Mateo, Rafael, and Sofia look out over an unfinished McCutcheon stadium’s moonlit. “It’s hard to look at and not think about what happened,” Sofia says. The dust and fog and eerie midnight silence of the place hit like echoes of a trumpet over a haunted battlefield. As we’ll soon learn, this ground doesn’t just represent the loss of a home but the loss of life. But Mateo is here to remember the good times too. “We’ll have good memories again,” he tells Sofia as Rafael jumps in a car and illuminates their spot with the headlights. “Get back everything we lost. Have our own place, a family.” He gets down on one knee and proposes. Sofia says yes, they embrace, and Rafael cheers them on.
But this, too, is now a memory of a better time, hovering above Mateo and filling the air in his cell. Time to get up. The morning of the trial. Morning in America and Perry Mason still doesn’t know “how to fight this case.”
“Fight” is the keyword here. Our guy’s every move is a shot in the dark unless he’s got a Goliath out there to throw his rock at. Michael Jordan in The Last Dance, furious righteous combat only. But he’s nowhere near that scene, on the floor in his undies, making out with Ginny Aimes, his pants still slung over a single-dad gift toy train set. He’s ready to be anywhere but in that courtroom today. “Well, you have 58 minutes,” Ginny says with a kiss. “Figure it out.” Nothing quite like being put in your place by a sharp lady who knows your capabilities reach far beyond your moody, old-west moral brooding. We all need a personal brand to lean on, right?
And branding couldn’t be more at the center of the conversation as the trial begins. The voice of Fighting Frank Finnety queues in us: “We must make sure that no one is allowed to destroy the integrity of our laws, our liberty, and our city of angels.” Translation: We must ensure no one destroys the totality of our lies, big con, or illusion of justice. Milligan’s opening statement continues that thesis: “Don’t be fooled by their sob story of poverty and suffering because in these times, who hasn’t seen suffering and hardship of one sort or another? But who among you has resorted to murder as their remedy?”
Mason’s counter is the best he can muster under the circumstances, a way to talk around the fact that his clients, as far as he knows, pulled the trigger: “This prosecution maintains that Brooks McCutcheon was our city’s last great shining star […], but when we introduce you to the real Brooks McCutcheon, you won’t be asking who in this town wanted him killed. You’ll be asking who didn’t?”
The whole room reacts scornfully to that one, which is not an excellent start for our team. And things only get worse with our first witness: the bus driver who clocked the Gallardos getting off at the end of the line the night of the murder. 12:05 a.m., enough time to make their way down to the pier to rob a gambling ship patron returning to shore. Mason gets a good jab in on this guy on the cross-exam, but he hits back with a “Maggot Mason” remark, which gets the room going. The vibes are already off for our ragtag defense team, and Luisa and Sofia Gallardo know it’s in their court to do something about it. “My job now is to show the jury anyone else who might be responsible for killing Brooks,” Mason tells them outside the courtroom. Well, what if there was someone else who wanted him dead?
So they give Mason the Gallardo boys’ $2,000 bundle and it’s back to the drawing board for Mason, Street, and Drake. I don’t know about you all, but I love these scenes at the Mason office where our legal-eagle trio talks through the case so far. And despite Della’s (correct) insistence that the new narrative they’re spinning is all conjecture, Mason pushes through and gives himself a new reason to “fight the case.”
So what do we know now? This was a murder for hire — not ideal, but certainly more plausible than all that lazy, racially charged robbery-gone-wrong bullshit. So now the question is, who wanted Brooks dead? There’s always another finger on the trigger, right?
What about Councilman Taylor, Noreen Lawson’s brother whose district just so happens to be home to McCutcheon stadium? This guy “turned six shades of red” when Drake came around asking about his sister and her connection to Brooks. Maybe Brooks wronged his sister and Taylor wanted payback, hired two young guys at arm’s length so the McCutcheons wouldn’t suspect him. Again, given where we are in the season, it’s safe to assume this is a little off, but it’s pointing them in the right direction. And Mason’s cool with some hot air to get the temperature up on this case. Our guy’s feelin’ it now, and the next step is to devise a valid excuse for a recess in court so they can reconvene with their clients.
But wait, the plot thickens again. Before they get the chance, old Hamilton Burger calls a recess to confer with the defense council. The man (or men) behind the curtain are clearly privy to the shit Mason & Co. are about to kick up. The directives have changed.
“Life in prison for both with no chance for parole,” Burger callously (and somewhat timidly) offers from behind his desk. It’s a good offer on paper, but why is he making it? Because Della was right? They’re just kids, and we’ve had enough suffering for both the McCutcheons and the Gallardos? As Mason points out, Burger was Mr. Hang-em-high a minute ago. Now he’s Mr. Mercy? And that weasel Milligan sure is taking it on the chin in the corner there, all sniveled and grouchy. Something’s up.
There are more questions than ever, and right when the rubber is hitting the road. Ain’t that just the way at the mystery midpoint?
Mason has the rest of the day to yea-or-nay Burger’s deal, and he takes it to the Gallardo brothers in their cell, the searing light of the L.A. sun crashing against his face through the shadows of the bars (shoutout to episode cinematographer Eliot Rockett for the way that severe, peak-noir light hits this whole episode). And this is where we get the full backstory. Yes, Mateo and Rafael took the hit job out of desperation and hunger, but it wasn’t just about that. McCutcheon stadium. “That used to be our neighborhood, our whole family lived there,” Rafael says. “The police came in like stampeding bulls, not giving a shit about what they stomped on.”
Amidst the chaos of the McCutcheon stadium sweep — fire, smashing glass, people dragged out of bed and dropped in the dirt — the Gallardos lost their little sister to the engulfing flames. For Mason (and us), the situation is more evident than ever: wrong place, wrong time, but by someone else’s design. “You took a life, for whatever reason. There’s no taking that back,” Mason says. “But your finger wasn’t the only one on that trigger.” Whoever’s pressuring the DA has clout, and they’re already worried about what the defense might dig up if the trial continues. For Mateo, a new father, rejecting the DA’s deal and risking the gallows isn’t a winning proposition, but his brother is ready to take the system down with them, even at the risk of everything. All they have to do now is trust Mason enough to give him a name.
Ozzy Jackson, low-level racketeer, part of Melvin Perkins’ crew, giving serious middle-man energy here. It doesn’t bode well for Paul, but he’s ready to jump in the fire for a case that’s starting to feel a lot bigger than any of them. Plus, it gives him a chance to right some wrongs he’s felt reverberating in his community since he was duped into helping the DA bust Perkins. Christopher Carrington delivers an immediate air of authority, temperance, and simmering venom as Perkins, and he’s a great scene partner for Chris Chalke as Paul gets an audience with him.
Paul doesn’t admit outright he was the sleuth who took the photos that landed Perkins in jail, but he does present a clear deal: he’ll tell Perkins who took the photos if Perkins helps him track down Ozzy, who was clearly operating outside Perkins purview when he paid the Gallardo brothers. He holds out his hand and Perkins takes the photos without reciprocating a Gentlemen’s shake. The deal is struck right quick, but the actual transaction will be something other than pretty.
Meanwhile, Mason’s back at his desk with a bottle of booze and a head of racing thoughts. A magnified image of a fingerprint photo from the crime scene through the bottom of a well-used glass serendipitously gives him the juice for his next big act in court. The next day, the fingerprint expert is up on the bench, and Milligan is questioning at a snail’s pace to keep the jury on top of this relatively new iteration of forensic technology. Upon cross-exam, Mason plays the scene like a magician, props and all. And the reveal is a banger. Rafael’s fingerprint on Brooks McCutcheon’s steering wheel is backward, meaning it had to have been planted there by someone else. “Someone like the police or Mr. Milligan’s investigators.” Mason sneaks that last quip in there under the wire, one the jury will not disregard.
Mason will celebrate the day’s victory in court at Ginny’s place with a fresh jar of pickles from Canter’s (I’m sure those things smack, but that’s not exactly a solid follow-up to a whole-ass french dip, I gotta say). Della will top off the night at a swanky, secret lesbian club with Anita (who’ll reciprocate that sneaky little “I love you” from the top of the episode). Paul’s night won’t be so hot. He’s called back over to Melvin Perkins, who’s got Ozzy Jackson held down for some good old fashion face-breaking interrogation. Everything we’ve heard about Perkins so far is much more likely to be true than it isn’t. He’s a net-positive presence in the community, the best resource for respite they got. But he’s also more of a gangster than Paul was prepared for. Even when he tells Perkins he was the one who snapped the photos, our guy is taken aback that his confession and word not to testify against Perkins isn’t enough. “You want answers? You’re gonna have to put a beat on a man till your fists are aching.”
Paul gets what he needs out of Ozzy Jackson (the guy was paid to enlist the Gallardos by a white guy he’d had dealings with before, his wife was a drug addict and this guy paid Ozzy to stop selling to her), but he’s clearly horrified by the level of under-the-table violence he had to participate in to get it. But that’s how it is for everyone under the sun-drenched dome of seedy L.A. You jump in the mud, you get dirty. And most of the time, you don’t even know you’ve jumped in the mud until it’s too late.
• I’m sure I wasn’t the only one absolutely tickled by Justin Kirk’s delivery here: “Tommy, you know Mason passed the bar with only a few hours studying. He’s a lot craftier than you think.” Talking about Mason like he’s a legal John Wick. I once saw him pass the bar with a fuck-ing pen-cil. Great little goosebump moment.
• Damn, watch out for Pete Strickland, I guess. There was a sinister aura about him when he lumbered into court during Mason’s cross-examination, and he seemed none too hesitant about accepting Milligan’s invitation to a scheming sidebar near the end of the ep.
• Also, watch out for this mysterious beefy cigarette guy following our crew around. We catch a half-glimpse of him outside the Hooverville tailing Mason, then again tracking Della outside the lesbian club. It’s also safe to assume he’s the one who left the train running in a circle with a cigarette burning in an ashtray in Mason’s apartment. Yikes, the heat’s really on here, isn’t it?
• I guess the ongoing “is Della’s actual girlfriend still around?” question has finally been answered. I still feel bad about how she was sidelined as a character, but now we’ve got some interesting emotional friction to work with as her love story moves forward.
• I wasn’t entirely convinced by Paul and Claira’s conversation when Paul got home from the Ozzy Jackson affair. How many times are we going to go back to the prestige TV “am I a good man??” well, you know? At the same time, the show has done a great job establishing these two as real partners in Paul’s detective work. Hell, I’m ready for a Thin Man-esque spinoff where Paul and Claira start their own private detective agency. Claira knows what’s up, so when she tells him he’s good, it carries the weight of a true assessment, not a platitude.