Perry Mason Season-Premiere Recap: The Illusion of Justice

Perry Mason

Chapter Nine
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Perry Mason

Chapter Nine
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Vulture; Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

In every great mystery, the world is an onion. And somewhere, slumped in an office chair behind a moving wall of light, shadow, and cigarette smoke, there’s a “detective” slowly peeling back its putrid layers. Each one reveals a fact or clue or piece of violent aftermath that, in turn, reveals some nasty hidden truth of the world. And when we finally get to the center, all we’ve got to show for it is the full view of a grand illusion.

Perry Mason’s season-two premiere emphatically gives this illusion a name: justice.

So where is our titular anti-hero at the top of “Chapter Nine”? Months have passed since the Dodson trial from the first season, in which Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) was released for the kidnapping and murder of her newborn child in a mistrial. We find Mason at your typical 1930s L.A. apartment building (having traded in his family farm under duress), pulling wrinkled shirts and ties out of dusty boxes. He rolls up to his office on a stolen motorcycle we’ll later learn he accepted as payment from another down-on-his-luck client. We’re back in it with this guy, baby.

Matthew Rhys nails the whole “hard-boiled investigator with a heart of gold buried under a heavy suit of PTSD, depression, and the bottle” thing. And his unique features and physicality recall the ’70s alt-leading man (think Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, et al.) naturally recontextualized for a modern TV audience.

So when he schlubs into the offices of “Perry Mason, Attorney at Law,” prickly demeanor offset by a pair of sad, empathetic eyes, it’s as precise and believable as ever. And right away, we get reacquainted with the lifeblood of this humble firm — the push and pull between the mercurial Mason and the incomparable Della Street (Juliet Rylance), our resident girlboss (a term of endearment in this case) out here keeping the firm afloat with a modest pool of civil cases while putting herself on track to get an attorney’s license and become a partner. When Mason arrives at the office, he discovers Della’s hired a secretary without his approval, sparring another formidable match of wills and wits that frequent scene partners Rhys and Rylance have gotten particularly good at. But Mason’s mind is elsewhere. His gaze drifts up to a framed newspaper headline on the wall: “MISTRIAL! DODSON FREE.” The case from last season and the question of justice served, left hanging by the verdict, is still nagging at him, and it’s about to get way worse.

Our next scene with Mason begins with a nightmare. Emily Dodson is in his kitchen, drowning where she stands, trying to get some words between gargling, retching gasps. As she falls to the ground, Mason jolts awake and we come upon a scene of an empty bottle next to an opened envelope from old PI pal Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham). It’s Dodson’s death certificate, and it reads “suicide by drowning.” We cut to Mason flying down a dark, empty road on his motorcycle, narrated by Dodson’s heart-wrenching pleas from postcards she’d sent him in the intervening months.

Mason ends his ride with a minor crash and comes to court the next day with a gnarly limp and blood staining his pant leg. All part and parcel for his budding court persona — hardly a Saul Goodman type but well versed in the art of show and Machiavellian tactics for the greater good. The only problem is this civil case has Mason on the “right” side of the law and the wrong side of justice (funny how often it works like that, eh?).

Sean “Rudy/Samwise” Astin is wickedly cast against type as Mason’s client, Sunny Gryce, a Trumpian general-store owner who’s suing a former employee, Ed Purtell (Matt Bush) for starting his own business across the street. It looks like this guy did all the labor of organizing Sunny’s store, coming up with the slogan, and writing the manager’s handbook. He reckoned he’d set out on his own, reap the full value of his labor out from under a mean boss’s boot. Whether this guy’s case was justified or not, Mason’s grotesque and undeniably crisp cross-examination breaks it. Rhys plays Mason’s physical injury, enthusiasm for his job when he’s firing on all cylinders, and abject disgust with the situation all at once, becoming a contorted physical manifestation of the character’s deeply felt spiritual compromise — another ghastly, uncanny image of American life this genre is so apt to facilitate.

Later, Mason and Della present a reasonable settlement deal to Sunny, but it ain’t enough for this asshole. He wants to crush the competition. “You and I know firsthand mercy doesn’t win a war. Do I have to find another fighter?” What he doesn’t understand is Mason can finish the job, and he will; he just doesn’t have any delusions about what that means.

Back in court, Purtell is forced to sign his store over to Sunny to avoid an insurmountable chunk of debt. Mason and Della share a drink after the proceedings, but their vibes couldn’t be more different. They’re both working toward the same thing, a stabler future for the firm and themselves, but Della’s heart is entirely in it. She’s accepting the situation as a necessary step toward a more stable future. Whatever fiery ambitions she and Mason share, the way they channel it couldn’t be more different. And Mason’s self-destructive bent isn’t doing him any favors.

“Despite all your brooding cynicism, you still believe in justice,” Assistant D.A. Hamilton Burger (returning HBO champ Justin Kirk) tells Mason. And he’s right, of all our guy’s demons, that’s the one at the center of the ring. “There is no true justice; there’s only the illusion of justice.” As long as people still believe in justice and there’s a system that looks like it works, Burger will do what the city pays him to do.

“Who the fuck wants to be any part of that?” Mason retorts, but he knows the answer doesn’t matter. In this system, justice is an illusion by design, not by error, and everyone has to be part of it whether they want to or not.

By the end of the episode, we find all three of our mains in the all-American position of accepting moral compromise to get their bag. Rounding out the trio with Mason and Della is Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who, we’d last seen resign from the police force to join Mason’s new firm as lead detective. Work has been slow for Drake since Mason switched over to civil cases, so Mason enlists Strickland to throw a gig Drake’s way. There’s this Black crime boss who operates out of a Black hotel, and the D.A.’s office needs someone to get in there inconspicuously to take pictures of this guy and track his comings and goings.

Drake isn’t too keen on being put in this spot, but there’s no other choice than to take the gig. I’m not sure how far this particular plot thread will go as I’m sure Mason will enlist Drake’s services long before the season ends. Still, for now, it’s a rich detail in L.A.’s never-ending strata of skill and passion inevitably funneled into the indentured service of nefarious powers.

On the other end of the strata, we find our big murder victim of the season. Enter Brooks McCutcheon (Tommy Dewey), heir apparent to the McCutcheon Oil empire and this show’s short-lived Kendall Roy (though infinitely WASPier and douchier). Last season, the victim was a literal infant, so they really went with the polar opposite here. We meet Brooks at the end of a sadistic turn with a sex worker at his family’s country club, followed by a walkout to the lawn where he’ll give the wife and kids a quick kiss before his father, Lydell (Paul Raci, an effectively creepy, skeletal but powerful Getty-esque presence), shows up and calls him over for a thorough scolding. See, this weasley rich-kid fuckboy thinks he can make big, brash moves with all dad’s money, including sabotaging a competitor’s boat.

“The fire got a little out of control,” Brooks tells Lydell, but his old man ain’t having it. “You need to step back,” Lydell tells Brooks. “Back from your position in the company, back from your gambling interest, back from your bullshit with the baseball team.” Building something takes a firm foundation, and Brooks’s is as “solid as a sand castle.” Brooks is insistent that his shit doesn’t stink, especially this new baseball team he’s bringing to the city, and that’s when Lydell’s voice cracks with a hint of desperation and his eyes go from cold and stern to lush and pleading. “Take my advice and walk away.” He says. A foreboding turn. Does dad know something’s coming for his “No. 1 boy?”

Lydell’s pleas are fruitless. This kid’s in over his head, and the unearned hubris of generational wealth isn’t going to save him. Brooks moves full-steam ahead with his bag, and he makes a big show at one of the family’s charity kitchens, announcing the baseball team and accompanying McCutcheon Stadium he’s building for the city. At the end of the episode, he’ll throw a fit at his floating speakeasy when his attorney tells him they can’t get a baseball team to move to L.A. It’s the last thing he’ll do before he’s shot in his bright-yellow car on the shore. The inciting incident is struck, and everyone on the good ship Perry Mason is caught in some dank corner of the strange, sinister labyrinth of sunny ole Crimeville, USA, all faced with the same question: Where and when is justice truly served? That’s, of course, assuming justice gets served at all — it’s just a grand illusion.

Inculpatory Evidence

• Well, whaddya know, it’s your humble Tokyo Vice and Under the Banner of Heaven recapper, back to log another seedy investigation from the HBO files — every page and scrap of evidence yellow and pulpy from the hazy noir in the air. If you’ve read my recaps for either of the aforementioned shows, you’ll know I’m down bad for visuals and vibes above all else. So I’m super-excited to dig into another of these peak-TV noirs and find out what’s lurking beneath all those fedoras, palm trees, Art Deco structures, and shallow graves.

• I came into season one of Perry Mason with little knowledge of the property beyond its most famous iteration, the 1960s courtroom drama starring Raymond Burr, and a healthy curiosity around a prestige-TV noir initially conceived as a Robert Downey Jr. vehicle. I hadn’t seen Matthew Rhys in anything except for that one episode of Girls, but that was enough to pique my interest when he was cast as Downey’s replacement. And what a get for this show, am I right?

• It’s an all-new slate of directors this season, and we’re already lookin’ no worse for wear. Props to director Fernando Coimbra for getting us off to a rousing start. Looking forward to seeing what he does with episode two.

• Some lingering thoughts on Della Street: I dig this character, and I really dig Rylance — been a big fan since her turn on The Knick (my dark-horse pick for the best TV show of the 21st century). As I mentioned further back, she’s in an interesting spot that contrasts with Mason’s, more at ease with where they’re at in the present because she knows she’s getting her ducks in a row. She’s got a path for upward mobility and a stable career, but the fruits of her ambition don’t taste as sweet when life gets too neat. I’m not sure how intrigued I am narratively by this new affair she might be embarking on. Like, I get it’s Della’s release valve amid the structure of her current spot. I just hope it isn’t an afterthought B-plot just to give Della something to do in the sophomore season.

• Also can we bring back these awesome powder rooms in restaurants, please? For all bathrooms? I’d love a fancy powder room for when I need to socially decompress mid-meal.

• As someone deep in the “cereal out of the box as midnight snack” bag, I felt so seen when Mason said he takes a box of “Quaker Crackels” to the movie theater — giving me ideas about sneaking in a box of Ohs to the movies.

Perry Mason Season-Premiere Recap: The Illusion of Justice