Matthew Rhys and Juliet Rylance Excel in a More Focused Story
Feb 27, 2023
What is it that we can do to find justice in a world where corruption has consumed everything? There is a unique amalgamation of optimism and pessimism at the heart of the HBO series Perry Mason, which sets out to answer this question in its second season. Much feels the same this time around, with Matthew Rhys in rare form as his titular hard-drinking private detective turned crusading lawyer remains both as ornery and horny as ever. However, as the flawed character tries to contend with his role in the system meant to bring about justice, Season 2 also finds a better balance than when we first met him. Though not as good as their spectacular prior series The Knick, the hiring of new showrunners Michael Begler and Jack Amiel has proven to be the winning addition needed to crack both the character and his latest case wide open. Sure, it may not have a moment quite like Season 1’s, where Mason was launched from a bed during sex, but the manner in which he continues to flounder his way to justice makes this sophomore outing a strong one all the same.
Discussing the details of the story requires a great degree of withholding; to even emphasize certain elements could tip off-key revelations to come later. The basics are that Mason and his colleague Della Street (Juliet Rylance) have shifted away from doing high-profile defenses to more standard legal work. It keeps the lights on, but it also feels unfulfilling. The reason that they have shifted focus is that Mason remains rattled by the events of the first season and the tragic fate of his former client that is revealed early on. Now living in an apartment in Los Angeles after selling off his family farm and trying to start a new chapter in his life, this all continues to haunt him as he feels like he failed.
Perhaps despite himself, he is drawn back into another case when there is a murder of a high-profile businessman under the cover of darkness. Blame is quickly cast on the Gallardo brothers, Fabrizio Guido’s Rafael and Peter Mendoza’s Mateo, though Mason believes there is more to this crime than meets the eye. Thus, he begins working with Della and former cop-turned-private detective Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) to get to the bottom of what really happened that night. This won’t be so easy — not only are they facing down a city out for blood, but there are powerful forces who will stop at nothing to prevent the truth from coming out.
Image via HBO
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Laying out any more information beyond this is best left to the show itself, so as not to take away from the experience of seeing it all unravel. Suffice it to say, there are faces new and old that will all become a part of this evolving case. With the odds stacked against them and limited resources, Mason must resort to scrappy tactics both in and out of the courtroom. Rhys continues to capture this perfectly, convincingly delivering withering retorts that send shouts throughout the gallery. Mason’s methods remain persistently dangerous — for himself, his colleagues, and his clients — as his dogged determination for uncovering the truth risks making them all a target. Some of this stems from his own desire for redemption from the tragedy he feels responsible for, while another part is rooted in the genuine desire to help those who could be casually tossed aside without a second thought. There could and should have been a bit more development given to the Gallardo brothers, but the glimpses we get of how this city has beaten them down make clear that injustice has been present long before this trial even started. It teases how, no matter what the outcome is, the world is fundamentally out of balance.
Even as Perry Mason is a handsomely shot series with a great score that immerses you in the era in every detail, this is no nostalgia piece as there remain darker truths lurking just underneath everything. Though this was present in the first season, this time it feels more focused and sharp in how the story builds. A single glance at a key moment or a hesitance in a crucial conversation can carry just as much weight as some of the more gruesome elements sprinkled throughout. The nature of the truths at the core of the mystery itself ends up being unexpected in a way that initially feels like a potential dodge. Further, there is a rather significant and unexpected betrayal that the series occasionally stumbles in grappling with.
However, once the dust settles on these newfound details, it only pulls us deeper into more complicated revelations in which there are no neat answers to be found at the end of the road for anyone involved. As Mason is all too aware, all the late hours spent trying to find some semblance of justice could be for naught. Rhys is as dynamic as ever even as this drags down his snappy disposition when darkness takes hold. Be it in an outburst at those he cares about or when a resigned sadness passes across his face, we feel the fear he still has about what could happen if he is anything less than perfect. Even the smallest misstep could soon spell complete and utter disaster from which there may be no chance of coming back.
Image via HBO
While this is going on, all the characters are trying to find some semblance of peace in their personal lives. Mason is trying to reconnect with his son, Street with a passionate new love interest that she must keep secret, and Drake with his own family who has taken a hit after he lost his job. There is a witty playfulness to all of this that the cast brings to life in their own ways, making each respective character feel more flushed out as we come to see what it is that each desires. The gentle tragedy is that it is also cut with a greater melancholy about the way that this may always be just out of reach. Just as was present in The Knick, Season 2 of Perry Mason delicately probes the way the political is always intertwined with the emotional. While the characters try to bring justice to a system that proves itself to be unjust time and time again, the institutions that govern their own lives are ever-present. This is something each of them has had to come to terms with in order to survive, but it carries with it a cost that takes a heavy toll.
Without tipping off exactly what happens, there is one final montage scene in Season 2 after the conclusion of the trial where everything returns to “normal” and business continues as usual. The show pointedly stops short of embracing the status quo which demonstrates how there are still painful wrinkles that can’t be smoothed over no matter how much one tries to. When we see where Mason ends up and how he must contemplate this truth alone, it almost feels like Season 2’s finale could be a series ender. One hopes it isn’t, as Perry Mason has really found its footing, but it still provides a poetic sense of closure all the same.
Perry Mason Season 2 premieres March 6 on HBO and HBO Max.
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