Season 1, Episode 4: ‘Chapter Four’
There’s a new victim in the Charlie Dodson murder case: his mother’s lawyer. In a concluding scene that colors everything that’s gone before it, this episode of “Perry Mason” ends with the apparent suicide of the debonair defense attorney E.B. Jonathan. (I say “apparent” only because we haven’t yet seen a dead body; years of prestige-television watching have taught me not to count my chickens before they’ve died on-screen.)
Plagued by the vicissitudes of old age, irretrievably deep in debt, constantly one step behind his legal opponents, and threatened with the ruin of his reputation by a district attorney who’s willing to blackmail him to force his client to plead guilty, Jonathan just can’t take it anymore. He gets dressed, sets up his hummingbird feeder, then fills his closed kitchen full of gas fumes.
There will be no more humiliating defeats, no more deflating setbacks, no more embarrassing interviews with the press, no dragging his name through the mud, no prosecuting him over financial misconduct involving old clients. He has filed his own verdict on himself, and that will be the last word.
If Jonathan’s death hits harder than you’d expect for a character we’ve only known for four episodes, the credit must go to an earlier scene between Jonathan and his wrongfully charged client, Emily Dodson. Jonathan visits her in jail, ostensibly to persuade her to cop a plea in order to spare him District Attorney Barnes’s promised retaliation. But the more he talks, the more he seems to be talking himself out of it, not talking her into it.
As the director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, alternates between tight close-ups on their tear-streaked faces, we watch Jonathan break down over the injustice he’s attempting to inflict on this innocent woman. And in the end, he can’t go through with it. If he committed suicide because he’d run out of options, it’s to his credit that he ruled out the sleaziest option available to him on his own.
I’m not sure either party would agree, but I see a connection between what E.B. goes through in this episode and what happens to Emily Dodson’s most ardent supporter, Sister Alice. Recovering from the epileptic seizure she suffered onstage, Alice is under pressure from her practically minded mother Birdy, the conservative church elders and a contingent of outraged congregants — including a family of apparent well-wishers who dump a box full of live snakes onto her — to dismiss her promise to raise little Charlie Dodson from the dead as a symptom of her illness, not a command from God.
“You think I want this, Mama?” she asks at one point, exhausted. “You think I want God in my head?”
But just as E.B. buckled when the time came to coach Emily Dodson into accepting 20 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, Sister Alice can’t contradict what her heart — her God — is telling her to do. In the middle of an address intended to squash the controversy, she goes off-script and promises to resurrect Charlie, on Easter Sunday no less. When the cries of “Blasphemer!” start ringing out, the elders are chanting right along with the crowd.
By comparison, the show’s title character has it relatively easy this week. It’s true that he gets beaten up by Chubby Carmichael (Bobby Gutierrez), the famous actor he caught in the act. But other than that, it’s smooth sailing for the private dick and his sidekick Pete Strickland. Using flagrantly illegal tactics, they relocate the dead body of the kidnapper George Gannon to a sand trap in a local golf course, guaranteeing that their friendly mortician Virgil will get to perform an autopsy. Unlike the previous, bowdlerized examination, this one will prove that Gannon was the victim of murder rather than suicide.
A subsequent visit to the buildings where the Dodsons and the kidnappers each holed up to await the ransom handoff provides Perry with another vital clue. One of the buildings is connected via a skyway to an Elks Lodge, to which the kidnapping plot’s missing “fourth man,” the crooked and murderous Sgt. Ennis, belongs. Apparently feeling his oats, Perry walks right over and lets Ennis know he’s been found out. It’s a power move from a guy who, for all his shrewdness and doggedness, rarely projects power of any kind. (Except perhaps in his bedroom romps with Lupe, who still finds time post-coitus to gently razz him for his beating-incurred bruises and his unwillingness to sell her his family farm.)
Indeed, Perry is such a bruised soul that I’m dreading his reaction to the death of E.B., an avuncular if not outright fatherly figure for Mason ever since the private detective was a little boy. I have a feeling it will cause him to redouble his efforts to clear Emily Dodson’s name, and probably drive him into more foolhardy encounters with the police, about whom the show maintains warranted skepticism.
“Cops investigating cops? That’s a trip for biscuits,” E.B. says at one point.
Which leads me to my final point about this episode: E.B. Jonathan’s way with words. Aging, he tells Perry at one point, is a matter of finding “a nose hair half the length of your arm, half your friends in the cemetery and a million strangers on the street.” Truth, he says, “won’t move wind chimes.” George Gannon’s faked suicide note? “Donkey dust.”
Perhaps that’s the most chilling thing about his suicide: His cynicism sounds persuasive, his despair hard-earned. If Perry Mason ever follows in his mentor’s footsteps — to say nothing of previous versions of the character — and becomes a defense attorney, I wonder whether his fierce commitment to uncovering the truth will leave him, too, feeling like a man out of step with the world.
From the case files:
Based on the final scene of the episode, this pleasure will be a fleeting one, but man oh man, what a treat to watch John Lithgow and Stephen Root act together. At one point during one of their tête-à-têtes their characters both just chuckle at each other, each of them confident that they’ve bested the other. The actors seem to be having so much fun that it’s contagious — I chuckled right along with them.
It’s handled so gently that calling attention to it seems melodramatic somehow, but we learn via a visit to the boardinghouse where she lives that Jonathan’s legal secretary, Della Street, is a lesbian. Given the strictures of the time period, this is one secret I hope stays kept.
Sgt. Ennis, the series’s chief antagonist thus far, has a daughter afflicted with polio. This doesn’t make him any less of a bad person, but it does make him a more interesting character.
My plea to mystery-driven television shows: Can we do away with the convention of the “conspiracy wall,” where the investigators pins up all the notes, clues and newspaper clippings as they try to put together the pieces of the puzzle?