Perry Mason season 1 is finally in the books. After 7 episodes of setting the table, the series finally puts its key characters in their inevitable roles, but not without a lot of heartache along the way. It is a season that has at times felt disjointed and tensionless, while at other times it has been stunning, grand, and captivating. It has been a mixed bag of quality, but it’s important to note that the finale feels far more like a beginning than an ending.
Chapter 8, the season finale, maybe the best episode to date, and it would be for one crucial reason – focus. Whereas the previous episodes have had to juggle over a half dozen story threads, Chapter 8 zeroes in on the mounting tension in the Charlie Dodson case. To accentuate the drama, Chapter 8 director Tim Van Patten orchestrates a sturdy structure to the narrative. It feels as if we’re building to the climax of the episode from the start of the opening scene. Some get their comeuppance, but the corrupt system remains in place and will be the primary antagonist for Perry in the inevitable season 2.
The episode features the fiery battle between defense attorney Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys), and the prosecutor Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root). They duel over the innocence of Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) in the death of her son, and it is a heavyweight fight. Mason is still a rookie attorney, and Barnes dwarfs him in the knowledge of the law. But Mason gets by on passion, ingenuity, and a will to find justice for an innocent woman. Barnes says every word with smug confidence (a great performance by Root, one that leaves you wanting to kick Barnes’ ass), while Mason yells intense declarations.
But what is the endpoint for this clash in styles? Mason piles up evidence that Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard), the season’s slimy antagonist, was involved in the corruption between the Church and the LAPD, while also being directly responsible for Charlie Dodson’s murder. But he can’t get the win – “No one ever confesses on the stand” he’s told. It’s a great scene that upends everything we come to expect from the iconic character. Mason comes in hot, expecting to be the knight in a 3-piece suit whose dramatic monologues manages to inspire smarmy villains to confess. You know, like a TV show. But Mason has to win with intellect, maneuvering, and luck. He can’t just will any outcome into existence without the presence of irrefutable evidence.
Perry must learn that being the hero isn’t about getting the conviction in dramatic fashion, like a fantasy. It’s about relying on the people you’re sworn to protect. This starts when he begins to trust the judgment of his secretary, Della Street (Juliet Rylance). But things take a leap forward when he’s finally willing to put Emily on the witness stand. Della believes that Emily has been slut-shamed to such a degree that she is now a caricature in the eyes of the jury. Putting her on the witness stand will humanize her. A belligerent Perry believes Emily is not trustworthy, while his protest against Della includes a cheap shot at Della’s sexuality. In earlier episodes, Della would have blown a gasket at Perry’s insults. But here, she’s so past letting the slights interfere with the bigger picture – she expresses the hurt Perry has caused but remains steadfast in declaring to Perry that Emily is the winning play.
But is Emily even in the right frame of mind? Isn’t she the same woman that believed that religious zealot Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) could bring Charlie Dodson back from the dead? The sweetest moment of the series is Emily telling Della Street “I know who the jury sees, Della… But I wanted my baby back, more than anything in the world.” Here, Emily admits to the lunacy of Sister Alice’s promise, reframing her own psyche and irrational actions as an aching for her deceased child. Perhaps you don’t believe in resurrections, but have you believed in anything unrealistic solely because it satisfied your wish fulfillment? The episode humanizes Emily with the audience before repeating the act with the jury.
But ultimately, the murder trial doesn’t lead to the most satisfying conclusion for the audience. It’s unclear if the case will be re-opened down the line, or if it’s time to move on. We see Perry establish his firm, with Della Street by his side as the firm’s secretary. But she has bigger goals, namely becoming a lawyer herself and changing the firm’s name to “Mason & Street”. Meanwhile, Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) becomes Perry’s personal investigator, but he makes it clear he’ll expect Perry to treat him like a peer rather than a subordinate. It has been quite a journey to see Perry go from selling sleazy celebrity photos, to trying to satisfy the demands of his strong-willed associates. He’s made the leap from selling people out to helping to empower those around him.
The season finale ends on a very illuminating moment, one in which Sister Alice must come to grips with the toll her insane devotion to the faith has taken on her. Your religious faith shouldn’t be so taxing, physically, or mentally. We see her in better health and in a better place, no longer demanding a spotlight for the impossible. She’s asked if she actually believed she could bring Charlie back – her answer reveals there’s some of the old Alice still left in there. It’s a moment that shows whether you’re in a courtroom or civilian life, we all have our beliefs and biases, our ideas of who’s innocent or what’s possible in this strange world. When there’s not enough evidence to support our viewpoint, we have to make a choice to stay steady or move on. Which begs the question – who holds the burden of proof?
Perry Mason Season 1 has been a show about the anxieties of our beliefs. Characters believe in religious awakenings, justice, and fairness for all races and genders – but the world doesn’t always award this faith. But if it’s worth believing in, you power through. That’s how Perry can continue to fight for an innocent woman, how Della Street can find her voice in a sea of misogyny, Emily can find peace in her motherhood, and Paul can move on from an unjust system. And it’s how Sister Alice learns that her devotion to her faith doesn’t mean she must accept all the baggage that comes with it. Even if it means being alone, she’s done having what’s sacred get exploited by sensationalism and parental abuse. It’s a lesson that tells us our descent will not be in vain if we come out the other side as a better person. Alice couldn’t resurrect a deceased child, but maybe she brought her true self back to life.