[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Perry Mason” Season 1, Episode 8, “Chapter 8,” including the ending.]
I hate the “Perry Mason” moment. Growing up the son of a small town defense attorney, nothing would grind my father’s gears like seeing a TV lawyer badger their witness into an admission of guilt, or suddenly introduce new evidence that they themselves uncovered. The former rarely happens, and the latter is a convenient fallacy cooked up by efficiency-minded screenwriters — lawyers aren’t private investigators. Except, of course, if you’re Perry Mason.
So when HBO’s beautiful reboot set up a plot where Matthew Rhys’ seasoned P.I. would also don the mantle of a respectable attorney, it had me worried that this “Perry Mason” would repeat the same melodramatic “moments” made infamous by the ’50s original. Those were fine back then, when TV was built on disposable drama, but today’s audiences demand better. The era of Prestige TV may be giving way to the sweet embrace of Comfort TV, but 2020’s “Perry Mason” — with all its grit, glower, and graphic violence — was built with the former audience in mind, for better or worse.
Thankfully, the finale assuaged my fears and embraced its roots — and did so with style. While the end of “Perry Mason” Season 1 provided plenty of admirable and affecting scenes, be it the fight between Perry and Della (Juliet Rylance) or the enticing setup for Season 2, its best moment was no moment at all.
Or, more accurately put, writers Rolin Jones, Ron Fitzgerald, and Kevin J. Hynes acknowledged the audience’s expectations before popping the bubble and bringing everyone back to reality. Starting with the throwback title card carefully placed over Detective Joe Ennis (Andrew Howard) being sworn in to testify, the finale provided the anticipated “moment” — when Perry would masterfully force the killer detective to admit his wrongdoings — only to let Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) stand up, force Perry out of his deluded plan, and tell the audience exactly why they won’t be getting the kind of ending every other “Perry Mason” provided.
Merrick Morton / HBO
“No one confesses on the stand,” Burger says, succinctly explaining both his and the show’s positions. “No one ever confesses on the stand.”
Later, the episode drills in exactly why the unrealistic choice is also the wrong choice for this story. If Perry went after Detective Ennis like that, he’d be putting his own ego ahead of his client’s well-being, and if his gamble didn’t pay off, he’d steal focus from the case he’d already built while elevating the prosecution’s position. Perry eventually addresses all of these problems by doing the right thing — first, by putting Emily (Gayle Rankin) on the stand to speak for herself, and then in his closing statement, when he points out that his own instinctual quest for vengeance is just as misguided as everyone else’s. When you see a tragedy as great as this one, you want to blame someone, and Emily can be blamed. But that doesn’t mean she’s guilty. (It’s also worth noting that prosecutor and D.A. Maynard Barnes, played by the great Stephen Root, is all ego, all the time, and it becomes his downfall. That’s just great writing.)
But before Perry can remove his head from his own ass, he needs Della to kick it a few times. Perry is making things personal. He wants to punish the people he knows did this, in order to stick it to the people who have been lording their power over him for so long. Della wants to protect an innocent mother. She wants Emily to protect her sense of self, her self-respect, and her name, which is all the more admirable considering everyone else is out to attack her. They want to blame someone, and in this society, in this world, it’s easy to blame the mother. That’s the patriarchy in action, and Perry is complicit in it, even as her attorney.
Thankfully, he listens to Della, and even better, she’s willing to accept his “abominable” behavior and keep working together. She rightly and smoothly takes him to the cleaners in negotiating her new position, and seeing the three-person team of Perry, Della, and freshly de-copped Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is more than enough to get people excited for Season 2. If Shea Whigham and his impossibly thin mustache can return, too, with Pete Strickland working alongside the man with the great name, Hamilton Burger, then this will be a crew worth following, no matter the case. (Still, hopefully co-creators Jones and Fitzgerald can cook up a better one than we got here, as Sister Alice’s side of things slowly fizzled out. Season 1 just didn’t seem to have as much interest in crucifying duplicitous church members as it did dirty cops.)
Still, with its immaculate direction (courtesy of Tim Van Patten in the finale, as well as Deniz Gamze Ergüven in previous episodes) and top-notch production, the first season stands as a well-orchestrated success. Knowing as we do now that Perry would transform from private investigator to defense attorney puts any loyalist’s qualms to rest, while pushing into distinctly modern territory with its mature approach to storytelling helps distinguish the new series from past interpretations. Having Rhys at the center makes every episode worth watching. You have to love his all-in approach to this disheveled character, like this week’s note-perfect touch of picking up Perry’s freshly lit cigarette after he gets knocked around by the cops, while Rylance is primed to steal scenes all next season. (Della in law school? Let’s do this.)
All in all, the finale clearly illustrated why incorporating the “Perry Mason” moment just didn’t fit for this case. Perry didn’t need it to win, and the show didn’t need it to win over viewers. Bring on Season 2.
“Perry Mason” Season 1 is an HBO original series now available to stream on HBO Max. Season 2 has already been ordered.