After a grim conclusion to episode 4, it’s not surprising that chapter 5 is the bleakest episode to date. Della Street discovers the body of E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), prompting her and Perry to re-stage his death to make it seem like he died in his sleep. This is not only a less scandalous death than suicide but, as Perry later explains, a more insurance friendly one as well.
Della and Perry travel up north to the funeral, only to find it under-attended, with only one major family member showing up – E.B.’s son. In a bit of meta casting, the show gets Lithgow’s real-life son, Ian, to play the role. Not only is there an uncanny resemblance, but at times it feels that Ian is doing an impersonation of his father. But the run-in with the junior Jonathan isn’t a pleasant one – his son feels very little remorse for E.B., implying that he was not a good father or grandfather. It’s an unceremonious goodbye compounding an unceremonious death.
As a result of E.B.’s death, a downtrodden Emily Dodson no longer has any representation. But you know what the title of the show is, thus it soon becomes clear what the solution must be. However, the show wastes no time in expediting Perry’s ascent from low-level investigator to actual lawyer. I mean, he knows shit-all about the law, but Della Street cheats the system in Perry’s favor in order to make him a lawyer. This is a crucial part of the show, that the narrative seems to justify by stating that sometimes you have to bend the law to fight against a corrupt system.
The idea here is that Perry is such a passionate defender of Emily’s case, that he’s the only right person for the job. It’s telling that Della doesn’t use the same illegal tactics to make herself E.B.’s apprentice and replacement, leveraging a system that favors white men into Perry’s favor. The show is bold and unapologetic about this plot point, but it’s a moral gray area that will likely split viewers.
Complicating things further is Perry’s relationship with his ex, Linda, and their son. He goes to visit them during the episode, but the encounter is more than a little awkward. He offers to bring his son back to the farm for some bonding, but she believes Perry’s life is too disorganized to make time for him. Perhaps Perry’s new profession will bring some order, or maybe the life of a lawyer will still be too hectic to accommodate a child.
Meanwhile, an emboldened Sister Alice asks her mother for $25,000 as if it’s an allowance. She wants to bail out Emily Dodson, but her mother is apprehensive. Alice eventually gets her wish, taking in Emily and treating her more like a foster child than an adult. While Alice does seem to love Emily, her methods for helping Emily are highly questionable, as seen during another of her absurd sermons.
I wish it was possible to go to one of Sister Alice’s sermons. The atmosphere is like that of a heavyweight boxing match. Even poor Emily has agrin draped across her face when she attends. Emily has been emotionally pummeled the entire series, so it’s nice to see what a smile actually looks like on her face. The scene reaches it’s climax when Alice convinces a man in a wheelchair that he can walk. He does eventually stand, with the aid of a few nearby believers who offer their hands for support. However, this is enough to send the church into an even greater frenzy, officially casting Sister Alice as the healer, the miracle worker, the woman with the Midas Touch of the Lord.
Later, Emily and Alice visit Charlie’s grave, where Emily disturbingly asks, “Will you have to dig him up when you do it?” This of course is a reference to Alice’s preposterous claim that she’s going to resurrect Charlie. This is the dangerous result when you claim to be an instrument of God. Now, Alice’s promises, and the show she put on by “healing” a paralyzed church goer, has convinced a grieving Emily that miracles are possible. Miracles, at least the type that Alice is promising, are not possible. But there’s still no shortage of people willing to believe. And those who benefit from that belief? Well, they have the power and the ability to influence lives. Even if Alice doesn’t have the God-given powers she claims – the fact that so many are willing to believe means that Alice can yield influence as if she does have this power – so at the end of the day, it’s not God-like power but it is power.
This reboot of Perry Mason has broached a plethora of subjects, from racism to sexism, homophobia, police corruption, and fatherhood. But it’s yet unclear what the end goal is for the show’s take on religion. Sister Alice has been set up as a character we can identify and sympathize with, from her overbearing mother to her challenging health issues. But despite all the charisma and likeability, she’s also a dangerous character we can’t fully endorse. Yes, this is an origin story about Perry Mason, a fact the final scene of Chapter 5 drives home. But it may also be a definitive story about how religion preys on our hopes and dreams. For some, if the ends are desirable enough, they’ll believe in anything.