If Chapter 1 of HBO’s Perry Mason was about establishing the characters, then Chapter 2 is surely about casting doubt and bearing flaws. The episode begins with a flashback to Perry’s (Matthew Rhys) background in the military, saying his prayers amidst a battle. But while this scene is a point of reference throughout the episode, “Chapter 2” is actually less focused on Perry than the pilot was. Instead, the supporting characters take center stage – Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin), Officer Drake (Chris Chalke), and Sister Alice (an incredible Tatiana Maslany).
Matthew Dodson’s knowledge of his son’s kidnapping gets called into question, leading to his arrest. This compounds an already brutal experience for his wife, Emily. The vicious press grills her in public about her husband’s innocence, all of which is happening while she’s still in the grieving process. At one point, while at lunch, she calmly says “we just went casket shopping for my son.” It’s a heartbreaking moment, one that Rankin sells with tremendous conviction.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Paul Drake, a black police officer whose daily patrol leads him to discover the crime scene that was featured in the climax of episode 1. Three of Charlie’s kidnappers were killed in a double-cross, but their relation to the case is not public knowledge. Drake is immediately suspicious of the strange crime scene, but his efforts to investigate is met with condescension by his asshole colleagues. “There are no colored detectives,” he’s told.
After we were teased in Chapter 1, we finally get to meet the mysterious Sister Alice, a preacher who extends her hand to the Dodsons in this horrific time. She seems like a beacon of hope… but there’s probably a greater chance she knows more than she lets on. The most memorable scene of the episode revolves around Alice, during Charlie’s funeral. Maslany goes deep into the reservoir for a fiery performance where she condemns Satan and the demons that took Charlie. The entire scene is intentionally unsettling, with Alice go way over the top to essentially put on a show; why, we’re not entirely sure. Every frame, music cue, and sound choice alerts us to not trust this woman.
There’s an interesting thread here, and it will be fascinating to see how the show tackles religion. What should be a sanctuary for the Dodsons, leads to even more dark questions surrounding this case. What does that say about religion in America, in both the 1930s and today? Fortunately for the show, they’ve found a diamond in Maslany, whose performance threatens to steal the entire season. She strikes a rare cord of being warm yet untrustful at all times, reminiscent (perhaps intentionally so) of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. What we’re learning here is to not just question the corrupt LAPD, but all establishments – the church is no exception.
Despite the supporting characters having the opportunity to show their range, the story eventually rounds back to Perry. He’s not having sex and glumly moping from scene to scene like in Chapter 1. He has a renewed focus, and it’s set on finding Charlie’s kidnappers. That doesn’t mean he’s ever too uptight; he seems to be developing a propensity for humor and one-liners, even in the face of grim circumstances.
In this episode, Perry comes into his own as a detective. Even if some of his methods, such as following Emily, are questionable, you have to say that the ends justify the means. The rabbit hole he goes down leads to a crucial revelation, and his persistence to find these breadcrumbs ultimately makes us want to root for him, even if what he finds ends up being awful news.
In Chapter 1, one of my criticisms was that the show’s attempts to make Perry sympathetic mostly fell flat. What a difference an episode makes; Perry is far more likeable here, earning respect for his resourcefulness and assertiveness. We end up caring about the case even more because Perry clearly cares about it, and wears that mindset on his sleeve even when he’s arguing with his boss, E.B. Jonathan, on the best course of action. Rhys is getting more comfortable in the role, and he’s starting to fire darts. In addition, the complexity of his persona, including a new revelation about his past in the military, is ripe for even greater character growth.
We’ve gone from a visually striking but lukewarm pilot, to one of the best episodes of television this year. Perry Mason has quickly hit it’s stride, and the wonder of how each episode may top itself is as intriguing as the mystery itself.