This article contains spoilers.
The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.
— Franz Kafka, “Before The Law”
Franz Kafka hated the draconian bureaucracies of the state that he saw beginning to take shape in the early 20th century. To him, they were ugly apparatuses of injustice that eventually spread across Europe after his death, culminating with the oppressive and murderous reigns of the Nazi Party and the Soviet Union.
In HBO’s new series, “Perry Mason” sees the titular private detective (played by Matthew Rhys) work out his contempt for the corrupted institutions of law enforcement and the bureaucratic judicial system in 1930s Los Angeles. At the top of Mason’s list of loathing are those who live within its rotting framework and do nothing to remedy it.
“God left me in France,” he tells Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany), the evangelist who will later become his spiritual nemesis. The horror of “the war to end all wars” has left a deep-seated cynicism within Perry and much of the world at large, paralyzing chances for individuals to reach their full potential and construct a meaningful existence. They are, as Gertrude Stein once supposedly told Ernest Hemingway, the “Lost Generation.”
In “The Trial,” Kafka writes about an alienated protagonist’s legal battle against a corrupt establishment of injustice while exploring a more abstract judgment of guilt within himself, one that is both existential and metaphysical. “Perry Mason” is similarly interested in this narrative duality. On the surface, it’s the story of a man investigating the kidnapping and murder of an infant named Charlie Dodson, whose mother Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) becomes the prime suspect.
As he comes to believe her innocence, the elasticity of the legal system is tested. But perhaps more importantly for Mason is the inner trial, one with even higher stakes: the battle for his soul.
‘The Clown Carries You’
“The Clown Carries You” is the password the gate guard requires from Mason every time he drives into his paternal farmland. It’s an apt metaphor for the hard-boiled man we meet in the first episode. Discharged from military service because he mercifully executed some of his wounded, deformed men who lay helpless on the battlefield as mustard gas rolled in to painfully finish them off, Mason carries that dark day in France with him into Los Angeles.
He’s divorced, disheveled, and a drinker who doesn’t see his kid enough. While he manages to scrape by on lowly surveillance jobs beneath his intellectual and moral capabilities, slowly, but surely, something in Mason is dying. Mason finds himself at odds with all the people in his life who should matter, from his ex-wife and son he can’t financially support, to his partner, Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), who he can’t pay for the gumshoe work they do.
While he no longer even believes in himself, the only two people in his life who seem to have any faith left in him are Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow) — a father-figure defense lawyer who enlists the private eye to investigate the Dodson case — and Della Street (Juliet Rylance), E.B.’s intelligent and empathetic secretary who knows that Mason is more than the slobbish nihilist he appears to be.
Early in the series, Della watches Mason defend himself in court from an inept defense lawyer and prying district attorney, questioning Mason’s involvement in a domestic disturbance regarding outside pressure to rob him of his family’s farm. Della sees in Mason what he can’t yet for himself: a fastidious mind for the intricacies of the law and a genuine passion for righteousness.
At the end of the first chapter, Mason is nearing rock-bottom — depressed, drunk, and alone on New Year’s Eve. But standing over the initial evidence of the Dodson murder on his living room floor, Mason pulls it together and begins to work the case. Ultimately, he’s a man with a purpose bigger than himself, reconnecting with something that has been lost.
The Divine Femme Fatale
One of the more interesting ways “Perry Mason” subverts the traditional film noir tale is its use of the femme fatale. Sister Alice’s provocative purpose in this story isn’t to lead our protagonist into crime or nihilistic oblivion like so many classic noir fatales have before. Instead, from the moment she and Mason cross paths, they engage in a subtle game of cat and mouse in which a woman of faith challenges a man of doubt.
When Sister Alice tells Emily Dodson that she can raise baby Charlie from the dead, it isn’t only the grieving mother whose faith is being requested. Viewers will inevitably begin to spin theories of how this resurrection could be carried out plot-wise. In the final analysis, “Perry Mason” is a show that wants both its character and its audience to believe there is light beyond the darkness.
Despite the uplifting themes of “Perry Mason” the ending of season one revealed that Perry’s transformation isn’t complete and won’t come easily. The series seems very much interested in wrestling with the complex nature of truth, justice, and the law that arbitrates the two.
DELLA: It’s very easy for you to break the rules, isn’t it?
PERRY: Well, the way I see it, there’s what’s legal and
there’s what’s right.
In the season finale, Mason delivers a powerful closing argument to the jury about the need for society to accept the rule of law and the necessity of a judicial system that advocates innocence until proven guilty. It’s a stirring message to chew on today in our riot-filled, FISA court-abusing, cancel-culture society, where so many people decide to take “justice” into their own hands or let their emotions feed into the need for vengeance and public executions. Mason intones:
Written above Judge Wright here are the commandments of this court. ‘Find truth, seek justice,’ in that order because you cannot seek justice without first knowing the truth. And if the truth is hidden or obscured by distraction or lies, you’ll never find justice, you’ll never achieve justice, and therefore you’ll never fix what happened to Charlie Dodson. I stood in that morgue on New Year’s Eve and I wanted blood. But I stand here today for the law, and the law tells me I have to be better than that. We all have to be better than that.
Yet does Mason even believe his own words? When we learn that one of the jurors was paid off by Perry and Pete to try and find Emily not guilty, it shakes Strickland’s faith in their old partnership of bending the law for quick cash. Like Della, Pete believes in Perry even if Perry can’t.
In the same way Los Angeles Police Department officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) turns his back on the corrupt cops in his department, Mason becomes a salvific figure inspiring those around him to be righteous.
The Law of the Higher Court
“You want to know things, Mr. Mason, you want to prove things. But what comfort has that ever given you? What peace?” Sister Alice’s last challenge to Perry raises epistemological questions that highlight the greater conflict he’s been wrestling within himself and will likely continue into season two.
In the very last scene, as Mason stands on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean he blows the useless piece of thread he’s been carrying around into the wind. What is the value of knowing the truth if justice becomes threatened?
Mason will still have to find a way to navigate the discord between what’s legal and what’s right. It’s unclear whether he has a newfound belief in any sort of spiritual “god” or religious worldview. But he has found an authentic place of meaning where he can work these conflicts out: the courtroom.
“Perry Mason” should bring comfort to today’s lost generation who desire to live in a society where men and women can let go of their past traumas and reinvent themselves into better people with a higher purpose. It reminds us that law, order, and justice are ideals still mean something for those willing to fight for them.