[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Perry Mason, Season 1, Episode 2, “Chapter 2.”]
Most people who are atheists don’t require an origin story for their beliefs (or lack thereof). But the biggest mystery Perry Mason ends up solving in its second episode is what exactly happened to Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) during the Great War — and why it has left him, let’s say, skeptical about the existence of God. Spoiler alert: War sucks! And Perry had to do some extremely sucky things while engaged in trench warfare, such as shoot a lot of people in the head, including some grievously injured fellow soldiers.
It’s relatively simple to boil down his time in the trenches as “war is hell,” but very gristly flashbacks punctuate “Chapter 2” of this story, which otherwise keeps its focus on the very sad and unexplained death of baby Charlie Dodson. Picking up on New Year’s Day, Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) is once again preaching to her flock, with assistance from women play-acting as the 7 Deadly Sins (as well as their more heavenly counterpoints).
But the most important attendees of her service are Charlie’s grieving parents Matthew and Emily (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), who Sister Alice invites backstage to express her sympathies. Mr. Baggerly (Robert Patrick) says on behalf of the elders, the church will be willing to host Charlie’s funeral — an offer the Dodsons take in stride, not hinting at a big secret yet to be revealed. However, when the police arrive at the church to ask Matthew to come down to the station, it’s clear something is amiss.
After taking a trip to a vast and endless warehouse full of thread that does little to help him identify Charlie’s killer, Perry enlists the help of his pal Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) on the investigation, perhaps in part because he wants to hang out with Pete’s magnificent mustache, but also in part because he hopes Pete has a spare gun.
Does E.B. White (John Lithgow) know yet that Perry’s brought on Pete? No, but he’s busy serving as Matthew’s attorney, which proves to be trickier than E.B. anticipated, because Matthew is being implicated in Charlie’s kidnapping. Why would a father of seemingly humble means arrange for the kidnapping of his own son? Because as District Attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) reveals, Matthew is secretly Baggerly’s illegitimate son, and that means Matthew is now suspected of using this as an opportunity to exhort $100,000 from his secret father.
However, Perry’s not done poking at this story, and pays a visit to the Dodsons’ next-door neighbor, a nosy woman whose porch gives her a clean line-of-sight inside their house. This show is filled with racists, hypocrites, and other sorts of ne’er-do-wells, , but this lady might be the most evil character on the show, as a busybody who talks cheerfully about murdering cats. Die in a fire, lady, even if you do give Perry an important clue: That Emily spends a lot of time talking on the phone, including the night that Charlie was kidnapped.
Emily, accompanied by E.B. and Della (Juliet Rylance), is dealing with the funeral arrangements for Charlie… well, she’s supposed to be doing that, but as a grieving mother she simply isn’t capable of handling it, and Della takes her away to a diner for some food.
At the diner, though, Emily is less interested in eating and more interested in sneaking away to a phone booth, which works out well for Perry, since he uses that as an opportunity to figure out who she’s been calling. After some clever manipulation of the phone operator, and begging “Diane” (all investigators deserve to have a mysterious Diane, though things usually go smoother when you remember their names) to do a reverse look-up, he makes it to the house of the recently deceased George, who has left behind a typed suicide note saying “God forgive this sinner,” a fireplace filled with burned cash, and a number of love letters hidden inside a toy alligator — written by Emily! (Who happens to have, in Charlie’s room, a carved turtle from the same tourist destination: The Los Angeles Alligator Farm.) The other thing Perry notices about the deceased’s very gruesome corpse: A curious bit of dental work.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s also a fair bit more of Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) in “Chapter 2,” as he continues trying to navigate the extremely racist politics of the 1932 LAPD. While he’s clearly a talented investigator, based on the cunning way in which he deduces at least some of what happened after stumbling across the crime scene where Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) killed the three criminals involved with Charlie’s death the night before. Ennis, of course, doesn’t love how he’s put that together, pressuring Drake to change his report. It’s something that rankles him, as he explains to his lovely pregnant wife Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick). But he doesn’t feel like he has any real choice, given the system.
Perry brings the love letters and his suspicions regarding Emily to E.B., who is frustrated as to how this affects his case and wants to decide for himself how to proceed. However, after an impassioned speech from Sister Alice (who goes a bit off-script in calling for some truly Biblical punishment of “the Devil” who killed Charlie), the LAPD takes that out of E.B.’s hands — somehow they also know about a potential connection between Emily and the death of Charlie, and they literally haul her away from the funeral service. Perry might no longer be a praying man. But he still wants to believe in the truth.
- After months of quarantine, for the record, nothing looks more sumptuous right now than a wood-paneled bar filled with leather-backed chairs and tumblers full of scotch. (Though that is no reason to go outside, for the record.)
- The seating chart at the Temple gets complicated thanks to the attendance of both the mayor and Clark Gable, the latter of whom was in fact over six feet tall.
- Perry Mason promised to fill out the backstory of its titular character, but who could have expected details like this to emerge: “I’m a quarter Welsh and queer only once.” Um. We have questions.
New episodes of Perry Mason air Sundays at 9 PM ET on HBO.