Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) *becomes* Perry Mason in “Chapter Seven,” the penultimate episode of the first season of HBO’s reboot. Not only do we get our first look at the kind of courtroom hijinks he’ll become known for, we learn what happened to baby Charlie Dodson… and more!
It’s Easter weekend 1932 in Los Angeles. That means the judge (Matt Frewer) and jury don’t want to spend their Good Friday in a hot courtroom for a minute longer than necessary and that Sister Alice’s (Tatiana Maslany) planned resurrection of baby Charlie Dodson is upon us.
When Perry Mason arrives in court on Good Friday, he has an ace up his sleeve… or rather a stack of aces in a carpetbag Hazel (Molly Ephraim) sneaks in through a back door. What he learned in his foray to the 20 acres Jim Hicks (Todd Weeks) bought from The Radiant Assembly of God’s shell corporation for $1.00 was that the church is in an astounding amount of debt… just about $100K, actually. George Gannon (Aaron Stanford) may have been holding the bag towards the end, but it was Hicks who moved money around for the church at the behest of Elder Seidel (Taylor Nichols) for years until his conscience couldn’t bear it anymore.
When Perry puts Hicks, then Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), on the stand, the jury learns that the church took on tens of thousands of dollars in debt with the sincere intention of saving souls by getting Sister Alice on the radio. They truly believed that the ends justified the means and trusted that it would be OK in the end because they were doing the Lord’s work. Unfortunately, Alice’s popularity hadn’t translated to financial salvation quickly enough and they needed a heavy bailout from their prime benefactor, Herman Baggerly. In November, her refused them. Weeks later, his grandson was kidnapped and ransomed for almost exactly the amount the church needed.
DA Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) tries to undermine Perry’s revelations by accusing Hicks of having no evidence to back up his claims of financial misconduct by the church. Like a conscience-driven accountant wouldn’t have kept records? Enter Hazel with her satchel full of Hicks’ backup copies of the church’s books for all the years he maintained them. Then chaos breaks out in the courtroom when some protester-types break in and throw smoke bombs, resulting in an abrupt halt to the week’s legal proceedings.
By the time court resumes Monday, Perry should have all the pieces to the puzzle. Thanks to Pete’s (Shea Whigham) work in Denver and some late-night investigating with proto-partner Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), Perry knows what happened to baby Charlie. The kidnappers took him to a motel to hide out while they waited for the ransom, but Charlie wouldn’t stop crying. Co-conspirator Ennis (Andrew Howard) stepped in with a lactating prostitute to feed the hungry baby, unaware that her heroin habit would make her milk toxic. Her feeding Charlie inadvertently caused his suffocation.
As Perry Mason pieces together the “what” and the “how,” the ultimate “who” and “why” remain elusive. Ennis kills the prostitute before she can talk, he stabs Seidel to death before he can testify and we know he shot all of the kidnappers. If the ransom money was for the church, is Ennis still somehow acting on the church’s behalf? Is he actually the brains behind this operation? And, if not, who is pulling his strings, and what’s the ultimate goal?
When Sister Alice exhumes Charlie’s coffin Easter Sunday, with Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) by her side, she is following a vision that told her she would bring Charlie back. The crowd of supporters, detractors and media thronging the grave as she prays surges forward and breaks into a near-riot when she opens the coffin and reveals that it is empty. Looks like Ennis has removed the key evidence of Charlie’s death by drug-induced asphyxia as well.
We learn a bit about Alice’s background through flashbacks in this episode– significantly that her mother (Lili Taylor) has been trading her one way or another for their survival for a long time. Alice remembers being given to a “good samaritan” who stopped to help them when they broke down on a desolate road as they traveled south from Canada when she was a girl. We don’t see the violation, but the implication is dark. The camera is sympathetic to Birdy, lingering on the pain in her face each time she makes a choice that hurts her daughter in the name of survival, but Alice is increasingly wary of her mother’s motives.
After opening the empty coffin, Alice escapes the wild crowd of onlookers in her car with her mother. Both are bloodied and bruised. Their retreat is interrupted by a new crowd of people in the middle of the street, and Birdie drags Alice into their midst so she can deliver “baby Charlie” to her before the gathered witnesses. Alice recognizes at once that the infant is a plant her mother arranged as a fallback, and she runs away on foot as her mother holds the baby and insists aloud that he is Charlie returned as Sister Alice promised.
As if the events surrounding the Dodson case weren’t enough for one episode, there are three other notable moments worth mentioning:
- Perry is so angry when Pete loses Seidel while tailing him that he crosses a line. Pete has delivered extremely well on this case, and Perry’s lack of appreciation leads to him quitting and recommending Paul as a replacement.
- Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) dine out, and she begs him to help her stop the inevitable catastrophe of Alice exhuming Charlie’s body. He isn’t able to help her there, but we learn that he and Della are both gay, and that he treasures his ability to be honest with her about himself. He tells the waiter she’s his fiancée, but it isn’t clear if that’s true just yet.
- Perry has refused Lupe’s (Veronica Falcón) repeated offers to buy his farm… and apparently he also hasn’t been paying his property taxes for years. When these facts converge in the form of Lupe buying the farm at a tax auction, Perry is furious. He’s also forced to leave the farm behind and move fully into his new life.