Paul Drake is in a tight spot. He’s found the gun that shot Brooks McCutcheon, and that dude from the Hooverville who rents guns let slip he rented it to the Gallardo boys.
“The second Perry knows the game changes for him,” Drake tells his wife and most trusted confidant, Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick), in another hushed conversation. If Perry doesn’t find out, he can keep the fire under him and stay on course for a strong defense. But “what’s worse: knowing your clients pulled the trigger or not being prepared when the other side proves it?”
We’ve come to the point in our mystery where “the plot sickens,” as my mom always used to say about midway through an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Just when we think we know the size and scope of this puzzle box, it expands and mutates, taking on more sinister dimensions in response to the growing spotlight overhead.
Lyle McCutcheon is feeling uncomfortably close to the light, but this isn’t his first time at the rodeo. He knows how to turn that light back on his enemies. Having already put the heat on Mason in his own newspapers, McCutcheon is now fixing a secret collab with reactionary media pundit “Fighting” Frank Hannity … sorry, Finnety, whose voice we last heard calling for mass deportation of Mexicans on the Truth and Justice radio program. “Light can come from many different angles,” McCutcheon tells Finnety at another “business meeting” from his oil fields, an appropriately on-the-nose villain lair for old Lydell if there ever was one. “And when it focuses” — Finnety knows where this sentence is going (hell, he probably wrote it) — “it can shine so bright it burns whatever it hits right to the very ground.”
Something more sinister than even Perry Mason & Co. could’ve sniffed out is happening with this case. The public obsesses over the fake conspiracy while the real one continues. As always, the puzzle box mutates, and the illusion grows until it absorbs life itself. So what do we do when we know there’s an illusion so grand as to upset the fabric of our lives? At the moment, Mason is in combat mode, fists clenched, reacting to attacks with as much strategy as he can muster in the heat of the moment. But the bark of his pessimism clouds the vision of his ideals, such as they are. And he’s mad, passing that energy onto his son as they ride horses over the weekend.
Luckily, our girl Ginny Aimes is riding at the same stables. After helping Teddy find an easy-mode horse (and demonstrating how to apply the softer touch to a sensitive kid), Ginny, who we learn is also coming off a divorce, tells Mason she loves Los Angeles — not necessarily because it lives up to the dreams she gleaned from movies and magazines as a kid but because “nobody tells you what was, only what can be.”
A double-edged sword for sure, but I think what Ginny’s getting at is similar to what the late David Graeber was getting at when he wrote, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” Where the powerful shroud the past to secure future interests, the living can take the present and build new worlds with it, however slowly and quietly. It’s a lesson that’ll come in handy later on, and Ginny flirtatiously lets Mason know she’ll be at the stables every Saturday if he wants another one. Hey-oooooooo!
Monday morning rolls around, and Mason and Della meet up at the office. Della’s also hot off her romantic weekend retreat at Anita St. Pierre’s once and future Airbnb in Palm Springs. Having only just learned of Emily Dodson’s suicide, she’s right at the beginning of the gnarly processing phase, and she’s already handling it way better than Mason ever did. But however much this guy “runs roughshod while she has to stand and watch,” as Camilla Nygaard will put it to her later at their girlboss-training luncheon, she gets him.
The reconciliation is short lived, though. Drake comes to the office just as Mason’s about to give him a new line of inquiry. (Noreen Lawson’s brother is actually Vincent Taylor, a City Councilman from the 7th District, home to the McCutcheon stadium site.) He drops the gun on the table and says, “They did it. They’re guilty.” Quickest on the draw, Della grabs the gun and puts it in a safe behind a row of law books. Great noir image there: weapons hidden behind layers of steel and paper. The layer cake of the American metropolis.
But now what? We cut to Mason & Co. visiting the Gallardo boys in jail again. Mason’s seething, his resting pessimistic idealism bubbled over into venomous, self-righteous anger. Drake gives Rafael and Mateo the details of what he’s found, and Mason issues a threat: He says he’s “pretty sure” he’s going to give the gun to Paul “so he can hand it over to the DA, and they can hang you unless one of you starts telling me the fucking truth.”
Mateo gives them a new story. They saw McCutcheon’s car and figured they’d “hit the jackpot,” so they held him up. Rafael went over to grab the money, and McCutcheon wouldn’t give it. He grabbed for Rafael, who yelled at Mateo to do something. So Mateo shot him.
“How did we miss it? None of this makes sense,” Drake says in the next scene. But this is a “confession” made under duress to an angry white authority figure (or, at least, that’s what Mason was at the moment). The Gallardo boys are clearly not telling them something, and the story they gave, however true or untrue or somewhere in between, just feels like a red herring.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Della tells Mason, “and you can’t step off this case.” The hell he can’t, Mason retorts. “I’m not representing killers.” Mason’s letting his sense of betrayal get the better of him here, and the speed with which he’s ready to throw the book at these kids, just like the prosecution, is jarring. He’s an impulsive dude. Every act is a sprint, whether quipping viciously for justice in court or stealing Lyle McCutcheon’s prized horse for a literal sprint around the track. He’s a smart (and, deep down, good) person, but sometimes it doesn’t take much for him to miss the forest for the trees.
But Della and Paul don’t have that luxury. They’re much more skilled at, and used to, the inevitable art of compromise. There’s not always a perfectly innocent victim in the defense chair, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fair fight to be had on their behalf. Is this an example of the “illusion of justice”? Mason wonders.
While Della and Paul try and figure out what to do about the gun in their possession, Mason does the only thing that seems sensible at the moment: try to make a deal with the DA. The brothers plead guilty and get life with a chance of parole in 20 years. And just as Della and Paul said they would, Burger and Milligan aren’t taking the bait. But they are clearly rattled by Mason’s hidden card up his sleeve — a “real pretty half-dead girl in a home with Brooks’s name all over her” — and Mason’s not wrong about having plenty to make things ugly for them in the court of public opinion (“You’re telling me you have no idea what the McCutcehon kid was into? Because believe me, it reads like a bad pulp novel”). Still, they turn him down with an understandable level of confidence, and Mason leaves defeated. What’s it all mean now?
Following a late-night joyride courtesy of the McCutcheon stables, Mason arrives at Teddy’s school to pick him up and gets curt with him in the yard. Some other asshole dad puffs his chest at Mason and says, “You treat those Mexican boys better than you treat your own son, Maggon Mason.” He snaps right quick and knocks this guy on his ass. Teddy’s scared and recoils at Mason’s hand, and Ginny says she’ll take the kid home. Mason bolts and broods, drinks from the balcony at the movies, and later posts up on his apartment floor with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. And just when you think that’s where we’ll leave our sad boi, Ginny shows up at his door with a fucking French dip from Cole’s! I know you’re in the thick of it, but you haven’t done shit to deserve this woman, dude. Then again, who among us has done enough to earn someone hauling a French dip with a probably woefully unsecured au jus sloshing around in that thin paper bag?
Back at the Drakes’ pad, Paul and Claira have the house to themselves for the first time in ages, and she’s trying to set a mood, but our favorite detective is too lost in the case to jump right away (insane), caught on the Gallardo boys giving themselves up the way they did. “Something off?” Claira asks. “No, that’s what’s off. Everything perfectly lined up just like the DA had it.” Moving target, one perfect shot. The boys say there was a struggle, but Paul remembers there was no sign of struggle from Brooks McCutcheon’s clothes in evidence. The plot is too damn pretty.
So Paul returns to the gun-renter guy and bribes some more info from him with some hot food and cold beer. Sounds like the Gallardo boys were doing a lot of target practice for something. What were they preparing for? What role were they playing and in whose illusion? And what’s this pile of cash Rafael led Sofia to with a drawing of the broken-down car where it was hidden? There are plenty of conclusions out there one could draw from the ether, but regardless, what we’re seeing is the trickle-down effect of con men sitting atop mountains of gold, beaming out a grand illusion we all have to live in. And feed, if only for survival.
• While Mason’s case is in a state of unraveling, Detective Holcomb’s own little investigation is just coming together. Business is slow at the Morocco. The fire at the Lux scared people away only from the gambling ships, and there’s no more free food coming in ever since their connection, Goldstein, was killed. It’s hitting Holcomb hard that he was a patsy here, and he wants to find out what dumb machinations of a Don Jr. dandy got him here. So he starts asking around among the truckers and comes across Dick Rile (Dylan Saunders), the guy whose face Lydell McCutcheon fed to the turning wheel of an oil rig. Rile’s still bandaged up from when he sought payment for extracurricular activities with Brooks, and after some back and forth and appeals to their shared “working man” status, Rile fills Holcomb in on the fix he’s trying to uncover. Apparently, Brooks and Goldstein had some guys running trucks outside regular business hours for five or six months, bringing in produce from the trucks. But why bring it in? California’s “lousy” with vegetables right now. Whatever the reason, Holcomb, our classic mid-level thug with a badge, is on the case now, and he’s liable to kick up some shit for someone along the way.
• When Anita picks up Della for Palm Springs and says, “You saved me. I was just pretending to write,” I think this most times someone hits me up to do something. Any writer worth their salt is more proficient in the art of “pretending to write” than writing itself. The act of lifting the pen has a long-ass tail of diversions. No, but beyond that, I think there’s an interesting parallel between Anita’s role as a screenwriter and Della’s as a lawyer. They both deal in the art of narrative and the combative dance with illusion, for good and ill.