Perry Mason episode 6: The one with Perry’s courtroom debut

Perry Mason episode 6 features Perry’s debut as a lawyer.

This week’s episode of HBO‘s Perry Mason gets to what TV crime drama fans have been waiting for: Mason officially becoming a litigator, rather than an investigator.

Unsurprisingly, Perry (Matthew Rhys) isn’t very good at it. While he’s cleaned himself up, he lacks any confidence or the panache audiences expected from Raymond Burr’s iconic version. There’s a big, obvious reason for that—he isn’t there yet.

The Perry of “Chapter Six” is a rookie in the countroom, learning on the job. Yet perhaps because we as an audience have waited for this, and we know what he’s capable of, even knowing that he still feels underwhelming.

We want him to reach out and grab us, with some glimmer of what he’s going to be, and that just doesn’t happen. Maybe it will in the next two episodes.

Of course, it’s not helped by his opposite number continuing to be as big a blowhard as possible. Don’t blame Stephen Root, who’s really good at these kinds of roles (see: NewsRadio), but what was entertaining in small doses has become flat-out frustrating the more we see of Maynard Barnes.

It’s not just that we dislike him and his smarmy, biased litigating; it’s that we actively want to see someone punch him in the face. This episode of Perry Mason would be more compelling if Barnes weren’t an antagonistic caricature (like, say, Justin Kirk’s great portrayal of Mason’s future frenemy Hamilton Burger—who surely has to return in the newly announced second season).

Needling a big win quickly, “Chapter Six” has Perry lean hard on Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) to bring up the dentures, which would also betray Drake’s confidence and expose him to potential danger. But with Ennis (Andrew Howard) at the back of the courtroom, Drake won’t testify as such—he gives Mason one of the LAPD’s official evidence envelopes instead as a roundabout way of getting the dentures in.

Or trying, as Perry lacks the skill to make a decent argument, and the judge rules his new evidence inadmissible.

The scenes between Matthew Rhys and Chris Chalk are excellent in this Perry Mason episode, especially Chalk’s monologue when Drake visits Perry to give him the envelope. “Even a white criminal, white f–king murderer, gets to look down on me,” Drake opines.

He’s such a fascinating character, struggling with his moral code while realizing the LAPD has none, trying to protect his pregnant wife (Diarra Kilpatrick). Hopefully future episodes will develop him further as we know he becomes a key figure in Perry’s life.

Speaking of morals, or the lack thereof, there’s also a great scene near the end where Holcomb (Eric Lange) loses it on Ennis, realizing just what his partner has done. Holcomb declares that he wants anyone who could blame Ennis dead—how far will he go? Or could he eventually turn on the colleague that he turned corrupt in the first place? There’s all kinds of story to unpack in that relationship’s decline.

“Chapter Six” is one of the stronger Perry Mason installments, now that we’re seeing a different side of Perry than the constantly brooding investigator (and seeing more notes for Matthew Rhys to play), and that things are coming to a head for other characters, allowing those actors to shine. It’s hard not to look too far ahead now knowing that the story isn’t going toward any kind of finite conclusion, but the character development here is what we’ve been waiting for all along.

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