Much of “Chapter Seven,” the efficient penultimate hour of Perry Mason’s first season, concerns itself with setting up the finale to come. Pete quits, setting him up to get an apology and a plea to return from Perry. (He’ll then find something vital and/or die.) Paul and Perry team up after the former turns up a lead, setting up Paul’s almost certain departure, voluntary or otherwise, from the police force. Perry’s “wow, I’m a mess” lifestyle leads to his inherited home being auctioned out from under him—and purchased by his lover, no less—which will in turn force him to leave that part of his life behind. Ennis ties up loose ends, but the investigation closes in all the same. And Sister Alice continues to spiral her belief and certainty pulling her in one direction as her doubt, sorrow, and suspicion pull her another. It’s a tension that results in her sprinting headlong through the streets, away from the machinations of her mother and her own crushing disillusionment—and presumably, she’s now headed firmly in the direction of the offices of Mr. Perry Mason, newly-minted Attorney At Law.
There’s nothing wrong with an hour that’s mostly about moving the pieces into place, especially when the series in question has succeeded in making its characters so compelling. A table-setting episode can be a bit of a slog, but when the work’s been done to make sure the narrative is driven by the wants and needs of those who live within it, no fireworks are required to compel the viewer’s attention. That said, “Chapter Seven” finds a way to set off some catherine wheels just the same—and for good measure, a smoke bomb.
The final 10 minutes of this episode are so gripping, so impressive both technically and artistically, that it’s easy to forget exactly how much gets accomplished before that fateful Easter morning. You could be forgiven for thinking that Baggerly’s turn on the stand and that smoke bomb happened last week, or that the interruption of Alice’s radio broadcast took place the week before that. If Ennis murdering Seidel got pushed out of your brain by the sight of Emily Dodson weeping into Charlie’s empty casket*, that’s completely understandable. Maybe Birdy telling Alice, in words not all that sotto voce, that by the way there is no God managed to overwhelm the flashback we see in the episode’s opening moments. (Unlikely.) But the pieces get moved all the same, all without making the proceedings feel all that overstuffed. It’s damned impressive, even if it’s not quite as energetic and gripping as the preceding episodes.
Still, all that stuff is important, so before we get to that incredible final act, let’s dig into some of what precedes it. Both the writing and Matthew Rhys’s performance do an excellent job of making clear that, while Perry may be fighting for justice within a broken system, he’s still quite an asshole. He does, at least, have a somewhat better excuse given the task he’s undertaken, but there’s pretty much no one in his life he doesn’t manage to piss off, verbally abuse, or condescend to in “Chapter Seven.” If you look at this first season as a Perry-Mason-the-lawyer origin story, that makes perfect sense. Spoiler: Perry will never completely stop being kind of an asshole. What changes is that he stops being a self-pitying asshole and starts being an asshole for justice. That tracks with what we see here, and Rhys is so damn good that even when Perry’s behaving very, very badly, you can see that capacity for empathy and that need to do what’s right for his client and the little boy who was taken from her.
That’s particularly evident in this week’s morgue scene. Following Paul’s discovery that after Charlie was taken, Ennis brought in a nursing mother to feed him, Paul and Perry head back to the brothel to try to figure out who that woman might have been, and though it ends with Perry getting the shit kicked out of him, it’s preceded by him urgently and gently trying to communicate with a terrified woman about her missing friend. When he seeks out the body of that friend in the morgue (with Virgil’s begrudging help, naturally), a huge piece of the puzzle drops into place: after he was taken, Charlie was breastfed by a woman who used heroin, and as Perry and Virgil come to understand simultaneously, that’s what killed him. Both Virgil and Perry handle that moment as though it might shatter; there’s a mournful quality you don’t often see in scenes like that one unless the body on the slab is one known to the person standing above.
Still, as good as that scene is, and as important a development as that might be, this is really a Sister Alice episode—and in news that will shock pretty much no one, Tatiana Maslany rises to the occasion. The tension between mother and daughter has, for several weeks now, been mounting almost as steadily as that in the body of the church, and the episode-opening flashback puts all that strife in an entirely new light. (I would personally like to thank HBO for showing more restraint in that scene than it did with, say, the discovery of Charlie Dodson’s body in the pilot.) Seeing Birdy hand her daughter over to a not-so-good Samaritan—and just as importantly, hearing her frame that decision as the act of a merciful god—kicks open a window into Alice’s state of mind and her drive to “resurrect” the murdered child. God sent a stranger to help them, and a terrible thing happened, but it was still a miracle. So miracles exist. So she’s meant to play a part in those miracles. God works in mysterious ways, and that must be true, because if not, then her mother sold her to a man in exchange for a ride to town, plain and simple.
Maslany and Perry Mason have been building toward that final scene all season, so carefully and so gradually that her arc often seemed to be less an arc than a line. (A fascinating line, but a line all the same.) That flashback unlocks much of what we’ve already seen and renders Alice’s seemingly cruel decision to attempt the resurrection the act of a desperate, traumatized woman whose life is built upon a corrupted belief in miracles. It even makes her fascinating speaking-in-tongues scene from earlier in the season more interesting. Of course she’d equate illness and disability with a lack of faith; her assault was framed as a miracle, so any pain or trauma she dealt with afterward must be the result of a failure of faith.
If God sent Alice a miracle, then she must be destined to do miraculous things. That’s what happens in the stories. The alternative is unfathomable. Alice was crumbling long before her mother revealed that their lives are, to Birdy at least, a total fiction; she was drowning before Birdy staged that passion play in the street. The technical accomplishment of that scene in the cemetery is nothing to sniff at—the flight in the car is, in particular, like a nightmarish theme park ride. But the real horror is what led to that moment. What a way to enter the finale.
* – The stained casket. What a distressing detail.
- I love that this show makes room for scenes like that gorgeous little dinner between Hamilton and Della.
- Matthew Rhys making hand gestures to suggest beady eyes dot gif.
- I mean, if I were Pete, I’d quit too.
- “If this one turns up in a bowling alley wearing a party hat, I will open your skull with a claw hammer.”
- Related: I know I’m a broken record here, but Jefferson Mays and Virgil are invaluable to this series. He’s nailed the comic-relief-in-the-morgue thing you see in so many detective/lawyer/cop shows, but there’s this seemingly bottomless sorrow and capacity for empathy that make it so much more interesting and human than it otherwise might be.
- Book stuff: In the novels, Paul is constantly asking Perry just how illegal the shit he’s being asked to do might be. I suspect we’ll keep seeing that.
- Costume of the week: Sister Alice’s Easter costume is just tremendous
- Did Perry Mason put his thumbs through the armholes of his vest and pace around in deep thought? Alas.