Season 1, Episode 8: ‘Chapter Eight’
It’s all connected. This is Perry Mason’s argument as he takes on his star witness (and a hostile one at that), Sgt. Ennis, in court. It beggars belief that an accountant like George Gannon could have executed his two accomplices (both of them professional hoods), driven across town with a bullet wound, then blown his own head off with a shotgun.
But Ennis? He has history in Colorado’s mining wars with both the two dead strikebreakers and their boss, Elder Eric Seidel, currently missing and presumed dead. He has been tied to the Chinese-American sex worker whose heroin-laced milk suffocated baby Charlie Dodson. He was somehow the first man at nearly every crime scene connected to the case. He’s the linchpin for six murders, and he’s about to break …
… but only in Perry’s mind. The entire courtroom sequence that helps open this fine season finale is a figment of Mason’s imagination as he rehearses with his associates Della Street, Paul Drake and Hamilton Burger.
“No one confesses on the stand!” Burger yells from the illusory gallery, repeating himself as Perry’s mind flashes back to the real world. Calling Ennis to the stand without having real, hard evidence linking him to each of the murder victims would be a disaster. “You don’t go in unless you got him,” says Drake, “and you don’t got him.”
So much for the “Perry Mason” courtroom-confession cliché of yore. In this climactic episode of the show’s first season, the showrunners, Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, have definitively abandoned the definitive convention of the old “Perry Mason” series; it’s as if a “Columbo” remake did away with the whole “One more thing …” bit.
The amazing thing is that the new “Perry Mason” doesn’t need these dramaturgical training wheels. Just look at that opening courtroom sequence, with its intense direction by Tim Van Patten, its impassioned performance by Matthew Rhys — once again allowed to burst into outright rage — and its fantasy-dismantling intervention by Justin Kirk’s Hamilton Burger. To attempt a bait-and-switch like this takes guts. To pull it off takes talent.
An odd thing to say, perhaps, about an episode that hinges on its main character’s relative lack of talent. This is not to say he’s a bad lawyer; his closing argument moves his associate Della Street to tears, and he manages to secure a mistrial for his client, Emily, whom he put on the stand (at Della’s urging) at great risk to the case.
But a mistrial isn’t the same as being found not guilty, let alone exonerated in full as the real killer is brought to justice. (Ennis meets his end at the hands of his partner and their vengeful associates, one last loose end to be tied up.) “That’s the [expletive] of this lawyering thing,” Perry tells his old partner, Pete Strickland. “You can have all the truths on your side, but if you can’t prove, if you can’t hold it in your hand, it doesn’t exist.”
And while two of the jurors who hung the jury came to their positions honestly, a third was bribed by Perry via his now-former partner, Pete. Strickland ends up going to work for Burger, helping him take down the surviving hierarchy of the Radiant Assembly of God rather than joining the newly minted Perry Mason & Associates with Della and their new investigator, Paul Drake, who quits the police force in what is arguably the season’s top feel-good moment.
Other moments … well, I’m not exactly sure how to describe them, whether feel-good or feel-bad. There’s the matter of Mother Birdy McKeegan, for one thing. She almost certainly orchestrated the disappearance of Charlie Dodson’s body and the “miraculous” appearance nearby of a baby who looks nothing at all like Charlie in an attempt to salvage Sister Alice’s promise to resurrect the slain infant.
This costs her her relationship with Alice, who flees, changes her hair color and goes to work as a diner waitress, as Paul Drake dutifully uncovers. But it gives Emily Dodson a second chance at motherhood, at a time when she is totally at loose ends. If she has to pretend at Mother McKeegan’s traveling revival show that the baby is her own, who are we to tell this woman that what she’s doing is wrong? She only wanted to be a good mother to her child.
Looking back on this refreshingly ambiguous season of whodunit television, I think I’ll revisit Perry’s reunion with Sister Alice quite a bit. Before he gives up on the case entirely, before he takes out the stitch he saved from baby Charlie’s eyes and blows it into the Pacific Ocean, he tells Alice about her mother’s new ministry and wonders who removed Charlie’s body.
But however much she has questioned her own gifts, Alice is still a woman of faith. What comfort has digging for proof of the truth ever given Perry, she asks? In the end, both of them, with their diametrically opposed views of how the world works, will be alone. (She’s more right than she realizes; Perry has officially called off his relationship with Lupe, though he has finally admitted that her asking price for his family farm was a fair one and given her the land.)
Which leaves Perry with one final question: “Did you really think you could bring Charlie back?”
“I did, didn’t I?” Alice replies. As far as her mother and Charlie’s mother are concerned, the answer is, for all intents and purposes, yes. It’s not true, of course. But maybe it’s right.
From the case files:
The first visitor to Perry’s new firm is straight out of film-noir central casting, a blonde bombshell who says simply, “I’m in trouble.” Well, that, and that she can pay the retainer. “You’ve come to the right place,” Perry says.
Perry reveals during the course of the episode that he knows Della is gay. He doesn’t care — except for resent, perhaps, that she felt she could, and should, keep this from him. I wonder how he’ll feel if he ever finds out about Burger?
I was struck by how Birdy’s minions made their initial overture to recruit Emily to their cause: a note that was nothing more or less than the footprint of the baby they claimed was Charlie. Simple, but brutally effective.
The thing I keep coming back to in all my conversations with friends and readers about this show is how little reason there was to expect it to be anywhere near as good as it was. I mean, “Perry Mason”? In this economy? Apparently the answer is yes, and I couldn’t be happier about it.