It’s a mistrial and the court goes wild.
As rich and thrilling as this Great Depression noir HBO series was with sublime acting all around — especially Matthew Rhys’ turn as the P.I.-turned-attorney who overcompensates for his demons and mediocrity with his “eureka!” discoverings — the Perry Mason case of who killed baby Charlie Dodson was rather long-winded.
Sure, we weren’t fully convinced that Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) was completely innocent.
However, through various Byzantine rabbit holes explored by Mason, his gal Friday Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and his sidekick investigator Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), our title character discovered that the Radiant Assembly of God was to blame for the kidnapping of Charlie, with Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) orchestrating all the murders, down to taking the church’s Elder Seidel (Taylor Nichols) out. The church was in debt for $100K, a perfect tune to ransom baby Charlie with; his father Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry) the son of Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), a rich benefactor to the Radiant Assembly.
While the late ’50s-early ’60s Perry Mason TV series was known for the title character winning cases by spurring confessions from witnesses on the stand, at the onset of tonight’s episode we learn there won’t be such thing in this HBO reboot. Mason imagines taking down Ennis, and connecting him to all the players in the Radiant Assembly of God. We think it’s a real court scene, but it’s just Mason being coached by Della and Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk; a character who in the original series is the D.A. and Mason’s foil). Burger breaks Mason’s impassioned daydream, sharply advising “no one ever confesses on the stand”.
The best course of action, per Della, is to let Emily take the stand, and hopefully let her sympathies seep into the jury. Emily tells them of a tale of how George Gannon swept her off her feet from an awful marriage. Yet George duped her by calling Emily on the night when Charlie was kidnapped. Alas, she would never kill her baby. “I’ve only had one love in my life, and it wasn’t Matthew, it wasn’t George, it was my son. He was my heart,” she tells Mason and the jury while on the stand.
Mason rests the case, expressing to the jury that he too wanted vengeance for Charlie’s death when he began investigating it.
“If I thought for one second that Emily Dodson was guilty, I would walk her to the gallows myself,” Mason tells the jury. A mistrial ensues, but as we later learn, it helps when Strickland has paid off one of the jurors.
Quite often with HBO dramatic series, whether it’s from David Milch, Terry Winter, or David Chase (Perry Mason is co-created by Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones, the former a Westworld co-EP, the latter a Boardwalk Empire co-EP with Tim Van Patten serving as Mason EP and director of five episodes), the tendency, and hence the surprise, is to intentionally not play to what the audience craves and wants in the resolution of a season. However, tonight’s season finale serves us a nice heaping piece of red meat and dessert, and that is we see the bad guy, Ennis (Andrew Howard), go down. While Mason is able to get a good swipe at Ennis outside the courthouse, in the end, it’s the latter’s partner Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange) who has him drowned at a California mission’s fountain.
Meanwhile, Emily joins up with the remaining members of the Radiant Assembly of God, now led by Sister Alice McKeegan’s (Tatiana Maslany) mother Birdy (Lili Taylor). Emily drinks their juice, playing along with their sham that they really raised Charlie from the dead, even though she knows it’s not hers.
And in tying everything up in a perfect bow, tonight’s season finale went so far to let us know what happened to Sister Alice after she fled the bungled stunt of raising Charlie from the dead (his coffin empty during its reopening). Mason, thanks to Paul Drake’s (Chris Chalk) findings (who has left the police force and is now working for Perry), tracks Sister Alice down in coastal mission town where she’s working as a waitress. As suffocating at times as the Charlie Dodson case was this past season, what gave Perry Mason a greater dynamic was the Sister Alice storyline, and how a faith-based church of supposed healers rocked the city. The whole Sister Alice plot is inspired by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, an early 20th century Canadian Pentecostal evangelist who pioneered the use of radio with religious services and even used stage techniques in her weekly sermons at the Angelus Temple. Sister Aimee even disappeared, claiming she was abducted. Just as the Temple was preparing a memorial service for her, Sister Aimee turned up, and her return to LA then drew 30k-50k people, bigger than President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 visit to the city.
Mason tells Sister Alice that he knows what went down: that the church was involved in Charlie Dodson’s kidnapping, that Ennis put a crew together. Mason still has questions about how the baby’s body was removed from his grave.
“A baby was killed to prop up your church…you can look at this and still believe?” Mason asks Sister Alice. She still believes in the power of God, while Mason lost all hope of that when fighting in the Great War.
“Did you really think you could bring Charlie back?” he asks her.
“I did, didn’t I?” answers Sister Alice walking away.
While some critics have complained that the HBO series doesn’t really pay plenty of homage to the original Raymond Burr show, it does capitalize where it can on some iconic characters and cases in the Erle Stanley Gardner-created IP. Hence, for anyone wondering where season 2 is going (HBO just picked up thanks to fantastic ratings), the series creators don’t leave us guessing. A new client, Eva Griffin, walked into Mason’s office tonight. Says Della about her “She’s a woman who claims to be Mrs. Eva Griffin. She looks phony to me. I looked up all the Griffins in the city directory. There’s a lot of Griffins, but no Eva.”
The character is from Gardner’s first Mason mystery The Case of the Velvet Claws, in which Eva Belter (aka Griffin) is caught in a photo leaving an illegal gambling club with a politician. Fearing she is to be blackmailed, she asks Mason for help but she seems dishonest and tries to incriminate him. Her murdered husband is the blackmailer. In the book, Della calls her “all velvet and claws.”
Cue Fred Steiner’s Perry Mason theme song.