HBO’s Perry Mason Proves Its Worth
Just after the opening titles for the season finale of HBO’s brilliant reimagining of Perry Mason, we see a scene that anyone even remotely familiar with the series knows of. Perry has the man who orchestrated the crime — in this case, the very corrupt Detective Ennis — on the stand, and he interrogates him as to the nature of the crime we know he’s committed. We even see a recap of the crime being played out as the cross examination goes on. But there’s something different. Mason keeps getting angrier as he presses him, and Ennis doesn’t break. And near the climax, a man rises from the galleries and yells: “It’s not gonna work.” A desperate Perry yells out: “I’m not done yet!” and then the screen flashes to the war council, making it clear that this has all been a practice run. The DA then says something that no one in the 1950s show would ever say: “No one ever confesses on the stand.”
The corruption that has been at the root of the new Perry Mason basically permeates the final episode as well. Perry, remember, passed the bar by cribbing the answers from someone who already took it. And he’s still far more cynical than we’d ever believe. He doesn’t want to put his client on the stand because he thinks she’s crazy, and considering her behavior in the last two episodes, where she seemed certain that her dead child would be resurrected by Sister Alice (more on that later), it’s hard not to think that way. The only one who still believes in her is Della Street, and even he is questioning whether all of this is a crusade against the man’s way of persecuting a woman.
And indeed, the deceit that fills every inch of this show was everywhere on the finale. Emily Dodson was not acquitted, but rather set free because of a mistrial. The mistrial was caused, in part, because Perry played into the corruption of the system, and arranged to have a juror bribed. The fact that two other jurors actually believed in Perry’s case doesn’t change the fact as to how he ended up ‘winning’ his first case. And there is resolution but very little redemption. Detective Ennis is ultimately murdered by his partner because he doesn’t want to see anything traced back to him, even taking money he’s just been bribed with moments before. The church that basically laid the groundwork for all of the evils that followed is being prosecuted for its crimes, but most of the main players have already disappeared. And even Emily, after all she’s been through, is as corruptible as anyone else — she signs on with the church that she knows abducted and killed her son, and is now claiming to have resurrected him. The possibility is very strong that she has either been driven insane or is just another con.
And yet when all of this over, Perry tracks down Sister Alice who after her failed resurrection has left the church she helped found. We know from flashbacks to her that her church was born on corruption — she was whored out by her mother as a girl on the road, and that’s just as likely to be the start of the horrors that her mother was capable of. After everything that happened, Alice (Sister no longer) still wants to believe in something, and tries to convince that there might be something to it. Perry may not believe in resurrection, but at the very end there is a sign that he has found some measure of peace, as he takes the piece of twine that he found in little Charlie’s eyes in the pilot, and casts it into the ocean air.
HBO’s Perry Mason is one of the more astonishing achievement they’ve managed post Game of Thrones. One could argue that they are jumping on a different franchise, but I defy anyone to find any link between the characters in the series and the 1950s version. Matthew Rhys plays the lead with frustration, cynicism and inner turmoil that Raymond Burr, for all his skills could never come close to matching. Juliet Rylance is incredible as Della Street, the secretary who basically kept E.B. Jonathan a float, and now more demonstrates that she is really the bedrock he will depend on, intending to be an attorney in her own right. (We also got an answer as to why, for more than half a century, Perry and Della were never a thing. Della clearly bats for the other team, and has no problem appearing as a beard for her fellow colleagues who must by the necessity of the era remain closeted.). And watching Chris Chalk as Paul Drake, a black man who is angry but not an angry black man, proved that he is a far better investigator than Perry could have ever hoped to be in his past career. This is a cast that can propel this series for years to come. I will hope that Shea Whigham, magnificent as Paul Strickland, Perry’s colleague and the only one who has no room for Perry’s bullshit, will appear in some fashion going forward. And when we finally heard the classic theme music at the end of the season — the theme that fans have delighted to for decades — it didn’t feel like a throwback or an Easter egg. It felt like something the show has earned, possibly creating a whole new world for fans to discover. This is the Perry Mason this era needs, a Mason who doesn’t believe in his clients’ innocence any more than the average viewer would now.
My score: 4.75 stars.