a performance for Emily's sake. Deep down, he still sees no way of winning the case, despite the advances Perry has made, and certainly not in his current state. The tragic thing about all this is, EB doesn't realize just how close Perry is to breaking the case.

Matthew Rhys and Shea Whigham in Perry Mason Episode 4

HBO

Yes, Perry's investigative tactics are that of an insane person. This week he and Pete (Shea Whigham) literally steal George Gannon's corpse and move it across county borders so that their coroner friend Virgil (Jefferson Mays) can give the body a proper autopsy. There's some magnificent morbid humor here as Virgil is brought down to Perry's basement to examine the lifeless body. "That's a dead body," gasps a disturbed Virgil. "I told you he was an expert," Perry quips to Pete. (There's also an aside about Virgil wanting to be shrunken and placed in a woman's handbag, which is brilliantly absurd.) Extreme these tactics may be, but Perry's actions get results, and most importantly, are done in the search for truth. 

Virgil's autopsy proves that George didn't kill himself. And the dentures show that his body was moved from the crime scene. There was a fourth man in the apartment on the night of the kidnapping. That is the prominent theory that Perry pushes to EB, and for a moment, it looks like EB is finally going to take heed of the wily detective. EB confidently asserts to Maynard (Stephen Root) that they have new evidence of a fourth man that proves Emily's innocence. It's a half-bluff, one that EB hopes will get the district attorney to surrender. However, Maynard remains a step ahead, revealing documents proving EB misappropriated funds from his former clients.  

Maynard is a lot better than EB at disguising his emotions, at least in public. He never lets his face express fear or concern, something EB struggles with, and which Lithgow portrays perfectly. But behind the scenes, Maynard is worried. He drags detectives Ennis (Andrew Howard) and Holcomb (Eric Lange) into a bathroom to give them a scolding. They argue that Perry is a clueless bum, but it would be wise not to get too cocky. Ennis is seriously close to being captured after Perry and Pete scope out the crime scene and realize the fourth man must have escaped out of the back of the building. When they discover the building next door hosts a religious, social group, who should they find in there, watching his daughter on stage? Why, of course, Detective Ennis.

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Regrettably, it's too late for EB by this point, and even though we know Ennis is guilty, how do you expect to charge a cop with kidnapping and murder? The police can't even be held accountable for brutality beating a prisoner in an attempt to coerce a false statement. "Cops investigating cops?" EB scoffs when Della says they need to press charges. He knows that's a fool's errand. And so, all out of options, EB gets dressed in his suit and tie one last time. But not for work, for his funeral. He puts out the bird feeder, turns on the gas stove, leaves it open, sits, and waits. 

Now, we didn't see EB die; for all we know, the next episode opens with someone barging into the room and saving him. Though, I don't suspect that to be the case. I imagine EB's death is what leads to Perry becoming a defense lawyer. He will take up the mantle from the man who was in many ways a father figure to him. EB took Perry under his wing from a young age, and, despite their sniping and bickering, they clearly have a lot of affection for each other. As Perry tells Lupe (Veronica Falcón), he has no family, his mother and father are dead, his brother left when he was a kid, and his ex-wife and kid barely talk to him. EB was the one constant in his life. So you best believe his death will spark something in Perry.

While this episode certainly belonged to EB, Lithgow's performance is not the only one to be commended. The women in this show are spectacular, too. Emily, Della, and Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) all share a commonality: they are pushed aside and silenced by men. Emily has the full force of the law and media against her—even her husband is willing to testify against her. Her crime? An affair. And people are salivating to see her locked up for the rest of her life. As previously mentioned, the scene between Emily and EB is a stand-out, and Rankin puts her all into it. Where once there was guilt, there is now fight, and she will not take the blame for her son's murder simply because she cheated on her husband.

Juliet Rylance in Perry Mason Episode 4

HBO

This same fight is present in Della, the show's moral center, and probably the smartest character in the series. Della is sickened by the injustice against Emily. "Who needs proof? They'd stone Emily in the street if they could," she says. But what can she do when her voice is constantly shut down? When she urges EB to file a report against Ennis and Holcomb, he waves her off, arguing that nothing will be done against the police. While EB might be right, the lack of accountability is disheartening. As Della tells her lover, she is angry, but she doesn't know where to put her anger. And EB insulting her and diminishing her to the role of secretary doesn't help. Her reputation is just as much on the line as his. "It might be your name on the door, but those 'associates', that's me," she reminds him.

Then there's Sister Alice. Still recuperating from her epileptic seizure, Alice is accosted by both the church and its parishioners. Many of them have turned against her, perceiving her promise of resurrection as an act of heresy. You know things are grim when a sweet little girl tricks Alice into opening a box of snakes. Birdy (Lili Taylor) tries to get her daughter to renounce what she said for the church's sake. "Maybe you misheard?" Birdy says of God's message. It's an attempt to save face because the church elders want Alice gone. "This church can no longer afford to teeter on the whims of a hysterical woman," says Herman (Robert Patrick), backed up by an entire room of old, white men.

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Those old white men prepare Alice a pre-written speech, where she is to apologize for what she said and blame it on being unwell. But as she speaks to the crowds outside, some of them enemies, some supporters, Alice breaks free of her confines. When a parishioner clambers through the masses to hand her a blanket "for Charlie," Alice realizes the power of her message. Once again, loud enough for the heavens to hear, she declares Emily's innocence and promises that on Easter Sunday, baby Charlie will rise again. Maslany is obviously relishing this role, being able to switch from muted lethargy to maniacal preacher in a moment's notice. 

For a show titled after one character, it's a welcome surprise that Perry Mason is such an ensemble effort. And while so far nothing is breaking new ground or wow-ing in terms of narrative, it's difficult to complain about a solid film noir homage with grade A acting. 

Perry Mason, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO