Season 1, Episode 3: ‘Chapter Three’
Sister Alice is out to sea. Literally. In the shot that ends this week’s episode of “Perry Mason,” the charismatic preacher is shown blissfully adrift in her tiny ship, figuratively kept afloat by her conviction that God has spoken to her.
The leaders of her congregation, however, are facing stormier seas. Sister Alice remains involved in the life of Emily Dodson even as District Attorney Maynard Barnes mounts what appears to be an airtight case against her — helped by the distraught woman’s murmur of “guilty” when asked for her plea at an arraignment hearing. To make matters worse, we can add seizures to auditory hallucinations in the tally of neurological conditions that seem to plague the preacher; when she collapses and convulses in the middle of a theatrical church service, the rich and powerful elders ensure that the show goes on around her.
Then, to the horror of her mother and handler, Birdy, Sister Alice whispers — loudly enough for a nearby reporter to hear — what God has commanded her to do: raise the slain infant Charlie Dodson from the dead. That final, surrealistic shot of Sister Alice floating alone is belied by the tension and turmoil her faith has wrought in those around her.
It’s a bold choice to end the episode this way. But on this show, bold choices abound. There always seems to be some new weirdness around the corner, something stranger or sharper or gorier or more romantic or more unpleasant than what is strictly called for by the standards of a whodunit.
Take the plight of E.B. Jonathan, who is Perry’s de facto boss and Emily’s lawyer. Over the course of this episode, we see him suddenly struggling with what ought to come naturally to him. He repeatedly loses his train of thought. He bobbles a statement to the press. He seems perpetually one step behind in court. He notices blood in the sink after he brushes his teeth. He stares at a hummingbird outside his window so fixedly that he doesn’t hear his assistant, Della Street, calling his name.
In the end, E.B. gets dumped by his client Herman Baggerly — who is busy planning the construction of a religious community with his son Matthew Dodson, recently cleared in the case — and is reduced to begging an old associate for a loan, unsuccessfully. Thanks to a precise performance by John Lithgow, Jonathan’s dissolution over the course of an hour feels both sudden and inexorable, as if it were bound to happen sooner or later. It adds a tragic dimension to a character who could have remained a stock figure in lesser hands.
The same can be said of the Los Angeles police officer Paul Drake, a reluctant participant in the cover-up of key facts in the Dodson case. Followed around by the crooked and murderous Sgt. Ennis — who puts the “offensive” in “charm offensive” when he puts his hand on the belly of Drake’s pregnant wife, Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick), and pays for the couple’s groceries — he beats Perry when the private eye approaches him about his bare-bones crime scene report. When Perry ironically employs a racial slur to describe Drake’s acquiescence, Drake threatens him with the violence that, as a police officer, is his to mete out with impunity, throwing the epithet back in Mason’s face.
But when his wife instructs him to go along to get along, despite knowing full well what kind of person Ennis is, it’s too much for Drake to take. (There’s a separate conversation we can have about Clara and other wife characters who, like, just don’t get it, but I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt at this point.) Drake approaches Perry under cover of darkness and admits that he doctored the report, changing the facts to fit the bogus theory that Emily’s lover George Gannon killed his co-conspirators and fled the scene instead of getting killed there as well. As evidence, he proffers a broken set of dentures he recovered in the alley where Gannon fell to his death.
So, like grim Prince Charmings searching for their Cinderella, Mason and his wisecracking sidekick, Pete Strickland, race to the morgue to locate Gannon’s body before it gets cremated. After fighting their way through the tangle of corpses, they locate their man and discover that the broken dentures match the fractured partial set still in his mouth. It is perhaps the most disgusting investigative breakthrough TV has seen since Will Graham was out there profiling serial-killing installation artists in “Hannibal.”
But for all its darkness, “Perry Mason” still has a lighter side. Sometimes it comes out in the form of humor, like the off-color anecdote that the mortician, Virgil (Jefferson Mays), shares with Perry and Pete while they’re searching for the personal effects of the two other dead kidnappers. (“Never would’ve caught him if it weren’t for the mayonnaise,” goes the punchline. The rest is probably better left unwritten.) Pete’s grousing and grumbling and his own penchant for foul-mouthed tale-telling is another example.
At other times, the show’s warmth stems from romantic chemistry. Perry combines business with pleasure when he and his girlfriend, Lupe, travel to a desert casino to investigate one of George Gannon’s old jobs, from before Gannon found Jesus. Lupe smiles when she realizes she has been dragged along on an assignment in lieu of simply having a nice New Year’s Eve date — but that doesn’t stop her from making Perry take off her high-heeled shoes and hop in a fountain with her, finally getting the New Year’s kiss she’d been demanding. The easy, sexy rapport between the actors Matthew Rhys and Veronica Falcón is such that you half expect the fountain’s water to begin steaming.
For all its darkness, “Perry Mason” illuminates its world with flashes of the unexpected and the light of human connection. It could skate by as a grim-and-gritty revisionist riff on the “Perry Mason” of yore — and to an extent, that’s exactly what it is — but only to an extent. It’s too smart, too strange and sometimes too sweet for that critique to stand up in court.
From the case files:
Fans of great character actors take note: That’s the former Max Headroom, Matt Frewer, as the judge at Emily’s arraignment. Personally, I have a soft spot for his portrayal of the pyromaniac Trashcan Man in the old ABC mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
As Emily Dodson, Gayle Rankin is really put through her paces in this episode, whether she is screaming “Shut up!” at the top of her lungs as her husband chews her out or reeling from the illegal interrogation to which detectives Holcomb and Ennis subject her.
Something to keep an eye on: Perry pays special attention to a photo representing the “Child Adoption” aspect of Sister Alice’s ministry. Combine that with her ambiguous declaration to Emily that “You didn’t kill your baby any more than I did — bad men did that,” and I think it might be time to view the good Sister as a suspect.
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