Trials and Tribulations in 'Perry Mason' Episode 6 (RECAP)
[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Perry Mason Season 1 Episode 6, "Chapter 6."]
This week's Perry Mason is more in line with what I expected from this reboot when it was first announced—a back-and-forth courtroom drama with an HBO budget. It's our first glimpse at Perry (Matthew Rhys) "the defense lawyer," and let's just say he's far from the slick and self-assured attorney portrayed by the late Raymond Burr in the original series. This Perry is out of his depth, unprofessional, and volatile, but those qualities are part of what makes him so compelling.
The build-up over the past five weeks is why this episode works so well. It's not just a "court case of the week" that we've been thrown into at random. We've been following the Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) investigation all season; we're not only invested in the trial's outcome but also the fates of the characters involved. There are so many moving parts and motivations playing out in front of the jury beyond finding the truth. It's about guilt and shame and regret and battling with one's conscience. Each character is deep into this, from the accused to the attorneys to the police to the church to the witnesses. If we didn't have that story development, then we probably wouldn't care.
Perry is absolutely destroyed on the battleground of the courtroom. His inexperience incurs objections and rebuttals and admonishments by the judge. An uncontrollable coughing fit foils his opening statement, as he's unable to get the words out of his mouth. It's embarrassing, especially compared to his opponent Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root), who is almost Shakespearean in the way he presents his argument. Maynard paints Emily as the lustful adulterer who put her baby son in harm's way to run off with her lover. It's a narrative the jury eats up, particularly seeing Emily's twitchy, nervous demeanor. "She looked guilty," Della (Juliet Rylance) tells Perry, noting how important presentation is to the jurors.
Emily's nerves are a sign of guilt, but not for murdering her child. The affair she had with George Gannon burdens her. "She was ashamed," Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) tells Perry after it comes out that Emily left Charlie alone while having motel sex with George. Perry is furious about the surprise revelation—as if things weren't difficult enough. "Now everyone thinks you're guilty!" he yells at her. But Emily is just as enraged at the situation and at Perry. "Where is Charlie's killer? You promised you'd find him!" she snaps back at her quickly unraveling lawyer. She's right, Perry made a promise, and as churlish as he may be, he's a man that sticks to his promises.
Perry wages war on the front line, needling Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry) on the witness stand. He gets Emily's husband to reveal his relationship with Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick) and admit that the police make mistakes; after all, they initially arrested Matthew for the crime. It's the first time Perry begins to find his feet in the courtroom, even getting Matthew to blow his lid. But that's not enough. Perry needs some substantial evidence to change public opinion that Emily is anything but a "lying whore," as Matthew puts it. That's where the dentures come in. Pete (Shea Whigham) begs Perry to bring them into play when he questions Officer Drake (Chris Chalk), but, again, Perry made a promise.
Does Perry go back on his word to Drake in an effort to save Emily? That's the decision he toils with this episode. He could put the beat cop on blast in front of the whole courtroom, revealing the evidence that the prosecution has attempted to cover up. But what are the consequences? "He's a cop, would they kill him?" Lupe (Veronica Falcón) asks as Perry considers his options. "They could," he replies. Perry knows damn well that Drake isn't protected like the Detective Ennises (Andrew Howard) of this world. Drake may have the uniform, but he's still a black man living in a racist system that would have no problem tossing him aside. "If I make a mistake, someone dies," states Perry. "Then don't make a mistake," Lupe tells him.
There's some scintillating acting from Rhys and Chalk this episode, particularly in the courtroom scene. You can sense both characters' inner struggles in every stutter and inflection. Drake repeats the false story of how the blood trailed down the hall to the ground below. Perry tries to push him to the truth without overstepping the mark. He points out the lack of photographic evidence of what was supposedly a 40-foot trail of blood and throws suspicion on Ennis and his ability to be at every crime scene first. But when Perry asks Drake if he collected any physical evidence at the scene, Drake answers with an unsure, "no." The show cleverly plays with the "Perry Mason moment" conceit here as it looks like Perry is about to reveal the smoking gun, but he reconsiders and ends his questioning.
It's not as if any of this sits well with Drake, either, especially when he's paid off by his commander for keeping his mouth shut. "I do not like feeling owned," he says when he visits Perry. It turns out; Drake was hoping Perry would force him into revealing the truth. Drake could have helped Emily and failed to do so. He protected the people he knows would never protect him. "Every day, I wake up with this ball of fear inside me," he explains. "I put on the uniform and go out and play the fool." Yes, he has a badge, but what use is it? He's a foot patrol officer restricted to black neighborhoods. "I can't even arrest a white man," he says. "Even a white criminal, a white f***ing murderer, gets to look down on me."
So, Drake clears his conscience by slipping Perry the other half of George's denture. "Maybe buy a little piece of my soul back," he comments. Again, just when you think this is going to be the big "aha!" moment like in the series of old, the show slams on the brakes. Perry brings out the dentures in court, having coroner Virgil (Jefferson Mays) examine them on the stand and confirm they belong to George. But Maynard is outraged and quickly calls for a sidebar. There's a funny moment where Perry speaks loudly during the sidebar so that the jury can still hear his theory about George's death. But the judge won't allow the denture as evidence, and Perry is threatened with disbarment after accusing the judge of being in on a cover-up.
Perry is pretty much done at this point. He's lost his most significant piece of evidence, and, on top of that, the prosecution refuses to put Ennis on the stand. This is a wise decision on Maynard's part, as it becomes increasingly clear that Ennis is way dirtier than even his own partner ever imagined. Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange) even confronts Ennis at his home to ask if he was in on the kidnapping. And when Ennis confesses, Holcomb asks who else knows, not to bring them to justice, but because he "wants them dead." If Perry had a chance to question Ennis on the stand, he very well could have exposed the truth. Now all he has is some unsubstantiated theories of a fourth man and a client who admitted to leaving her baby alone.
But there might still be a chance for a break. Because while the trial is ongoing, the investigation hasn't stopped. While Perry throws a tantrum, Della and Pete (Shea Whigham) are working overtime to uncover details about the kidnappers and their ties to the church and the police. There are a lot of names and businesses and various documentation that it gets a little hard to keep track, but the general point is that George and the other kidnappers were tied up in a bunch of money laundering schemes. And who is linked to all this? One Herman Baggerly, who is not only part of the church but the father of Matthew Dodson. "I could kiss you," Perry tells Della when she brings him this information. "Please don't," she responds.
Unfortunately, Perry doesn't get to present this new evidence just yet because things are thrown into chaos when Emily's jail assigned guardian lies on the stand, claiming that she overheard the distraught mother confess to Sister Alice. "Emily Dodson didn't just conspire, she murdered her child," shouts Maynard, whipping the court and the outside mobs into a frenzy. Even though Emily goes off in court, once she gets into the car to leave, a sudden calm comes over. But it's a calm wrapped in delusion. "It doesn't matter," she tells Della. "Once Sister Alice brings Charlie back, he'll be alive, and they'll drop the charges." It's sad that Emily has resorted to this as an escape, and even worse, that Alice is hellbent on digging up Charlie's body for the supposed resurrection.
As for Perry, he continues to beat himself up, imagining what EB would say of his court performance. It turns out Matthew Rhys can do an incredible impression of John Lithgow. He argues back and forth with this fictional version of EB, which is basically Perry arguing with himself. Perry admits to his own faults while also letting out his anger over EB killing himself and leaving him and Emily in this mess. Yet, despite these setbacks, Perry still stands by his promise. He promised he would save Emily and find Charlie's killer, and so, the investigation goes on, as Perry pays a visit to Jim Hicks, one of the names caught up in the money laundering schemes.
Given that we know what becomes of Perry Mason, it's only a matter of time before he finds that crucial piece of evidence that will turn the trial in Emily's favor and make him a household name in the law business. But the show has done a tremendous job of delaying the inevitable, teasing it and then taking it away from us. Right now, we're seeing Perry's struggles and setbacks and learning on the job. This is going to make it all the more satisfying when he finally nails his first Perry Mason moment.
Perry Mason, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO