Perry Mason Recap: The Illusion of Vengeance

Perry Mason

Chapter Ten
Season 2 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Perry Mason

Chapter Ten
Season 2 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Vulture; Photo: HBO

Brooks McCutcheon is dead.

Perry Mason’s “Chapter Ten” picks up exactly where the previous episode left off. A camera bulb flashes over McCutcheon’s newly discovered corpse, and we know the wheels are already in motion. Someone’s gotta pay fast. And you can sure as shit bet it won’t be the author of this ol’ conspiracy.

We cut to a press conference where our old pal Burger is about to fulfill the measure of his profession, delivering “the illusion of justice,” as he put it last episode, to the people.

Mexican Americans Rafael and Mattheo Gallardo, ages 18 and 20, respectively, are arrested for McCutcheon’s murder. According to Burger’s statement, the “suspects” were scooped up out of a Hooverville in Vernon. Burger makes sure to mention that they’re Mexican and unemployed because of course. “The police have performed their job with honor, and my office will try this case with the utmost integrity to ensure the people of Los Angeles receive the verdict they deserve.” The accompanying montage of visuals makes it abundantly clear, though any 2023 audience will know this song and dance: Someone’s found a convenient scapegoat for their dirty deeds done dirt cheap.

“While the death of any citizen is shocking, the loss of a leading light of this city is truly a tragedy,” Burger says before handing the mic off to the guy he’s assigned to the case, Thomas Milligan (Mark O’Brien). And straight away, this little Boy Scout weasel comes on strong with talk of the death penalty and not resting until “justice is done.”

The Perry Mason title card comes up on a shot of Lydell McCutcheon standing over his son’s body in a dank, dimly lit morgue. Is he the author of this illusion? Regardless, the wheels of power are in motion, and the progenitors of this lie know full well the illusion of justice will also satisfy the public’s basest cries for vengeance. Boy, we love obliterating families of color under the guise of protecting white families in this country, don’t we?

Incoming season-two showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler bring to this show what they did so brilliantly with The Knick: an exploration of the brutal strata of class, grace, and gender under the power structures that make America. The Depression-era L.A. setting is fertile ground for exposing the dirty foundation the American metropolis was built upon. Amiel and Begler’s version of the show already speaks to a modern audience that knows full well that corruption, intimidation, and exploitation are markers of the system functioning as designed. Perry Mason hits hard and straight with its visuals and dialogue. There’s a hidden structural elegance to the whole thing — a clarity of purpose and rhythm of intention that befits both a modern prestige HBO legal drama and a fucking litty neo-noir, complete with all the killer lighting, sets, costuming, and heavy jazzy scoring that oddly make its most real moments sing.

And it all puts us in the headspace of our title character, who absolutely chokes on a cocktail of cynicism and pent-up guilt when the Gallardo boys’ family shows up at his office. Luisa (Onahoua Rodriguez), the boys’ aunt, and Mateo’s wife, Sofia, with their daughter, Maria, in tow, are here for help on the promise of the Dodson case. “You saved her,” Sofia says to Mason. “You believed her when no one else did.” “I’m sorry, I can’t,” Mason replies, and we know he ain’t talking about his shift to civil cases. “I’m not the right man for this.”

Mason’s dark night of the soul here is driven by crippling self-doubt, but in the end, it’s antithetical to his internal code. His mix of pessimism and idealism makes him the right man for the job no matter how much he resists the idea. Mason knows better than anyone: Ain’t no white hat riding into town to save the day. But going toe to toe with the powerful forces conspiring against the innocent requires the dirty work of a dusty gray fedora.

And Mason’ll come around soon enough. The case is just too juicy, as he learns over an old-fashioned night of drinkin’ with Pete Strickland. Pete lays out the DA’s narrative for the Gallardo case: A pair of desperate young Latinos walk up on a rich white guy and stick him up. This “leading light of the city” fights off the one reaching for his gold coin, the other one panics, fires, and “McCutcheon ends up with a slug in his head.” So one of these nervous kids got a direct headshot off on their first try? Something’s off, and Mason’s bullshit-detecting synapses are firing.

Now that Mason’s a full-fledged lawyer, it’s a real treat to watch scenes where he gets back in his seedy P.I. bag, like when he breaks into the impoundment garage where Brooks’s death ride is being held. After a sneaky, entertaining little garage-door opening and guard-dog chloroforming, Mason walks around the car with a tape measure (honestly, I’m still not sure exactly what he’s doing there, my dumb ass ain’t no PI, don’t @ me) and reckons there’s not a chance of truth underneath the D.A.’s illusion.

Mason’s caught a strong whiff of a good “Perry Mason Case” now. Little does he know so has Della Street, the legal Richards to his Jagger. While Mason’s paying a visit to the Gallardo boys in jail, Della pays a visit to the Gallardo women at the Hooverville under the pretense of returning Maria’s doll. Sofia can tell Della wants to help them, so she doesn’t waste any time. “I can be anything you need to be, Miss Street,” she says. “You want to help us.”

Della returns to the office to find Mason with the case already spread out over his desk. After talking to the brothers, he’s found the weak spots in Milligan’s case that he knows he can use against the system. “I know I can’t just do nothing, and there’s no way I can do it without you,” he tells Della. She’s in, but they’ve got to make sure they’ve got the funds to stay afloat through the fight.

And they find those funds in the form of Sunny fucking Gryce. After watching this asshole ruin a guy’s life in the previous episode, it’s great to watch Mason and Street roll him out of a hefty monthly retainer, appealing to his basest antagonistic instincts with a plan to jump on a bunch of vacant properties to build new Sunny Markets.

The enjoyment is short lived, however, as the following scenes show us everything Mason & Co. is up against in this case: the whole system wielded against the Gallardo boys firing on all cylinders. The Gallardos’ bail hearing proves fruitless, and Mason’s signature witticisms and verbal jabs, while dope as hell, do little to counteract the seething racist machinations of Deputy Milligan and the judge, who denies bail with an understated thirst for blood. Outside court, while Mason is sparring with the press, he hears rumors of a forensic report that Rafael’s fingerprint was found on Brooks’s car. Milligan leaked that shit, and now he gets the luxury of it being reported twice to a riled-up public. Only a bail hearing in and already every touch point of the law is fixed against them.

And with things kicking back into high gear, it’s time to reassemble the full A-team. So Mason finally calls in Paul Drake, who’s had a rough go of it since the new season started. He took a gig from Strickland to spy on Melvin Perkins, a Black racketeer in his neighborhood under false pretenses, and now the DA has arrested him on charges of loan-sharking, racketeering, bootlegging, and income-tax evasion. As Drake told Strickland in their back-alley meeting, “There’s a Perkins in every neighborhood. Truth is, Perkins is better than most of ’em. He puts a lot of that money back in, and he’s helping folks out.” A classic example of our distorted, xenophobic definitions of crime in this country. A Black man operating low-level “organized crime” to enrich his community after being exhausted of all other options is more criminal than the rackets of the system because it isn’t lining the pockets of the powerful.

Anyway, Drake’s pretty pissed he was tricked into fucking things up for his whole community, and it’s clear he isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy when he shows back up at Mason’s office. “Your pal, he hoodwinked me into jammin’ an okay fella into a pretty big jackpot,” Drake tells Mason. He doesn’t know what to believe, and he needs trust to get back with the old crew and jump on a new case. Complete trust isn’t in the cards for a Black man who’s just been burned by some white friends. But, hey, better the devil you know. Plus Mason admits to not knowing how to reestablish trust, which is honest enough for Drake to come aboard, albeit reservedly.

While Mason and Drake do some evidence digging, Della visits public records and finds a messy paper trail showing the Morocco, Brooks McCutcheon’s gambling ship, in a maelstrom of unpaid debts. Apparently, Brooks was liquidating and dumping the Morocco’s ownership in a new company every time a creditor came to collect. This makes more sense of McCutcheon’s partnership with dirty detective Eugene Holcomb (Eric Lange), who took a gig to be McCutcheon’s muscle under the assumption that the accompanying co-ownership of the Morocco was legit. While sneaking around onboard the Morocco, Mason finds his way to the engine room (or at least that’s what it looks like — it’s all pipes, man, I don’t know ships!) and spots Holcombe with his cronies. He escapes with another case thread to tug on but not without a thinly veiled threat from Holcomb. Mason & Co. are up against the might of the city, and I reckon it won’t take long for things to come to a boil between these two sides.

Inculpatory Evidence

• I highly recommend reading Whitney Friedlander’s piece on “The Real Los Angeles History Behind Perry Mason Season Two.” It’s not only a great cheat sheet for better understanding the world of the show, but it shows how adept Amiel and Begler are at coaxing authentic power dynamics out of rich historical details.

• One of the many tidbits of history you’ll get from the piece is the real-life origin of Anita St. Pierre, Della’s “delightfully brassy” love interest. Anita, who has that great showcase scene at the boxing match with Della this episode, is based on powerhouse screenwriter and old Hollywood legend Anita Loos. Although, as Begler told Vulture, there’s not really evidence that Loos was queer in real life, she carried a glamorous, avant-garde persona for her time. And that’s clearly what they’re infusing into the St. Pierre character as a fascinating counter-energy for Della to bounce off.

• The season’s second episode introduces two of our biggest guest stars: Hope Davis as Camilla Nygaard, a self-made millionaire and new-money counterweight to the old-money boys’ club, and Katherine Waterston as Ginny Aimes, Mason’s son’s teacher and a potential new love interest for our guy. Both actresses have an unblemished record of infusing any project they’re in with energy and gravitas. Anyone who’s seen them in anything else should be looking forward to seeing what they bring to the mix.

Perry Mason Recap: The Illusion of Vengeance