Three episodes into Perry Mason, that somewhat weak season opener now feels like the right move. Clearing the table from the last season, season two took what served it and moved on. I was pretty skeptical when I saw that the titles of each episode were “chapters,” a pet peeve of mine, namely because, in a book, these chapters would be way too long and unwieldy. Moreover, I was concerned that the show would be so connected to season one that it would never get to be its own thing. Thankfully, my concerns were unwarranted. After two episodes of table clearing and setting, “Chapter 11” digs into character and mystery, establishing new turns and exorcising old ghosts.
But first, we have to see precisely what Perry’s up against. Fending off an incredulous police department, district attorneys, and Christian grifters was one thing, but now, he’s got the legal system on his back, represented through a cynical judge (Tom Amandes). Picking up his copy of the 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Good Earth, a book about Chinese farmers making a bid for class mobility that the judge tosses off as too woke or something, the judge informs Mason that there wasn’t this “idealism” when he first became a lawyer in the 1890s. First, he worked for anyone that would pay, but then, he admits, the law became more of a tool for controlling who gets access to the rulebook.
Despite the judge’s attempt to connect with those he sees as his underclass via The Good Earth, he cannot empathize with the Gallardos like Perry. The book is too “exotic” for his tastes, what with the farms and weddings. But both Perry and the Gallardos families were landowners, pushed out by urbanization, gentrification, and the expansion of L.A.’s sprawl. At least the Gallardos were; Perry just forgot to pay his taxes.
But the judge digs into something at the core of Mason. “At some point, Mr. Mason, you must find all of your righteousness just a bit exhausting,” he says after mocking Perry for asking that glass not be put in his clients’ meals. The judge finds Perry’s pursuit of justice, a clear-eyed black-and-white belief that every person deserves a fair shake, adorable, and this attack on the supposedly inalienable rights of Mexican Americans is all over this episode. We hear Paul Drake’s brother-in-law listening to a 1930s Tucker Carlson rant about “Mexican monsters” and how “mass deportation” is the solution for the vast swaths of, um, people living in Los Angeles. It would be too on the nose if it weren’t necessary to acknowledge how many of America’s problems aren’t new. The American melting pot has always been hostile to the poor, marginalized, and anyone who doesn’t look like that WASPy-ass judge.
While last season challenged his tropes and the conventions of Mason, hoping to deconstruct and re-assemble him as a modern hero, this episode challenges his character, what he stands for, and why. After visiting the judge, with those harsh and cynical criticisms on his mind, Perry went through his messages from Emily Dodson, reliving the pain of the woman he couldn’t save. Later in the episode, after showing the letters to Della, she’d ask him why he didn’t do anything to help her. It’s clear, though. His job must be finished at some point, and he’s unsure where. The echoes from “Chapter 9” ring out: “Who is responsible for what happens after?”
The judge is correct. The righteous path is far more complicated. As Perry is in court, fighting for the Gallardos to be tried as two different adults with the opportunity to challenge a couple of jurors, the judge counts down the days until he can put these two away. The judge mostly denies Perry’s objections, siding with Milligan, who vilifies the defendants without complaint. It’s an unfair system, and the judge advises Mason to get on the side that makes the rules.
Lydell wants to meet with Perry at an empty horse track, recalling the “Perry as the diving horse” metaphor the show set up last week. Lydell has been pretty quiet since his son’s death. He’s ashamed of his dead loser son and doesn’t want the full extent of his failures to get out. But we also presume it’s because his son’s shady dealings were even more extreme than we expected. When we first met Brooks, he was thanking his employee for being a “good sport” about his interest in sexual asphyxiation. This week, we visit the nursing home of a Brooks’ now-catatonic old fling named Noreen Lawson. Perry flips the switch when he drops her name in front of Lydell.
Lydell has been a passive player this season, watching on as his son makes a mockery of his businesses and appearing like the upstanding businessman we all know he’s not. How do we know? When one of Brooks’ unpaid hired hands (Dylan Saunders) shows up at the oil field looking for a check, Lydell slices the man’s cheek off with the wheel of an oil derrick. After a burst of violence this week, is it safe to assume Lydell squished that man’s head in the vice? Hard to say, but this type of sensational mob violence is preferable to all the dead baby shots from season one.
Perry’s scene with Lydell mirrors his one with the judge. However, while the judge instructs Perry to quit so he can live a prosperous and comfortable life as a lawyer, Lydell threatens to kill him. With the scene coming so soon after the worksite butchering, it’s clear that Lydell won’t think twice about sending someone to the La Brea tarpits.
Neither understands that Perry has a team committed to Perry’s version of justice. Della, for one, is a whiz in the courtroom, pulling out precedents on a dime and providing Perry with concrete, legal reasoning for his objections. She also smokes Turkish cigarettes and kisses Anita St. Pierre. Who wouldn’t want to kiss someone with that name? Paul infiltrates the Gallardos’ Hooverville, finding his way to a local gun merchant. It wasn’t that hard. He simply looked for some kids shooting rats for dinner, and they gave him the name.
Paul catches an unlucky break, finding a match for the murder weapon in the gun dealer’s haul, with confirmation that the Gallardos rented it. Maybe that judge was right: Justice is a little more complex than right and wrong.
- Title Card Corner: The title played over a nice wide shot of the courtroom this week. Outside of one of many beautifully composed images for this one, Perry’s whole body fitting in the “O” of Mason was a nice visual reminder of the prison he’s found himself in.
- Speaking of beautiful shots, I loved the one of Perry in the nursing home with the natural light (so much natural light on this show) cascading through the windows and being split by the railing. It has a similar effect as the Venetian blinds in Double Indemnity, creating expressionistic prison bars. The difference is Perry is a source of light. So rather than restrictive prison bars of noir, he’s light, with optimism breaking through. The show does lighting so well, hinting at those film noir aesthetics while bringing something original to it all.
- I’ve been waiting for Paul Racci to explode as Lydell, and he didn’t disappoint. The scene at the oil field sold him as the over-the-top villain this season needs.
- I didn’t mention the opening scene of Holcombe coming home after a night at the Moroccan, but I think it’s crucial to how this season operates. A traditional Perry Mason doesn’t get time to see into these side characters’ personal lives. Hell, in the books, you know basically nothing of Mason. But Holcomb’s struggling with family just as Perry is. The only problem is he ended up on the wrong side of the law. Even still, Eric Lange is great at making him not too sympathetic. Sure, he makes breakfast for his wife, but he’s also determined to make his money in L.A. (as opposed to moving to Redding) and has no patience for people digging through his trash. Could that be a slight nod to the Gallardos alibi? The unnamed trash hunter does walk off with a bottle.
- I loved the scene where Mason takes his son to the movies to see King Kong. It reminded me of that episode of Mad Men when Don takes Bobby to see Planet Of The Apes. There’s something about a father and son seeing an ape-based effects extravaganza that warms my heart.
- “I’m glad you find it funny because that fucking dinosaur fight gave him nightmares. Pardon my language.” Ms. Aimes isn’t a fan of King Kong. But I love how Matthew Rhys delivers the title “King [beat] Kong,” as if he’s only heard the title for the first time recently.
- A good tip for anyone in a new city: Search out those rat-hunting children. They can tell you where to find anything.