‘Perry Mason’ Season 2: Rage Against the Machine (REVIEW)

Halfway through HBO’s Perry Mason Season 1, Della Street (Juliet Rylance) tells Perry (Matthew Rhys) that she ran away from home at the age of 25. After being disinherited for refusing an arranged fiancé, Della worked as a legal secretary for E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), hoping to attend law school one day. But E.B never saw Della — an unmarried woman without a college degree — as anything but the help. In this revised version of Perry Mason, Della is also a closeted lesbian who’s living a double life in the 1930s; she wants to be seen for who she is, but there is no court of law where she can seek recompense. The carnivalesque legal system of HBO’s distinctively noir prequel is described by Della as such: “I am so angry. I don’t know where to put it. Imagine if they could hang you for who you fuck.” 

Della doesn’t have to imagine it. She could be hanged for who she fucks, and the horrifying shadow of this truth lingers over her throughout the series short-lived two seasons. Gone are the days when Raymond Burr‘s Perry Mason symbolized the infallible purity of the legal system, and in its place are people so burned by the law that anger is all that they have left. The characters in Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald‘s Perry Mason are angry. They’re rich, white, and powerful if they aren’t angry. The decision to change the identities of Della, Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), and Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) — Paul is a Black cop turned private investigator, and Hamilton is a closeted gay attorney — does more than tick off diversity boxes. Jones and Fitzgerald want to know more about the people whom Perry relies on to make his cases: what are their lives like? 

Juliet Rylance as Della Street and Jen Tullock as Anita St. Pierre in Perry Mason (COURTESY: HBO)

Perry Mason is concerned about the people whom the law fails — is it possible to fight against an institution that’s designed to crush people like Della, Paul, and Hamilton? Season 1 concluded with Perry bribing jurors to win a case; there’s no justice within a system built to sustain corruption, and the very best legal dramas understand this cruel fatality. As Anna Kornbluh writes on Robert King and Michelle King’s The Good Wife, the show’s brilliance lies in its depiction of the “abiding circularity of corruption … there is no personal experience exempt from political calculus.” The season finale of The Good Wife saw Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) trapped in a relentless cycle of self-disgust. Once a scorned woman and victim of politics, Alicia has become the victimizer: she sold out her friend to save her skin and betrayed her lover to ascend the corporate ladder. The vicious slap she receives from Diane (Christine Baranski) is a bitter warning to the audience: if we have desired to see Alicia succeed, it’s because we are also incapable of envisioning the good life without playing by its rigged rules. 

But The Good Wife has always empathized with its female protagonist; Alicia’s declaration of eternal love to Will (Josh Charles) shows us that buried beneath the muck of self-hatred is a woman who was once loved unconditionally and became a better person for it. Likewise, in spite of its nihilism about the law, Perry Mason is ultimately about the importance of love and how its presence chips away even at the ugliest of legal edifices. 

Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason and Chris Chalk as Paul Drake in Perry Mason (COURTESY: HBO)

The series finale of Perry Mason lands where it has somewhat begun. Perry is in jail for concealing evidence to save his clients from the death penalty, Della is in a public lavender marriage with Hamilton, and Paul has sworn off working with Perry ever again. One of their clients, Mateo (Peter Mendoza), is in jail for thirty years despite being a mere pawn used by the rich, but at least his brother, Rafael (Fabrizo Guido), gets to evade a prison sentence and go to art school. It’s a delicate compromise which yields no winners: this is an unjust world where someone always loses. 

We learn in Season 2 that Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) escaped imprisonment only to commit suicide off-screen, unable to cope with the loss of her son and the public humiliation that she has endured. Prior to her death, Emily had repeatedly begged Perry for help. But he never answered; he was a lawyer, not a shrink, and lawyers abdicate responsibility to their clients after the verdict. Instead of confiding in anybody about Emily’s suicide, Perry decides to drink himself to death. He has one foot out of the door, seemingly unaware that Della’s entire law career depends on him winning cases; she has no social capital without his endorsement. Della tells Perry that he’s full of shit — he could have helped her find a doctor. She puts him in his place: “When I said that we are in this together, I meant it. We are partners. But when are you ever not alone in anything?” 

As a working-class lesbian, Della knows that community is the difference between life and death: she actively seeks out new connections, frequents lesbian bars, and even puts her career on the line to ensure that Hamilton’s sexuality stays a secret. In particular, Della’s vibrant romance with Anita (Jen Tullock) is one of Perry Mason’s finest accomplishments; in a world that is hallowed out by systemic corruption, lesbian desire liberates. Likewise, Paul also actively involves his wife, Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick) in his work; in doing so, Perry Mason paints a rich portrait of a Black marriage built on mutual trust and unconditional love. Even after being sentenced to jail, Perry’s plight is also alleviated by the hope that his girlfriend will be waiting for him. This is a series where our relationships with each other are stronger than any arbitrary set of legal rules. 

Juliet Rylance as Della Street and Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason in Perry Mason (COURTESY:HBO)

It is significant that Perry Mason takes the time to know its minority characters: each has hopes and dreams and works hard to realize them. All of them are crushed by the law and failed by it. Della and Paul can’t help but rely on people, and Perry Mason uses its characters to give us a glimpse of a world where we all owe it to each other to fight hard against the machine. 

The premature cancellation of Perry Mason – a show from the perspective of the working-class – also affirms the worrying trend that only media texts about the wealthy are worth watching. From Succession to The White Lotus to Hacks major award darlings and contenders – there appears to be a vested interest in the interior lives of the ultra-rich; their struggles are artfully rendered with a generosity that is rarely afforded to the poor. It is certainly not wrong to enjoy these shows, but we must also ask why the industry is avowedly disinterested in stories where working-class solidarity triumphs. As Nina Metz puts it in her essay on Hollywood’s obsession with billionaires, shows like Succession “ask us to laugh at the obscenely rich and their avaricious games. But it also quietly argues that this is all we can hope to do when the wealthy and coldblooded have a stranglehold on power.” If fiction allows us to imagine otherwise, Perry Mason tells a story of what could possibly be if we cared about everyone.

“The most fatal thing a man can do,” writes Carson McCullers, “is to stand alone.” The sheer iconicity of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason locates the goodness of the law within a single man’s bleeding heart. Yet the law fails precisely because it is made up of single men. The latest version of Perry Mason wants us to see the incommensurable value of love and community. The losses will come, over and again. But there is no fate worse than loneliness. 

Rating: 9/10 

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