For its second season, HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason offers up deeper characters, darker morality, and an even better mystery than its first time out. A lot of things have been tweaked about the visually opulent period series in the couple of years since the first season aired, but Perry Mason makes a huge leap from being pretty good to exceptional with its newest story arc. With the titular struggling lawyer now surrounded by a rock solid team of accomplices and helpers, the entire show built around the character is bolstered as a result.
Several months removed from the tumultuous, scandalous, and life altering Emily Dodson trial, a haunted and traumatized Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) and his now promoted right-hand-woman, Della (Juliet Rylance), have put their criminal law practice on the back burner, only taking on civil claims cases. It’s slightly lower risk, but it’s clear that Della wants bigger challenges and the types of clients Perry has to put up with – including a ruthless grocery store tycoon (Sean Astin) – is killing his soul. Perry dips his toe back into criminal law when he becomes fascinated by a case where two young Latinos (Peter Mendoza and Fabrizio Guido) from an impoverished Hooverville community are imprisoned for the alleged murder of the son (Tommy Dewey) of a wealthy, feared, and well connected family. Something about the case doesn’t add up in Perry’s head, and while a ruthless, death penalty demanding D.A. wants to frame the case as a senseless act of violence perpetrated by poor people, Mason’s team – including undercover investigator Paul (Chris Chalk) – think it’s all tied to the recent sinking of an illegal offshore casino.
Much like many series based around mysteries, double crosses, and imperfect heroes, Perry Mason naturally eases into its second season without the need for languorous exposition and brick laying. In fact, a great deal of plot points from the first season (most notably Perry’s financial difficulties) are placed indefinitely on the back burner in favour of subtle world building and finely detailed character development. If the first season was about Perry Mason trying to build a career and learning to let others into his life, the second is about the impact Perry has on those around him, including his young son and a new romantic interest (played by Katherine Waterston).
Rylance and Chalk find themselves almost promoted to the level of co-leads alongside Rhys, a decision that lends a lot of much needed depth to the production. Rhys has never been better, imbuing Perry with budding senses of warmth and confidence, but also healthy does of bitterness, regret, and world weariness. Rylance gets a chance to show off Della’s increasing chops as a budding lawyer, while also exploring a darker side of the queer character when she starts courting a new lover (Jen Tullock) while already in a relationship. Even more fascinating that that thread is the one involving increasingly stressed out and slowly unravelling Paul, who wants to do well by the black community while simultaneously being branded as a snitch and traitor. In what might be the first unquestionably award worthy performance of the television year, Chalk puts on a masterclass, turning Paul into one of the most fascinating, richly drawn characters on screen. The entire second season of Perry Mason will leave viewers wanting more from this team, but less in terms of what kind of case they’ll tackle next and instead more about where these people will go from here, a hallmark of any successful, ongoing series.
And the case at hand here is much more twisty this time out, handled with clockwork efficiency by the team behind the camera. A huge reveal early on in the arc reframes viewer expectation, and turns Perry Mason into much more than a reliable mystery series. Despite a couple of predictable touches and some obvious foreshadowing here and there, season two of the show becomes a stirring treatise of what it takes to get by in an unjust world, and the toll those moves take on those making them. It’s about bearing witness to the prejudice and abuses of influence that are written off as the cost of doing business in America.
Perry Mason season two uses its appropriately twisty story to examine how empires are built on the backs and contributions of oppressed peoples, and why the only people who are allowed to be themselves in public are those at the top of the financial pecking order. The story of Perry Mason might be set in American during the time of the great depression, and it certainly looks the part of a smoky, sepia toned noir potboiler, but the themes and characters in play come across as both classical and contemporary.
That power dynamic can be seen anywhere Perry, Della, Paul, and returning investigator Pete (a still wonderful and scene stealing Shea Whigham) poke their noses. Two prime suspects in the case brilliantly illustrate how that power can manifest itself differently. Lydell McCutcheon – played with chilling, low key menace by Paul Raci – is the father of the victim, a shady man with fingers in a lot of pies who keeps his position of influence through fostering fear and mistrust. On the other hand is Camilla Nygaard, played with serpentine charm by Hope Davis, a shady woman of endless means who tries to obscure the truth through charitable acts and kindly advances. Both of these characters have effectively and subtly poisoned the world around them, with the legal team caught up in a muddy, oil and water filled whirlpool.
The second season of Perry Mason takes on a lot of narrative weight and emotional baggage, but it works wonderfully. Everything about Perry Mason is sharper this time out, from the production design to the costumes to the writing and beyond. It’s an example of a pretty good show that makes a huge leap towards greatness. Considering all the time and work it took just to make it to this second season, it was absolutely worth the wait. For the next instalment, give this team as much time as they need.
Season two of Perry Mason airs on HBO starting Monday, March 6, 2023 at 9:00 pm.
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