This article was written by Alison D, Donna Cromeans, Ellys Cartin, Folie-lex, and María Sol. The article was edited by Donna Cromeans (DJRiter). The open and close of the article were written by Donna Cromeans. Prepared for publishing by Aimee Hicks.
If ever there were an iconic literary character that inspired many to become lawyers it would be author Erle Stanley Gardner’s noted hero, criminal defense attorney, Perry Mason. Gardner’s character was so popular that he became the subject of a serialized radio show, and later two television series and numerous television films. In the latest interpretation of the character, HBO’s Perry Mason, Matthew Rhys becomes just the third actor to portray the character on the small screen. Monte Markham had a brief run as Mason in the ’70s, however, the most remembered and noted portrayal of the character came from Raymond Burr who played the part for over nine consecutive years and then later in a series of TV movies. His grasp of the character and performances earned him two Emmy® awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama Series. Rhys’s take on Perry Mason in this new series bears little resemblance to the character created and so closely related to Burr. His Mason is a troubled, down on his luck character. However, the two have one important quality in common, they both prove to be champions of the down-trodden and the innocent. They have a code to continue to fight despite the obstacles. In the first episode of this gritty new take on America’s most famous TV lawyer, Chapter One, Rhys quickly puts his own stamp on the character and is slowly revealing a film-noir version backstory of Perry Mason, never addressed in other series. For his stellar work, Matthew Rhys earned a rare tie vote from the SpoilerTV staff with his Perry Mason co-star Tatiana Maslany for Performer of the Month for June.
Continue reading below to find out our thoughts regarding his performance. After reading, please leave your thoughts in the comments.
Perry Mason is an iconic character. This new iteration at first bears little resemblance to the version we’re familiar with, yet there are familiar traits present in Rhys’s performance of the character. How does Rhys set his Mason apart and how does he pay homage to the ones that came before?
Alison: Admittedly, my knowledge of Perry Mason in his original iteration is limited to late-night watching on summer vacations while visiting my grandmother. Now, I hear the familiar swell of the theme music when visiting my parents. My mother uses the episodes as background noise when she works from home. I think we’re both lured by the pleasure of sense memory and the slight melancholy of nostalgia. Here’s what I do know: Burr and Rhys play Perry Mason as a man deeply committed to client and cause. They both enjoy a breezy relationship with Della (Juliet Rylance). What Rhys gives the audience, that Burr was never given the room to do, is an inside view into some of what makes Perry Mason tick, and it isn’t pretty. Burr was polished where Rhys is rumpled, but that is dictated by circumstance—successful lawyer versus luckless private investigator. Rhys also gives us a quieter version of the man. Perhaps it was the deep baritone of Burr’s voice, but he commanded attention where Rhys almost recedes into the scenes. In the end, they are both men who see the threads a typical mortal mind cannot, and there they find the truth, but maybe not always justice.
Donna: Having grown up watching Perry Mason reruns as a child, I was used to seeing the Raymond Burr version of the character, a self-assured, sharply dressed champion of justice. One thing I always wondered though was who/what had inspired this Mason to study law. The first glimpse of Rhys’ darker, scruffier, and at times shadier Mason put me off at first, but by the end of the first episode, I realized I was getting the story of the evolution of Perry Mason. Both portrayals are careful to show Mason’s sense of justice and righting wrongs and how it was a tough road from down on his luck and tortured private detective to criminal defense attorney. In a sense, I see it as Burr being the more polished version of the man we’re getting to know now. Rhys is the rougher version of the Perry Mason Burr later becomes.
Ellys: While I’m not acquainted with any other version of Perry Mason, Rhys gives us a character that we can clearly see accomplishing greater things than are presently shown. His Mason is at first glance a man of contradictions, guided by a practical and almost cynical perspective of the world, while also unmistakably demonstrating that he is drawn to the more colorful, more idealistic parts of his reality. A quality I especially appreciated was how Rhys plays Mason when his character is around confident women. It suggests the adage about iron sharpening iron, as there’s a level of direct honesty and spirited engagement in these scenes that doesn’t exist in Mason’s other routines and encounters. This creates a fuller picture of Mason and how he’s impacted by those around him, a picture that’s also painted by his casual yet thorough knowledge of the law and his inherent decency which manifests everywhere from his empathetic care of his cows to his respect for Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin)’s grief. Rhys incorporates these traits into Mason’s behavior as if they are ordinary reflexes, granting us an immediate connection with this character so that we don’t feel we are meeting Mason for the first time.
Folie-lex: I’m not familiar with either the literary source material OR the various TV incarnations, so I couldn’t say.
María: Even though I knew about the existence of this character, this version is my first approach to Perry Mason, so I don’t really have a parameter that allows me to compare him with the other actors that have portrayed him before. I have to say though that Rhys’ performance shows that, at least, this Perry Mason is an extraordinarily complex character with many layers that I’m willing to keep watching evolve. It also made me feel curious about reading the original story and watching some of the previous versions.
In a mystery, the protagonist’s perspective shapes our impressions of the story’s setting, clues, and other characters. How does Rhys’s performance build out the world of Perry Mason?
Alison: Without any obvious introspection, the audience is denied direct access to Perry Mason’s thoughts and instead act as a voyeur in his world. Mason exists within a world between wars, one pervaded by a sadness conveyed through the melancholy jazz playing in the background. It’s a Los Angeles teeming with corruption but presenting as deeply moralistic on the surface. It’s a confusing space. One complicated by the spiraling and chaotic uncertainty of his life. He knows where he’s been, but where he’s going is unclear. The family’s rundown dairy farm sitting in the middle of an airport is beautifully symbolic of an existence in neither the past nor the present. As bleak a picture as all that presents, Mason’s also a man who picks himself up and dusts himself off. Rhys pulls all of this into his performance—the weariness, fear, anger, loneliness, guilt, and perseverance. The way Rhys moves around Charlie Dodson’s nursery conveys a reverence to the audience. This is Mason as a father, as well as an indication of his humanity. When he makes himself smaller, his stance almost submissive, while talking to Emily Dodson we see the intimacy of the conversation. These are two lonely people. Nothing in the dialogue suggests it, but the performance does. Rhys’ every gesture toward her is sympathetic. He softens the edge we’ve heard in his voice until now. This scene contrasts with the body language and voice used in LeBaron’s (Mike O’Gorman) office. There Rhys pulled Mason to his full height and used a tone that spoke of confidence and nonchalance. Even though he presented with contained aggressiveness in that scene, there was also an undercurrent of worry.
Donna: From the first time we meet Rhys’ Mason we see a man on the edge, a private eye resorting to playing peeping tom to get incriminating photographs of a movie star. You can see from the almost blank disdain in his face that he hates what he is doing but knows he must do it to survive. There is a beaten-down weariness to his bearing but what defines the character and the way Rhys approaches him is that no matter how many times he is ridiculed, or laughed at or knocked down, physically or metaphorically he always gets up. Whether he is always showing it or not he has a code of never giving up, showing he has steel. It’s only when he’s presented a case that begins to haunt him and give him a sense of fighting for truth, like the murder of the Dodson child and Emily’s innocence does he find purpose and drive. Rhys’s slow, measured development of the character is perfect, and I suspect it won’t be long before we see Mason where we are accustomed to seeing him, at the defense table in a courtroom.
Ellys: During his investigations, we often see Mason photograph important images or objects that may provide clues for the case. Those tangible snapshots carry weight, but Rhys also gives weight to what he captures with his mind rather than his camera: the people he scrutinizes, the flow of pedestrian traffic he analyzes, etc. Most importantly, Rhys’s Mason belongs to the world of 1932 Los Angeles. He fits into its moods and setting, making everything we see believable.
Folie-lex: It’s the way he manages to balance the cynicism of a broken man, who still can’t help but care. It’s a delicate line to walk but in Rhys’ capable hands it almost seems effortless. It’s easy to be defeated particularly considering the era of the show, and while his cynicism for sure filters every aspect of the story and how the characters are perceived, it’s also that unwillingness to give up which Rhys makes sure to play up in the most subtle ways, that I think keeps the wheels of the plot rolling.
María: From the beginning it is clear that this series is very dark, considering the story revolves around the case of the kidnapping and murder of a baby, and that some of the scenes are kind of harsh. Through his camera, the detective captures every detail that can help him solve the case; through his performance, Rhys is helping us to get to know the characters and discover what lies behind the case, at the same time keeps giving us clues to understanding himself as the main character.
This Perry Mason series is filled with an all-star and award-winning cast. Which co-star/guest star do you think Rhys shares his best scenes with and why?
Alison: As far as Chapter One is concerned, Rhys’ scenes with Veronica Falcón’s Lupe Gibbs are my favorite. Beyond the humor and athleticism of it all, we get so many facets of Perry’s character when they’re in scenes together. When we formally meet her, the witty dialogue exchange between Rhys and Falcón erases Perry’s hangdog persona, and suddenly there is a spark we hadn’t seen before. At the episode’s end when he’s been hurt, physically, and emotionally, she comforts but doesn’t coddle. In many ways they are the antithesis of one another, she chases pleasure while he uses pleasure to chase away; she’s a woman fully present and living on her terms while he’s bogged down in what once was and what he no longer has. Perry is living a half-life. It’s a casual but caring relationship, and I can’t wait for them to share more scenes.
Donna: This series has been marked by great casting and performances. It’s been a pleasure watching Rhys go toe-to-toe with John Lithgow (E.B.), and his back and forth with Mason’s cohort Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) are terse and driven. I do wish we’d get to see more with him and Tatiana Maslany (Sister Alice), which I suspect is coming. However, I am growing to enjoy the back and forth banter with Juliet Rylance’s Della Street. Mason and Street are the duo that marks the Perry Mason world partnership and watching these two slowly develop that are becoming a foundation of this series. They challenge each other like no other characters, and both are evolving beautifully.
Ellys: In Chapter One , my favorite interaction, though brief, was the one Rhys shared with Juliet Rylance’s Della Street. Even though the show has billed itself a miniseries limiting itself to the timeline before Perry Mason becomes a criminal defense attorney, it’s still fun to watch Mason’s fraught relationships play out with people we know will be more equal teammates with him in the future.
Folie-lex: Everyone has been great so far, but I think John Lithgow has a slight edge over them all, mostly because the material between EB and Perry has also been the meatiest. I can’t wait for more scenes between Rhys and Maslany though, because you know there’s gonna be real fireworks when those two characters go head to head in the hands of those two performers. It’s not a coincidence they tied this month after all.
María: In the first episode, Rhys had interactions with different characters which started to set the tone of Mason’s relationships with each one of them. This also gave us some information about him, but for me, the most meaningful scene is the one he shared with Rankin, as Emily Dodson, the mother of the kidnapped baby. During their whole interaction, he practically didn’t move at all as if he was trying not to upset her in any way. Their dialogue wasn’t particularly special, but I think Rhys was able to transmit some of Mason’s softer side by connecting with Emily through their children, at the same time that he was trying to determine if she was somehow involved in the crime.
This Perry Mason is a man with a clearly troubled past. How does Matthew Rhys convey the backstory and pain of his character particularly in non-flashback scenes?
Alison: The sacrifice and struggle of holding on to the dying dairy farm even with an airport surrounding him suggests a deep connection to childhood or home. He finds every offer to buy it an insult despite being mired in debt. Rhys is hot-tempered in court when an assault resulting from a too-low offer on the farm is used to discredit him, but with Lupe’s offer, his scoff and scorn are teasing and playful. Neither of the reactions is over the top, he hits the sweet spot with both. Gazing at the body of Charlie Dodson in the morgue, Rhys’ use of hesitation and the slightest tremor in his hand hone in on Mason’s sadness. It’s an understated performance but the message is received. Perhaps the most visceral bit of backstory was revealed when Mason took a bat to the toy firetruck. All the frustrations in his life were laid bare. It wasn’t just about not being able to speak to his son or even the returned package, but the life he lost, as well as the life he is now living. Some of that frustration, no doubt, resulted from being outplayed by a studio executive. Mason is a keen man and relies on his intellect. Rhys manages to make the audience sympathetic to his rage because the audience has been treated to the character’s softness, in other scenes, the destruction doesn’t seem particularly violent. In lesser hands, it could have come across as an entitled tantrum, but Rhys has done the work in a single episode to show us Perry Mason. There’s also the moment he reacts to the detectives in the office building. When Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) touches his shoulder, his reaction seemed rooted in memory. He wasn’t entirely safe at that moment, but there was something of a vacant far of look in his eyes that hinted to past trauma, perhaps the trauma of war. Microexpressions and posture help Rhys sell every scene. Even the delicate way he holds the camera, like a precious lifeline. There are no wasted movements or expressions in the performance, everything is for the good of the story. It’s masterful.
Donna: He shows us that Mason is haunted in oh so many ways. His excessive drinking, seeming insomnia, his almost panicked reaction to sudden loud noises or confrontation, the upsetting flashbacks, all of these are signs of someone suffering from PTSD. Many of them are expertly but subtly portrayed by Rhys as the actions of a troubled man.
Ellys: One moment that stands out due to its jarring nature is how Rhys reacts as Mason when the studio head enforcers attempt to restrain him. He immediately, violently tries to break free. His response isn’t one of indignation or irritation, however; there is actual fear in his voice, panic in how he pulls his limbs against his body. It’s clear to us that the feelings associated with what prompted this fear are linked to an ordeal that Mason hasn’t been able to leave behind. Rhys translates this trauma in other ways as well, such as how his character is most composed when observing from a distance, creating the sense that Mason isn’t comfortable being a participant in confrontation.
Folie-lex: Every bit of mannerism conveys the trauma and the PTSD. There are no real words to describe it. You just need to see him work to understand.
María: The first episode sets that the two aspects of Perry Mason’s past that weigh most heavily on him are his time in the war and his estrangement from his son. Rhys’ performance shows us a man that on the outside seems not to care about things by being sarcastic and even cynical, but on the inside, he isn’t happy with his life, misses his family, and feels lonely. Through different emotions, we could understand this. First, when he arrived at his home and saw the pictures of his family, there was no need for dialogue for Rhys to let us see the sadness inside his character. Later, in a couple of moments, his military past was brought into the conversation, and we were able to see by his reactions how this affected him. At the end of the episode, Mason was clearly desperate and angry for not being able to talk to his son. All these emotional changes that at times may be subtle, make the character extremely rich.
What was your favorite moment or scene from Chapter One that best illustrates Rhys’ approach to the character of Perry Mason?
Alison: The final moments of the first episode are when it all came together for me. Perry moves from destroying his son’s toys after his ex-wife refuses his request to talk to Teddy, to pulling together the evidence in the Charlie Dodson murder investigation. It shows him as a man whose anger and sadness mingle until they manifest physically, but he is also a tenacious intellectual in his pursuit of justice disguised as truth. Before this moment, the show was a slick, expertly acted and crafted noir, but it was in those last few minutes that Rhys married his bitter and broken detective with my grandmother’s version of Perry Mason, the crafty lawyer.
Donna: I am going to have to agree with Alison that those final moments of the episode. After his emotional outburst and frustration, he does what he did best all episode and pulled himself together and gave himself focus and purpose.
Ellys: I didn’t have a specific moment, other than the ones discussed, from this episode that particularly stuck with me. What enthralled me with this episode was watching how Rhys knits together the many yarns that make up this character: the kind farmer, the haunted veteran, the determined investigator, the semi-apologetic ex-husband, and unwilling absentee father.
Folie-lex: I think Perry’s conversation with Emily in Charlie’s room was the scene that stood out to me the most. It conveyed all the curiosity that eats at him and all the humanity he carries as a character.
María: At some points Perry Mason can appear as an unexpressive character, but Rhys can express a lot without even talking, so my favorite scene from the episode has to be when he goes to take pictures of the baby’s body and takes the thread out of his eyes. The scene itself can be hard to watch, but it’s especially important to get more insight into the titular character. There’s no dialogue but there’s no need to since you can clearly see through Rhys’ expressions how much this situation affects Mason and keeps having an impact on him, not just in that moment but in later scenes, as it’s made clear by his reactions in the New Year’s party and later when he is trying to talk to his son.
What are your final thoughts on him winning this recognition?
Alison: Matthew Rhys isn’t my mother or grandmother’s Perry Mason, but his iteration of the character peels away the well-tailored suits and exposes all the ugly and sadness of someone scrambling to survive in an unforgiving world. I’m having a hard time imagining another actor inhabiting this role. We didn’t need another perfectly polished lawyer, so I, for one, am glad we lost the well-tailored suits and unflappable demeanor. This reinvention of an iconic character needed someone as talented as Rhys, someone who understands and perfectly executes subtlety and nuance. His performance makes this must-watch television for me, and each week I’m left eager for more, so it is a recognition he deserves.
Donna: Confessing here that I’ve not seen much of Rhys’ previous work but was impressed by the way he took this character and convinced me that despite my reservations he was worthy of the part. Admittedly I was put off by my initial introduction to this Perry Mason but Rhys quickly won me over showing me that despite or perhaps because of his troubled history, there were signs of the Perry Mason I knew and had grown up with was still there below the surface.
Ellys: It is rarer than ever for me to watch a show, especially a miniseries, and feel that another season would be due. Rhys’s performance just about guarantees I would watch several more installments of him in this role.
Folie-lex: To be completely honest Chapter One was just okay and came with a lot of “pilot pains” as an episode. If Rhys didn’t carry the character with such dignity it would have been an easy pilot to overlook. He brought layers and kept things engaging and for my money completely earned this recognition!
María: I feel pleasantly surprised that with just a few episodes aired of a new show, Rhys has been able to obtain this recognition for his work. Though, I have to say that just by watching the first episode he has created a great character, which shows that his talent is good enough to create a positive impact in so little time.
It must be a daunting task for any actor to step into the shoes of a character that is so iconically connected with another actor. Matthew Rhys not only faced that challenge, but he also excelled in it creating a new grittier, film-noir take on Erle Stanley Gardner’s champion of the innocent, Perry Mason. For his outstanding work in the first episode of HBO’s Perry Mason, he was deservedly chosen for this tie in the SpoilerTV Staff Choice Performer of the Month for June.
Please use the comments to discuss all your favorite parts of Matthew Rhys’ performance as Perry Mason in Chapter One.