When Miracles Go Wrong in ‘Perry Mason’ Episode 7 (RECAP)
[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Perry Mason Season 1 Episode 7, “Chapter 7.”]
Up until this point, Perry Mason has been what I would describe as “solid” television. It isn’t pushing boundaries or setting the world alight, but, what the show does, it does well. The series hangs its Homburg hat on the incredible performances and cinematography over anything else. But this penultimate episode really stepped up to become something beyond solid to almost approaching vintage HBO.
It’s the first time the show’s narrative matches its performances in terms of engagement and excitement. There is a real drive and urgency to every scene, from Perry’s (Matthew Rhys) growing confidence in the courtroom, to the new odd couple partnership with Officer Drake (Chris Chalk), to Sister Alice’s (Tatiana Maslany) complete emotional collapse and the chaos that erupts around her. Everything hits the mark here: the drama, the humor, the action, and the emotion. It’s a positive sign for next week’s season finale and the future of the series as a whole (the show was recently recommissioned for a second season).
Let’s begin at the end with the pandemonium at Charlie Dodson’s gravesite. Sister Alice’s prophesied resurrection of the dead child is thrown into chaos when she opens Charlie’s casket and finds that it’s empty. The mobs of believers and doubters clash as police try to gain control, and journalists clamber over one another to snap pictures. Alice and Birdy (Lili Taylor) are caught up in the melee before managing to escape bloody-nosed and beaten, while Emily (Gayle Rankin) clutches her child’s coffin in despair. It’s utter bedlam and requires some nifty getaway driving from Della (Juliet Rylance) to get Emily and Perry to safety.
What makes this scene so powerful is not just the way it’s shot—with the intrusive crowd close-ups laid over a discordant jazzy soundtrack—but it’s the insight it provides into Sister Alice’s background. Throughout the season, we’ve wondered why Alice is the way she is. What happened in her past that made her this way? Is she merely a charlatan preying on the weak and vulnerable? Or is she an emotionally damaged young woman looking for an escape? This episode goes some way in answering that, and this closing scene is a culmination of bottled up trauma bursting from within.
In a flashback that opens the episode, a young Alice picks flowers in a field while a distressed Birdy struggles with a broken-down car at the roadside. They’re stranded in the middle of nowhere until a so-called “good samaritan” pulls over. The man offers to help but in exchange for one thing… Alice. We don’t need to see the act itself to understand the disturbing implication. Birdy essentially prostitutes her own child to this sinister stranger. The innocent, flower-picking young girl died that day, and it’s a day Alice relives over and over. That is why her mind drifts, trapped in these awful memories that she dares not speak aloud. It also explains the resentment she has towards her mother.
So perhaps it’s easier for Alice to escape into fantasy and delusion rather than confront what happened. It’s similar to how Emily so desperately wants to believe in Charlie’s resurrection rather than accept he’s gone. If Alice is a messenger of God, then this is all part of the lord’s plan, right? So why not lean into the preacher thing? Except none of this is God’s doing—the church, the sermons, the miracles, it’s always Birdy pulling the strings. Birdy needs to be in control. And that is what Alice is really trying to run away from. It’s almost as if her miraculous promises are an act of self-sabotage. She wants to be proved a fraud so that this will all stop. We see this when she outright questions why Emily believes her. “What do you know about me at all?” she asks.
The failed resurrection seems like a definitive end. Alice can finally be free. No more church or responsibilities. If only an unknown baby wasn’t found in the middle of the road, mere moments after Alice’s attempt at raising the dead. Was this divine act planned out by Birdy? Her instruction to take the detour and immediate claims that the baby is Charlie reborn suggests she is complicit. And, if so, did she also remove Charlie from the casket ahead of time? It feels like a desperate ploy to keep Alice at the head of the church, and, more importantly, under Birdy’s control. But Alice is done. She can’t take anymore and literally takes off running down the road, where to, nobody knows.
Escaping the past or making up for one’s mistakes is a recurring theme in this show. Perry’s persistence in defending Emily is born of past regrets. “What kind of man are you,” asks Jim Hicks, one of the men caught up in the church’s money laundering schemes. “A piss-poor one,” says Perry, “but I’m trying to make up for it.” There is no God’s plan or resurrection for our down-and-out detective, but saving Emily is his chance at salvation. That’s why he’s worked so hard on this case, putting himself in the firing line of hate and garbage-hurling protestors. He knows Emily is innocent, and he will stop at nothing to prove it.
Della and Pete’s (Shea Whigham) research into the kidnappers and their various dealings with the church and Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick) gives Perry a distinct advantage. For the first time, Perry is one step ahead of the perpetually smug Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root). In front of the jury, Perry has Mr. Hicks detail the church’s financial trouble, specifically, it being in debt to the sound of $100,000—the same amount the kidnappers asked for. A disgruntled Maynard tries to throw doubt on Hicks’ testimony, but he’s shut down in the first real “Perry Mason moment” of the season when Hazel Prystock (Molly Ephraim) struts down the aisle with a bag containing copies of all the church’s record books.
Despite his stained suit and off-color patter, Perry not only begins to find his groove in the courtroom, but he starts producing results. He unveils the church’s debt problems and connects Herman Baggerly to these secret dealings. After twisting Herman in knots up on the stand, Perry takes a seat, and for the first time in a while, a smile creeps across his face. It’s like he’s found his calling. As Pete tells him, “You almost looked like a lawyer up there.” And Perry’s persistence has Maynard genuinely worried—he knows his case is full of holes and slowly but surely Perry is starting to uncover them.
But financial problems alone aren’t enough to acquit Emily. She is still the main suspect, which is why Perry and Della didn’t want her to attract more negative press by attending Alice’s resurrection circus show. “We could have her committed,” Della quips. “How soon?” replies Perry. “I was joking,” Della says, “I think.” Perry needs more evidence to present his fourth man theory. And he’s getting close, as is Drake, who decides to begin his own side investigation. Drake tracks down the motel the kidnappers holed up in, and a maid confirms she saw the men with a baby who wouldn’t stop crying. The kicker here is that Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) later arrived at the motel with his Chinese “wife.” Soon after, there was no more crying.
This is crucial information that could blow the entire case wide open. It’s especially important because Perry’s other line of attack is once again squashed. The other shady church accountant, Mr. Sydal, does not want to face Perry on the stand, knowing that he’ll easily crumble under the pressure. Despite Pete tailing him, Sydal manages to get away and meet up with Ennis, who promises him a ticket out of town until things blow over. This is, of course, a ruse, as Ennis repeatedly stabs Sydal to death in what is the most brutal scene of the season. Just like that, another vital witness is taken out of the equation.
Perry is rightfully furious that Pete lost track of Sydal, though his anger is exacerbated by the fact that Lupe (Veronica Falcón) purchased his parent’s farm from under him. “I’m a businesswoman, papi,” Lupe tells him matter of factly. And so, Perry takes his frustrations out on Pete, to the point where his old buddy has enough and quits. “Pay me out and let Drake do it, let him swallow your s**t,” he says. So that’s what Perry does. And as fun as the Perry and Pete scenes were, the chemistry between Rhys and Chalk is just as strong. Their squabbling over what investigative methods to use provides some great comic relief to offset the tension.
Drake and Perry figure out that the Chinese woman Ennis brought to the motel was a prostitute from the brothel Ennis runs a racket on, a girl who specializes in a breastmilk fetish. There’s more excellent comedic timing inside the brothel, from Drake’s deadpan “We’re here to get laid,” to Perry flicking through an illustrated Kama Sutra while the working girls stare at him. “Pick one already!” one of the madames yells. After some communication problems and a run-in with security, Perry finds out that the woman who was brought to breastfeed Charlie is now dead, most likely from a forced drug overdose. “We all use heroin,” one of the girls tells Perry.
This is when everything clicks into place. Perry visits his favorite coroner Virgil (Jefferson Mays) to see if any Chinese women arrived recently. Lo and behold, someone fitting the description was brought in two days prior—her arm full of needle holes. “What happens to an infant nursing from a junked-up mother?” Perry asks Virgil, knowing the answer himself but needing to hear the confirmation. “It would suffocate,” Virgil tells him. It’s a sickening revelation but one that fits all the pieces together. Perry now knows the cause of death and the person responsible. Now he needs to prove it in the court of law, and he has one episode left to do it.
Perry Mason, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO