and all the sinners saints: Hope and Salvation in Perry Mason

NOTE: This piece assumes the reader has watched season one of HBO’s Perry Mason.

“Don’t give up, ’cause somewhere there’s a place where we belong.” — Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up”

Let’s start here: I feel like a lost soul.

I had written a big flashy introduction to this piece, meant to show how thrilling I find it that the new HBO series Perry Mason responds to the classic CBS show not only by reimagining its central characters and dramatically shifting its ideological perspective, but also by defying our expectations about what Perry Mason does. The season finale features a courtroom fantasy sequence that shatters both Mason’s notions of what he can pull off in the courtroom, and our own. It’s a sequence that serves to explicitly tell us as viewers, “Remember that pleasure you got from the CBS show, in which Mason reliably, in episode after episode, secured freedom for his client by getting the real killer to break on the stand? Yeah, that’s not gonna happen here.” But like deputy district attorney Hamilton Burger standing in that courtroom and saying “It won’t work, Mason,” a voice inside my head told me I was wildly off track, that all my pyrotechnics were just a distraction from what I really want to say about this show. So yes, let’s start here, closer to the truth I really want to get at: I feel like a lost soul, and I feel like Perry Mason loves us lost souls, us outsiders and fuckups and sinners.

Oh Hamilton, I hate it when you’re right.

A few weeks before the new show started airing, a friend asked me why we needed a gritty reboot of Perry Mason. I thought it was a fair question. Now, I think it’s one that the show itself answers so strongly as to leave no doubt. To be clear, I like the classic CBS series. Sure, that’s not where Perry Mason originated, but it is the incarnation most folks familiar with the character think of, and the one which I believe the HBO series is most directly responding to. Consider the fact that, over the credits of the season finale, it’s the famous CBS Perry Mason theme we hear, as if to say that the origin story is complete, and Matthew Rhys’ character has become the defense attorney of legend.

But while I enjoy the old Perry Mason series starring Raymond Burr, I also enjoy revisiting it now and seeing what I didn’t see before, seeing who it excludes, seeing how that show uses the character of Perry Mason to suggest that the system works, while the HBO series uses him to argue that the system doesn’t. I can’t see the old show the same way again, after seeing the new one. The new show is both an homage to the classic series, and a rebuttal of it.

Della Street, Paul Drake, and Perry Mason, in the CBS show.

Let’s take the core trio of Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake. Previously, all three of them were white, and straight, and moved largely in circles of privilege, aiding mostly well-to-do white clients in cases that encouraged us as viewers to align our sympathies with whiteness and wealth. In the season one episode “The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece,” the killer is revealed to be a poor man who murdered his fiancee’s uncle so that she would inherit his wealth and he wouldn’t be poor anymore. And in “The Case of the Lonely Heiress,” the killer is a stereotypically hotheaded Mexican woman, one of the few Mexicans we see in the series despite it being set in Los Angeles, who murders her con-artist partner because he was going to run away with a white woman. “He is my vida, my life,” she says on the stand when Perry Mason has proven her guilt. “If I don’t have him, nobody can! Nobody can.”

In the new Perry Mason, Della Street is gay and Paul Drake is Black, a police officer who experiences racism and corruption within the LAPD and begins to bristle at the way the police are at least as liable to be an instrument of injustice as a force for good. Meanwhile, Perry Mason himself may still be a straight white man (or, as he colorfully puts it, “queer only once,”) but his ethics, and the way he puts those ethics into action, cast him as an outsider. We learn he was dishonorably discharged from the army. His offense? Ending the suffering of fellow soldiers who had been so maimed in combat that their deaths were assured. His moral convictions compelled him to this act, difficult as it was for him to carry out. As he tells Della Street after another act of transgression, covering up for E.B.’s suicide, “The way I see it, there’s what’s legal, and there’s what’s right.”

Raymond Burr’s Mason occasionally bends the rules to protect his client, but he lacks the fury of Matthew Rhys’ character. There’s something of the smug genius about Burr’s Mason, a character who can think two steps ahead of the opposition and for whom the entire legal system is a kind of game that he enjoys winning. One never gets the feeling that the system itself is flawed. One gets the feeling that, because attorneys like Mason are there, the system effectively delivers justice to the guilty and vindication to the innocent. In contrast, Rhys’ Mason is furious at what his late employer E.B. Jonathan calls the “annihilating power” of the state. He’s desperate to defeat the unjust case against his client. He’s full of conviction but also way out of his depth, at least in this first case.

Paul Drake eats some really spicy food in the upbeat, comical denouement to a Perry Mason episode.

Many episodes of the classic series conclude with the core trio all sharing a laugh about something, or at least experiencing something intended to make the audience laugh. Such endings, wildly common in the mainstream TV shows and cartoons of the 1980s that I grew up with, are meant to comfort us and leave us with a carefree feeling. I believe these endings generally only work in shows that want to reinforce the status quo. They work in Perry Mason because Perry, Paul and Della feel safe, secure, and happy. They are successful, straight white people for whom society works. They do not live in fear or shame. They are not oppressed or persecuted. They live in alignment with the system. Their ethics and their identities don’t put them at odds with it. They benefit from it. They are free.

But in HBO’s Perry Mason, Della Street and Paul Drake are not free, not really. Della has to watch the state, in the form of district attorney Maynard Barnes, whip up rage against defendant Emily Dodson for being a woman who sought affection outside of her loveless marriage, a tactic that works because we hate women, we blame women both for their own sexuality and for the things men do to them. Della tells her girlfriend Hazel, with whom she has to sneak around and make up lies to keep their love a secret, “I am so angry. I don’t know where to put it.” Yeah. I’m fucking angry, too. So many of us are angry, and we have plenty of reason to be angry.

Lupe Gibbs (Veronica Falcón) in HBO’s Perry Mason.

The new series also sees Los Angeles so much more clearly than the CBS show ever did. The classic show places nothing significant outside the circles of wealth and whiteness in which Mason and crew move, nothing to create tension or to suggest there might be a problem with the way things are. It feels flat in comparison to what the new show gives us, a city in which wealthy whites and the institutions that serve them hold power, and in which others fight tooth and nail just to survive. Perry Mason’s wonderfully multifaceted lover Lupe Gibbs (a fantastic Veronica Falcón) may seem mercenary when she reveals she bought Perry’s property at auction. Then she lays it out for him. “There are thirty airfields in Los Angeles right now. When this prohibition shit is over, there’s only gonna be five of them left. I’m a wetback, and a woman. I need to stay ahead of the rest of them.”

People of color are everywhere in this Los Angeles, pushed to the margins of society by white wealth and cultural dominance, but carving out whatever niche they can for themselves to stay afloat. In the show’s first episode, Perry asks Rigoberto, the gate guard on the property he now shares with Lupe’s airfield, if the pass phrase has to be in Spanish. Rigoberto retorts that Spanish used to be the language of all the land around them. Later, when Paul Drake’s investigation takes him to a motel where the white manager gives him a brushoff the papers today might call “racially tinged,” it’s a brown housekeeper who runs up to him and gives him the information he’s after. The moment carries with it a fleeting feeling of solidarity among the marginalized.

All of this is essential to the show’s greatness, but still, this is all preamble. Necessary preamble but preamble nonetheless. Because what I really want to talk about is salvation. And to talk about salvation, we first need to talk about being lost. When we first meet him, Perry is lost. In the first episode, he tries to squeeze a movie studio for extra cash with photos he’s taken of a starlet engaged in acts that would damage her reputation and sell plenty of tabloids. While making Perry painfully aware that he’s overplayed his hand, the head of the studio tells him, “You need to think about your actions. You need to decide what kind of person you want to be.” The messenger may be evil, but the message isn’t wrong.

Perry’s trajectory moves in the opposite direction from that of his mentor. At one point E.B. says, “Sometimes I think this is no longer my world.” He knew his place in the world once, or thought he did, but now he’s losing his hold on it. Perry starts out there. It may not be entirely because of his experiences in the war, but they certainly didn’t help. “God left me in France,” he tells Sister Alice, but it’s not just God he’s lacking. It’s himself, or at least any sense of how he can live a meaningful life in such a miserable world. Matthew Rhys’ face says it all in this early shot from episode two:

In episode five, his ex-wife Linda understandably takes him to task for being a deadbeat, for screwing up birthday and Christmas gifts for their son, and for the miserable nature of the work he does “poking around people’s dirty linens, hanging out at the morgue,” which she covers up by telling people he’s a farmer. In response, he lashes out at her about their marriage. “Why did you ever say yes to me, Lin?” She doesn’t deserve that, but I feel like it’s really himself he’s laying into. He can’t see any value in himself and can’t imagine why anyone else would, either. He sees no way, in the world as it is, to live a life consistent with his own values, and he hates himself for it. He’s so angry at the way things are, but he has no way to channel that anger in a positive direction, beyond doing what he can to try to help E.B. find the truth. At the end of the first episode, a very drunk Perry rants about how “everybody is guilty,” but it’s an impotent anger. He needs a real way to put it into action.

It’s tragic that it takes E.B.’s death to create a space in which Perry can see a path toward living with more integrity, and crucially, it’s not Perry himself who even sees the opportunity. It’s Della who has the idea, and it’s her who forges E.B.’s signature on documents that allow Perry to apply for the bar exam. (There’s what’s legal and there’s what’s right.) It’s Della who puts him in touch with Hamilton Burger, the deputy DA who has his own ambitious reasons for wanting to aid an opponent of Maynard Barnes. Perry doesn’t save himself. We save each other, if we’re lucky enough to be saved at all.

Though Perry is clearly more driven and at least marginally less miserable once he’s able to do work that reflects his values by pouring himself into defending Emily Dodson, that doesn’t mean he isn’t often still an asshole in his interpersonal relationships; he definitely is. He viciously (and misogynistically) tears into Della after she expresses solidarity with Emily for the ways in which men have demeaned and dismissed her. “You see a woman being ‘demeaned by men,’ you think it’s about you. Guess what? It’s not.” Of course it is, though; misogyny oppresses women as a class, not just individual women. But Perry keeps digging his hole. “Padding around your little boarding house with your little hand model girlfriend isn’t the same as being framed for killing your fucking kid.” Yeah, you’re gonna have to apologize for that one, pal.

Della Street as she listens to Perry spout some serious bullshit.

And Perry does earnestly apologize, or try to, before Della says, “If we’re gonna be working together, we need to be people who can act abominably on occasion.” I like the complexity of this. The allowance for our flaws. It shouldn’t let any of us off the hook. We should always try to be kind to the people we love, and we can’t be like Bojack Horseman, constantly being terrible and apologizing but making no effort whatsoever to improve. That’s unacceptable. Salvation isn’t free; we have to work for it. But we also shouldn’t have to perform for the people we love. There’s some truth in the idea that if you’re working together in any joint enterprise in which your full self is brought to bear, whether it’s a marriage or a legal practice or something else, sometimes you’re going to have bad days and you’re going to see each other at your worst. We are all imperfect. But we’re not beyond saving.

No character more clearly lights the way toward salvation than Sister Alice McKeegan, though that salvation comes not through the church that she and her mother helped found, but through defiance of it. Perry Mason spends a long time establishing the hypocrisy of institutions, particularly the justice system and the Radiant Assembly of God, both dressed up in virtue but functionally oppressive. But as an individual, Sister Alice always acknowledges her own proximity to sin. When Emily Dodson asks her, “Can I be saved, Sister?” McKeegan responds, “Can I?” And after Perry expresses surprise at her lack of haughty piousness, she tells him what a lot of us taught to loathe parts of ourselves by society need to hear. “You’re better than you think you are.” She acknowledges we’re all sinners, not in the Catholic sense which instills guilt, but in the compassionate sense that we’re — many of us — just doing the best we can in a deeply imperfect world. Ultimately, Sister Alice sees that the church has become a machine that has grown well beyond her ability to control it, and that the only way she can prevent men from using it to do harm is to throw herself on the gears. It costs her everything.

Near the start of episode seven, Jim Hicks asks Perry what kind of man he is. “A piss-poor one, if I were to be honest,” he says, though he’s “trying to make up for it.” Perry Mason believes in salvation, not of the eternal kind, but of the kind we can find here, through our actions, and not alone, but through our connections with others. In Paul Drake and Della Street, he has two associates who know what it is to be outcast, to be oppressed, or to have to hide parts of themselves away. Together, the three of them cannot change the world, they can’t dismantle unjust systems, they can’t break killers on the stand, but they can put their ethics into action, and maybe, sometimes, they can protect one innocent person. That means something. It’s resistance, and it’s fellowship, which is worth so much in a hostile world.

Paul Drake walks through a homeless encampment.

The 1932 of Perry Mason is a time of lost souls, as so many people live with little comfort and little to hold onto. We see Paul Drake walk through a homeless encampment that includes a family with children living out of their car, and Perry Mason pass through a mass of people desperate for work crowding around job posting boards. Here I am in 2020, another era of tremendous economic crisis, unsure of what it is that I’m gonna do with myself, terrified as the money rapidly runs out and I can’t find steady work. At least I know, like those people among whom Perry Mason walks ought to know, that this is not my fault.

What’s surprising to me is how much hope I feel in this show, with all of its Depression-era bleakness and all its hard-boiled violence, all the bodies in the morgue, the baby with his eyes stitched open. In episode eight, as the team of Mason, Drake and Street assembles in earnest and we know they will have future adventures together, there was an element of escapist fantasy for me, as I dreamt of how great it would be just to work once again with people I don’t hate, doing something I don’t hate.

This year I’ve worked two jobs I hated. One was in an Amazon warehouse, where I was constantly misgendered because my humanity could not have mattered less as I sorted and lifted and strained and strived to meet performance metrics that were measured by a machine strapped to my arm and then displayed for all to see like a video game leaderboard. The other was in a small office where there was no room whatsoever for my queer identity, where I had to smile and nod and bite my tongue as my boss spouted her political beliefs and then looked to me for my acquiescent validation. I don’t expect to work only with people who share my convictions, that would be ridiculous. I just don’t want to be cornered and expected to pretend that I believe things I actually vehemently oppose.

Della Street and Hamilton Burger, covering for each other and keeping each others’ secrets.

Both jobs made me feel entirely cut off from myself, invisible, and out of touch with my own ethics. I was an empty shell. My spirit, feeling fully denied by the world, had absconded. Now I’m struggling to find any job at all. The way that Mason, Drake and Street find each other, and create something new together, a law practice rooted in their shared conviction that the systems of justice are deeply unjust, sounds like a dream made real. I don’t have the luxury of holding out for something that fits the bill; like the people who crowd around the job board in Perry Mason, I can’t afford to be picky. But I sure would love to work in a place where my own experience as a woman and a trans person is an asset, or at the least not a liability, and certainly not something rendered invisible as it was in the Amazon warehouse.

At one point Hamilton Burger, reimagined here as a closeted gay man, says to Della, “You are the only person in this town that I can be honest with.” Like me, they know what it is to be constantly on guard against the world, to have to put on a performance and play a part in your own erasure. That changes you. Having those people with whom you can let your guard down can be lifesaving. Not having them makes the world feel inescapably lonely and hostile. If there’s one thing all my years alone have taught me, it’s that we need to be seen, we need people with whom we can be ourselves and be loved for who we are.

Perry Mason has no illusions and neither do I: Life can be nasty, brutish and short. And if there’s one mystery even Perry Mason can’t solve, it’s the one Sister Alice poses to him in the season’s final scene: We will be alone, won’t we? Why is that? I sure don’t know. But I suspect that Perry himself, and Della, and Paul, feel less alone when Perry’s law office opens, a place where Della can’t escape from the world’s homophobia but can at least become a lawyer (no modifier) in her own right, a place where Paul can’t escape from the world’s racism but at least doesn’t have to swallow the racism of fellow cops.

Put your ethics and your anger into action.

By being as unflinching as it is about injustice and violence, the show provides a realistic basis for hope. By featuring characters who struggle against their flaws to be better, it offers an image of goodness that I can believe in. Coming from a lesser actor, the line “The way I see it, there’s what’s legal and there’s what’s right” could have sounded cornball in its earnestness, but Matthew Rhys sells it as a hard-earned truth rooted in Mason’s time in the war, in the morgues, in all the miserable places his life has taken him to and dragged him through. This is a show that doesn’t write off those of us who feel like we exist on the margins, or who have felt targeted by the annihilating power of the state. It believes us misfits and outcasts and sinners deserve salvation too, to save and be saved. And it says that just maybe, in this world that makes so many of us feel so lost, a world where even if you’re innocent you can be oppressed or persecuted or forced to hide some part of yourself away like a shameful secret, maybe there can be a place where we belong, even if we have to create it for ourselves.

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