‘Perry Mason’ Season 1, Episode 6 Recap: Disorder in the Court

‘Perry Mason’ Season 1, Episode 6 Recap: Disorder in the Court

‘Perry Mason’ Season 1, Episode 6 Recap: Disorder in the Court

‘Perry Mason’ Season 1, Episode 6 Recap: Disorder in the Court

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. That’s the discovery Perry Mason makes in his first moments as a defense attorney, fighting for the life of his wrongfully accused client Emily Dodson.

His voice breaks. His throat seizes. He coughs and chokes and stammers. He’s able to continue his opening statement only because the district attorney offers him a glass of water. That gesture speaks to Maynard Barnes’s confidence in his case against Emily: To him, helping her lawyer make his weak case for her innocence is a harmless indulgence — and one that probably makes him look good to the jury.

Shotgunning newly minted attorney Perry Mason into an enormously high-profile child murder does him no favors, clearly — particularly one involving the popular evangelical preacher Sister Alice McKeegan and wealthy magnate Herman Baggerly. Talk about learning on the job! But it’s a beneficial move by the show bearing his name, that’s for sure. Throughout this episode, focused primarily on the trial of Emily Dodson for the murder of her child, Charlie, “Perry Mason” consistently surprises and entertains.

One of the gifts this episode gives us is a side of Matthew Rhys we’ve rarely seen before: absolute fury. Perry explodes in anger at Emily after the courtroom revelation that she took her baby to a motel assignation with her lover — and Charlie’s eventual co-kidnapper — George Gannon, a fact she failed to divulge to him as her lawyer. He loses it again after Emily’s jailhouse matron perjures herself by claiming Emily admitted to the crime while behind bars: First, he imitates his dead mentor E.B. Jonathan (read: Matthew Rhys doing his best John Lithgow), excoriating himself for thinking he could catch the killer while working as a defense attorney. Then he vents his rage at E.B. for killing himself instead of upholding his duty to his client.

If you’ve watched “The Americans,” Rhys’s breakout show, you’ll realize how rare a sight this is. As the deep-cover Soviet spy Philip Jennings, Rhys made restraint his watchword, rarely raising his voice even in matters of life or death. In much the same way that Lena Dunham cast him as a gleeful sexual harasser in her show “Girls” — giving him an opportunity to revel in villainy, something he never did even while portraying a professional killer — the makers of “Mason” are drawing forth exciting new emotional tones for this phenomenal actor to play.

Indeed, this episode is full of gratifying surprises. Shea Whigham’s Pete Strickland, for example, is a cynical, wisecracking delight as always — but he meets his match in the form of a secretary named Betty, played by Stephanie Hodge, who has a mouth so foul he can only express admiration for her creativity. Characters like hers are often little more than the dramatic equivalent of Styrofoam packing peanuts, their purpose merely to transport a main character from Point A to Point B; what a pleasure to see such a role turned into something funny and memorable.

Then there’s the division between the murderous Sgt. Ennis and his partner, Detective Holcomb. Holcomb, as it turns out, was not in on Ennis’s meddling in the Dodson case, and throughout the episode we see him get angrier and angrier at his partner for his malfeasance. But in the end, he reveals that his aim isn’t to see Ennis punished for his crimes (“I got hired to do a thing; that thing went a little off,” as Ennis describes it), but to kill anyone who could finger Ennis for doing what he did. It’s a fascinating study in how cops go crooked, and the actors Andrew Howard and Eric Lange play it powerfully.

Meanwhile, sociopolitical issues bigger than any single case affect the fortunes of our investigators and their allies. Perry, for example, could have hung the beat cop Paul Drake out to dry with the shattered piece of Gannon’s dentures the officer procured from the crime scene but kept covered up at Ennis and Holcomb’s behest. But he keeps his word to Drake so as not to land him in hot water with his white superiors in the police force.

This in turn prompts Drake, who is fed up with the racist abuse he incurs every day to help Mason introduce the dentures into evidence anyway — a not-quite-legal workaround that the judge in the case shoots down but which shows the lengths to which Mason will go to exonerate his client.

Similarly, Pete travels to Denver to unearth the hidden connection between Sgt. Ennis and the two Polish-American kidnappers he murdered. Turns out the three of them were strikebreakers during the Ludlow Massacre, in which a phalanx of National Guard troops and private security forces slaughtered striking mine workers and their families, including women and children. Nearly twenty years after the massacre, the scars and the enmity still run deep — and Pete and Perry are one step closer to unearthing the secret connection between Charlie Dodson’s killers.

It seems likely that the road to the truth runs directly through the Radiant Assembly of God, Sister Alice’s congregation. Not through Sister Alice herself necessarily, mind you — she’s busy arguing with her mother, Birdy, about resurrecting little Charlie on Easter Sunday — but through church elder Eric Seidel (Taylor Nichols), whose name is all over various shady real-estate deals conducted by the church. These lead Perry to a man named Jim Hicks (Todd Weeks), who greets him at the front door of his isolated mansion with a shotgun at his side. “I’ve been waiting for you to find me,” he says ominously.

While I’m glad Perry seems close to the truth, I’m in no hurry to see him get there — not if the show chronicling his journey of discovery remains this engrossing.

From the case files:

  • A judicious use of flashbacks during the courtroom scenes offer us insight into the reality of various people called to testify, from the peeping-tom antics of the motel manager who fingers Emily for her liaison with George Gannon to the tears wept by the medical examiner Virgil Sheets over the body of baby Charlie.

  • If there’s a dramatic through line for this episode, it’s about characters getting fed up: Sister Alice, yelling “This church is mine!” at her mother after getting slapped for her refusal to cut and run; Paul Drake, telling Perry “A white [expletive] murderer gets to look down on me”; Perry, blowing up over his own failures.

  • One character who has yet to recur is Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk), the ambitious deputy district attorney who helped Perry pass the bar in the previous episode. Fans of the original “Perry Mason” series will recognize Burger as Mason’s oft-vanquished courtroom nemesis. We’ll see if Maynard Barnes’s fortunes in the Dodson case affect Burger’s prospects for advancement.

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