[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Perry Mason, Season 1, Episode 4, “Chapter 4.” It also contains discussion of suicide.]
The halfway point of HBO’s very HBO-ish take on Perry Mason brings with it an emotional body-blow — at the end of Chapter 4, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), after being threatened with disbarment and public humiliation by district attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root), dies by suicide. It’s a plot decision which leaves a lot of variables for the rest of the season up in the air, and also brings to an end what had been one of the show’s most intriguing dynamics: the rough-and-tumble back-and-forth between E.B. and his loyal “associate” Della (Juliet Rylance).
Collider had a chance to speak with Lithgow and Rylance about this episode, and below they get into how they felt about the ending, when they found out it was going to happen, and what it was like to build Della and E.B.’s kinetic relationship.
Collider: When you guys hit that point in reading the scripts, what was your reaction?
JOHN LITHGOW: Well, I suddenly realized, “Wow, this is a much better part than I thought.” One thing that we all have in common, all of us who play these wonderful roles, every one of these roles has a secret or a set of secrets that bit by bit, get doled out in the telling of this story. And that’s always a very exciting thing to play for an actor. It’s like a magician that has something to hide, something up his sleeve, gets revealed bit by bit. And, Della has her big secret, I have a whole myriad of secrets. Perry himself has secrets. And these secrets, they are revealed at the same time that the crime story secrets are revealed. That’s a fantastic thing, to give that much character to a crime story.
JULIET RYLANCE: I was devastated when I read what happens to E.B. And actually, for me and for Della, for her journey through the story and for Perry, it’s the fulcrum point. It’s where everything changes in the story. But as so often, the same applies in life, that with the loss of someone, with the loss of something, great change comes from it. And I really felt that reading it, and I felt that very profoundly when we were filming it. So, it’s a great loss, I wish E.B. would just stay through the whole thing. But I also understand, and I think this is what was so clever about Ron [Fitzgerald] and Rolin [Jones]writing this event happening, is that it really does propel the whole next acts of the story. And really, it’s sort of where the story finds itself as a result of this great loss.
John, were you warned in advance that this was coming?
LITHGOW: Well, when I was offered the role, I was told that it was going to be an eight-episode season, and that I was only in the first four episodes. I’ve had that experience before in a few wonderful projects. You know, there’ve been many Shrek films. I was only in the first, because I was eaten by a dragon. That means I was eaten by a dragon. That’s a pretty good scene.
You know, late entrances and early exits. That’s good stuff in a role. The very beautiful thing is, and I haven’t seen the last four episodes of the series yet, but E.B. lives on in all sorts of fascinating ways. As I say, I’ve only seen the ones I’m in, and they’re awfully good. If the rest are anywhere near as good as that, it’s going to be a fantastic series.
I mean, it does hurt, especially because your characters do have such a great dynamic.
LITHGOW: Yeah. The whole relationship with Della, it was so much fun to play the two characters. My character E.B. is really an old fool who’s completely dependent on Della. And yet, he’s infuriated by that fact. He gives her such grief just because she’s so much more competent than he is. I love that. That’s both the stuff of great comedy, or if you just twist it a little, great tragedy.
Juliet, from your perspective, what was building that relationship like?
RYLANCE: Well, to work with John is an absolute dream and an honor to be able to share a stage. It’s just exactly the same thing. Della absolutely needs and adores and loves E.B. Jonathan, and is completely infuriated by him at every turn. So, exactly. They completely mirror each other, the feelings they have about each other. And I love the fact that you never actually get, really, a nice word between them. Yet, there’s so much love there. Even the scene where I come and pick E.B. up from his home, and he’s stacking the papers and suitcases and things, his briefcase. And I just love that delicacy of those little moments between them like brushing his suit or fixing a tie.
LITHGOW: Yep. We’re like a little three-person dysfunctional family, a father with two surrogate children and a brother and sister with a surrogate father. And they need each other so badly, all three of them.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or visit their website.