Perry Mason S1E5: Chapter Five Sees Moments of Transition

Sister Alice preaches into a microphone on stage
Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Perry Mason S1E5 begins with Della arriving at E.B.’s apartment and discovering his dead body. She calls Perry and they rearrange the scene to make it look like he died in bed, at least in part to make the death seem more insurance friendly.

Much of the episode is taken up by questions having to do with the respect (or lack thereof) shown to E.B. after his death. His son is the only one who shows up to receive and inter his body, saying that his wife and kids are going about their days as normal. It would seem that E.B. wasn’t a very good father.

He was something of a father figure to Perry, however, and when he finds court-appointed attorney Frank Dillon (Matt Malloy) trying to use the office because it’s paid through the end of the month, Mason is not having it. He throws books at the man, which is satisfying insofar as Dillon is a smarmy little weasel who is clearly in cahoots with the prosecution.

E.B.’s old partner Lyle (Mark Harelik) shows more respect for the deceased, despite the fact that they hadn’t exactly been on good terms at the time of E.B.’s death. Still, when Della asks him if he’ll take over the case, he refuses, saying it could kill his career. And none of the other lawyers on Della’s list end up being interested either.

No one wants to defend Emily because “everyone” thinks she is a whore and a baby killer. What Della can’t stand is the inference they are making from infidelity to murder, which smacks of misogyny. She shows herself to be indomitable in her quest to help Emily in S1E5—not because she is getting paid (her employer being dead), but because she can’t stand the corruption, the sexism, and the injustice of what is being done to Emily.

Juliet Rylance as Della Street in Perry Mason on HBO
Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Perry is more or less on the same page as he rants in Della’s kitchen about the lack of evidence the prosecution has. She’s being railroaded. He’s become confident that the police have been purposefully covering up what really happened, with his suspicion falling ever more on Ennis as he and Strickland continue to investigate.

This rant leads Della to forge a letter from E.B. attesting that Mason has been apprenticing to learn the law, and for her to arrange for Deputy DA Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) to give Perry the answers to the bar exam so that he can become a lawyer.

So Perry Mason S1E5 finally sees Mason transition from private investigator to defense attorney. The way it happens is a bit sketchy, and one could certainly question Perry’s ability to practice law effectively at trial with so little legal knowledge, but we already know that he’s not going to be a normal lawyer. He’s not going to be filing sophisticated motions and working the system so much as he is going to defend his clients by proving who actually committed the crime. That’s what Perry Mason is all about. And as for those motions and such, when they are necessary they’ll come from Della, who does know the law. In many ways, she is the hero of this story.

Don’t worry about how they fudged things to get Perry certified as an attorney. As both he and Della say in S1E5, there’s what’s legal and there’s what’s right.

Can I Be Saved, Sister?

The fallout at the Radiant Assembly of God turns out to be somewhat different from what I expected. It is the Elders that are (mostly) gone after Sister Alice’s actions in S1E4, which implies that their power rested primarily in their money. Alice is the core of the thing (she even threatens to fire her mother in S1E5) and is now being funded by contributions that are coming in from around the country. Of course, as Birdie points out, so are death threats.

But Sister Alice is revived with the spirit of their Pentecostal roots and insists on having a faith healing where she ends up speaking in tongues. There is an interesting ambiguity in this scene, as she leans in to talk to Robert off mic, telling him that his wheelchair is an excuse and urging him to stand up. He ultimately does, but it is clear that doing so is painful, and people hold his arms to keep him from falling. So I’m not going to ask whether the faith healing is bogus. The more interesting question is whether Alice knows it is, or whether she believes her own bullsh*t.

Up to this point in Perry Mason, I have taken her faith to be genuine (even if I don’t think the things she believes have even a possibility of being true). But those off-mic comments complicate things. Perhaps I have been too charitable in my read of Sister Alice. She would not, however, be the first figure that I interpret as being right on this line.

In the real world, L. Ron Hubbard comes to mind for me. On the one hand, there is pretty clear evidence that he knew that he was making up a religion (as opposed to it being divinely revealed to him or something like that). But on the other, he really did seem to believe in Scientology himself at the end of the day. To be clear, I think that Scientology deceives and exploits people for profit, but while David Miscavige knows that this is what he is doing, I think Hubbard actually believed he was helping people.

These are, of course, just my opinions and interpretations. The question with regard to Perry Mason is whether Sister Alice is taking advantage of people on purpose, and I continue to think that she isn’t. That doesn’t mean she isn’t deceiving or exploiting them, just that this is not her intent. But it could turn out that I’m wrong about that.

Regardless, Alice insists on using the Assembly’s money to post Emily’s bail, and the latter thus comes to stay at the church. This connects the storylines in Perry Mason in a direct way, and maybe this will be the extent of the connection between the Radiant Assembly and the Dodson case. I still wonder, however, if there is more to it and the church will be somehow implicated in Charlie’s kidnapping.

Render Unto Caesar?

I also wonder if more of a connection will form between Sister Alice’s story and Paul Drake’s as Perry Mason moves forward. Aimee McPherson, or Sister Aimee, upon whom Tatiana Maslany’s character is at least loosely based, racially integrated her church services, and Drake’s story in S1E5 dives into the question of segregation.

Paul Drake stands in uniform
Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

First we see Paul and his wife Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick) listening to a speech about fighting for America to live up to the ideal that “all men are created equal” instead of allowing this to stand as the utmost hypocrisy. Clara doesn’t see the point in struggling to change something she believes can’t be changed, which is an interesting example of the kind of quietism that can arise in the face of oppression because it actually makes a lot of sense. Is it worth fighting the powerful when this is just going to result in being beaten down or killed while accomplishing nothing?

It would seem that one has to believe that change is possible in order to be able to fight for it. Yet, perhaps at least sometimes, it is the belief itself that makes the “impossible” possible. To what extent does injustice rely on the complacency of those who’ve come to view justice as an unrealistic fantasy?

Or maybe such a belief isn’t really necessary. Perhaps it is enough to just get fed up. This is what seems to happen when it comes to Paul and Clara Drake. A cop disrupts their day at the beach, insisting that it’s closed with no reason to appeal to beyond his racism. He either doesn’t respect Paul’s claim to be police or doesn’t care. Add this to the way Paul has been treated by Holcomb and Ennis, and he’s had it.

I’ll be curious to see how Drake ends up (back) in Perry Mason’s orbit. My guess is that it may well be through the Radiant Assembly in some way, but I suppose it could simply be a matter of Drake deciding that he will testify about the falsification of his police report, etc.

There weren’t any big clues in the Dodson case revealed in Perry Mason S1E5. Mason and Strickland have pretty well worked out Ennis’s involvement, but I still think there must be more to what happened than that. At the very least, Perry Mason owes us an explanation of what went wrong with the kidnapping.

Oh, and I’m still wondering what this all is going to have to do with little Charlie liking turtles…

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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  1. I wrote to you before about this show and thought I was finished with it after I saw Della as a lesbian. I thought they should have changed the title of the to Detective Series or similar to that. I am a true Perry Mason fan and have watched every show from the old days to the 2 hr movies and figured that Perry loved Della and she loved him, as I read some of the books she told Perry he was the boss and she was his secretary and never the twain shall meet.
    As for Sister Alice, I just don’t get it. it really doesn’t have much to do with the show, but it’s coming together so I will continue to watch it
    Thanks Caemeron Crain for helping me understand some of the things in this complex story.

  2. You’re most welcome. I find the Sister Alice stuff to be fascinating, personally. They announced that there will be a second season the other day. I’d expect that to be closer to the Perry Mason we’re used to, although of course with the differences in tone and such. He’s an attorney now at least. I have been enjoying the whole thing, though. I hope you ultimately feel it was worth your time

  3. I am fan of Perry Mason generally. I have all the original Earl Stanley Gardner books (of which I believe there are 74) and have read all of them numerous times. I find there is almost no correspondence between the new HBO series and the original Earl Stanley Gardner characters other than the reuse of their names.The new show is not bad but it has nothing to do with the earl Stanley Gardner Perry Mason . As a 1935 detective drama the new series can make it on its own and it would be more entertaining for those of us aware of the original characters if those in the new series characters had different names.

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