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Perry Mason S1E2: Chapter Two and Being a Degenerate

Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Perry Mason S1E2 doesn’t deepen the question of what happened to little Charlie Dodson so much as it complicates it, but since this is a TV show that amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Matthew Dodson is arrested at church early on in the episode, and we learn that he is the bastard son of Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), providing a potential explanation of just where that $100,000 came from—the thought being that he extorted his wealthy father in order to get it, ultimately, for himself.

There is a lot of “Matt would never do such a thing” thrown around, which I’ve always found to be something of a lame move. I’m not sure if I mean on the part of the show that does it or just the characters. Of course you don’t think your husband, son, friend, or whoever would do something like this, but people do all the time, so the sentiment really doesn’t hold much water.

To its credit, Perry Mason S1E2 does explore this question of a link between character and action to some degree. Matt might have been gambling that night, and Emily may have been having an affair, but that’s not murder. That’s not kidnapping your own child, and there is a jump from one to the other.

Perhaps this was the point of the Chubby Carmichael story in S1E1, which is not returned to in S1E2. The morality clause thing there was bullshit and based on some idea that because someone is “degenerate” in one aspect of life, they must be in others. That doesn’t hold up at all, and S1E2 puts a point on that with E.B. (John Lithgow) calling Strickland a degenerate even though he is also a good detective.

The whole idea that some people are degenerates is, frankly, a step down the path to Nazism. It sometimes seems that, while we’re (virtually) all agreed that Nazis are/were bad, there is something a bit unreflective about it—I mean, do we think about why they were bad?

Some quarters seem to focus on their atrocities, and certainly the Holocaust was Very Bad, but I’ve always found the underlying philosophy to be more interesting to think about in terms of what makes the movement so problematic. And something that exemplifies this for me is the Degenerate Art exhibit they put on in 1937. The Nazis claimed that this modern art was undermining the culture. They placed their own propaganda next to things like the Surrealist Manifesto and gave speeches, all while putting on display the very work they claimed was degenerate.

That’s Nazism at its core for me. This is the thing to understand. Concentration camps are its apotheosis, but it is the ideology itself that must be fought, and unfortunately we can find a lot of elements of that both in America’s history and in its present.

Sister Alice surrounded by cops
Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Given that we are only two episodes in when it comes to Perry Mason, I’m pretty sure the Dodsons did not do it (either of them). George—the guy that Emily was apparently having an affair with who seems to have blown his own brains out—may well have. That suicide note is pretty damning. But it also could have been planted by someone like Ennis—who we know was in on the whole thing—-along with the burned money in the fireplace.

Equally, it might seem that the police show a lack of respect to Sister Alice’s church, arresting both Matt and Emily there. Ultimately, It seems possible to me that this could be misdirection. We know that the police (or at least, Ennis) were involved in Charlie’s kidnapping, so if the church was involved as well that could be a reason for seeming to disrespect it to create the appearance of antagonism. Either that or the LAPD in Perry Mason just really doesn’t care about the kind of lack of propriety at play in arresting a mother after the funeral service for her dead son but before the burial, and in front of a crowd no less.

Either way, I’m interested to see what the role of the church will be in Perry Mason moving forward. It was nice to see Tatiana Maslany show up (as only her photo was in S1E1), and her Sister Alice is certainly compelling. But is this just background, with the fact that many of the major players in this story are members of her church, or will we come to learn that something a bit more nefarious is going on with this group?

Blue Ticket

The other storyline that runs through Perry Mason S1E2 pertains to Perry’s time in the military during WWI. It’s not entirely clear to me what this is doing here. It was mentioned in S1E1 that he was discharged less than honorably, and here in the second episode we’re told that it was with a blue ticket.

Asked by Baggerly if this was due to homosexuality, Mason’s response is a bit odd, as he says something about being “queer only once.” I am not sure what to make of this. Perhaps nothing should be and it is just one of those lines of noir repartee, or perhaps we’ll learn something further about Perry’s sexual encounters as the story progresses. I’m not sure which would be better/worse in terms of the narrative. But, for what it’s worth, it does seem that Baggerly’s line has some truth to it and that this kind of discharge was disproportionately doled out to Black servicemen and homosexuals, and certainly had a social stigma attached to it.

Saying “queer” in the early 1930s is clearly not the same as saying it now. The term has been meaningfully reclaimed and many self-identify in this way at this point. So I don’t know if reading any ambiguity into what Perry says here is warranted, but I also really don’t know what he means or might be referring to. Will Perry Mason do anything with this moving forward?

As it stands, it seems more likely that Perry was discharged for killing some of his own men (to put them out of their misery). At least this is what S1E2 shows us. But my deeper question is why it shows us any of this. Matthew Rhys’s Mason already seems wildly different from Raymond Burr’s, and in focusing on his life as a PI prior to becoming a practicing defense attorney, HBO’s Perry Mason has already moved far away from the character many know and love. So if this is just backstory, it can’t help but strike me as a bit superfluous. But if it ends up tying into the plot in a more direct way, that seems likely to feel strained.

Perhaps it is to show how close America was to fascism in the early ’30s and to get us thinking about our own history of bigotry and racism as well as our own history of persecuting people for “sexual deviance”—and to examine other suspect notions of “morality.” We could draw the Chubby Carmichael story back in there, and if Perry Mason ends up having this kind of throughline it will certainly be worth thinking about. But with where we are now, I’m just not sure.

Where We Stand With the Mystery

Matthew Dodson is Herman Baggerly’s son, which led the police to the thought that he was involved with the kidnapping in an attempt to extort his own father. Presumably, with the shift to accusing Emily Dodson instead, something about this line of thinking remains. So did the money come from Baggerly? If not, where did it come from?

Perry discovers George’s corpse after tracking down the address of the number Emily had been calling on the phone. Presumably, this is who the lady who thinks it is humane to drown cats saw her talking to on the night of Charlie’s abduction and other times. So there is a question not only of whether George killed himself but of when it was that he died. And something about dentures?

At the end of S1E1, Perry laid photos out on the floor and seemed taken by the fact that Charlie liked turtles, as though this was leading him to some insight. S1E2 makes a point of showing us the turtle figurine in Charlie’s room. So just how is it that something about turtles will be how Perry Mason cracks the case?

Officer Drake (Chris Chalk) discovers the scene where Ennis killed several men in S1E1, but after he tracks the blood trail to the roof, the body of the man who jumped/fell is gone. What happened here? And, again, something about dentures?

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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is also one half of Drink Full and Descend, a podcast that started in relation to Twin Peaks, but has now moved beyond it, and has begun to explore Surrealism. He lives in Brooklyn and has a cat.

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