Perry Mason episode 3: The circus comes to Los Angeles

Perry Mason. Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO
Perry Mason. Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO /

Perry Mason episode 3 turned into a three-ring circus.

The circus came to town in the latest Perry Mason, with the HBO series turning its murder case into a full-blown spectacle. But was anyone actually going to find the truth?

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the latest Perry Mason episode.

“Chapter Three” focused heavily on the fallout from the previous episode’s revelations, with both District Attorney Barnes (Stephen Root, scenery-chewing more than ever before) and E.B. Jonathan (an equally over the top John Lithgow) making huge productions out of their side of the story.

The episode opened with both calling opposing press conferences. Jonathan made a point of staging a pre-arraignment photo op with Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry) holding his wife’s hand, despite the fact that Matthew was privately livid with Emily (Gayle Rankin) for cheating with the purported kidnapper. It was all shenanigans, trying to win in the court of public opinion, and it got old fast.

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Luckily, Perry Mason made time for the real meat of the story—continuing to unravel the crime. In the morgue, Perry (Matthew Rhys) noted that the kidnapper’s personal effects were MIA and sent buddy Pete (Shea Whigham) to find out why.

He also rang the LAPD’s bell, finally putting Rhys in a scene with the undervalued Chris Chalk as the still-frustrated beat cop Paul Drake. It took our hero about a minute to realize that Drake was on to something, or at least the one part of the police machine that didn’t seem obviously hinky.

Unfortunately, that also drew the attention of corrupt Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard), who warned Drake in no uncertain terms not to talk to the private detective. “I’m glad we’re friends,” Ennis said ominously before walking away. It seemed to work, because Drake had no time for Perry when the two met again—in fact, he punched him.

If the Ennis storyline turns out to be anything like Howard’s arc on the late, underrated Agent X, there will be some fireworks in short order. And of course, how will Drake and Perry ultimately end up as colleagues and friends? Ah, the vague joys of an origin story.

If there’s one thing that Perry Mason is still missing, though, it’s heart. It’s one thing to keep up the hazy auspices of film noir, and another to be constantly grim. There’s little reason to attach to any of these characters, even the titular one—how much do TV crime drama viewers really care about his fling with Lupe (Veronica Falcón)?

The most engaging character is Sister Alice, who seems so genuinely full of life and compassion, thanks to Tatiana Maslany’s warmth on-screen. But how her story connects to the series’ greater tale is still not quite clear. Is she just there as a spiritual counselor for the Dodsons? That would seem to be too small a role for a main character, and certainly an actress as talented as Maslany. So is there more going on with her, or is that wishful thinking?

Perry Mason‘s fourth episode hits all the established notes of the era and the genre: the hullabaloo, the ruthless district attorney determined to win at any cost, the sensationalism of the media, the police apathy. But it hasn’t yet found that one extra piece that will push it into HBO’s annals of brilliance next to shows like its predecessor Westworld.

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Perry Mason airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.