Spoiler warning: this story contains spoilers for the first episode of HBO’s Perry Mason. Stop reading here if you do not want to be spoiled. Again, stop reading here.
HBO’s latest tentpole Sunday night drama is Perry Mason, an 8-part limited series event that serves as a prequel of sorts to the lawyer drama that ran as a TV show and made-for-TV movies for decades starring Raymond Burr (and existed in the form of novels and a radio show prior to that). This Perry Mason stars Matthew Rhys in the titular role, and was shepherded to your screen by Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.
The show kicked off with a bang, depicting a heinous crime in its very first scene; a couple, paying out a ransom to an unseen kidnapper over the phone, leave the money in an apartment and run out to the trolley car to retrieve their kidnapped son. Upon retrieving him, though, they realize their son has been killed, his body mutilated.
This serves as the basis for Perry Mason‘s twisty central mystery. What happened here? Who’s responsible? And how much more is there to this story. And as this first episode continues—and especially once it reaches the end—viewers will realize that this story is more than meets the eye. But first, we’ll need to understand what this first episode is trying to tell us.
Much of the first episode exists as set-up, establishing characters and scenarios. It’s the final two scenes of the episode—which both make subtle nods back to earlier moments—though, that progress the plot into full gear, allowing viewers to really have an idea of what’s to come in the series.
Let’s start with the penultimate scene—one not involving Perry. That’s important, because in this scene we’re about to get our clearest picture yet into what exactly is going on with the crime. We open in an apartment/office, where the man from the beginning of the episode scrambling to get into a car that zipped away and also drawn in the police sketches (with a dark hat a thin mustache) is sitting with one unidentified man, who resembles Matthew Dodson and expresses regret from hurting the baby—the father of the boy who was found dead—and another unidentified man, played by Breaking Bad’s Charles Baker.
This scene establishes some pretty major things: first off, the man in the police sketch was very real, and as crude as the sketch was, it was spot on. Second, and more importantly, it proves that there’s a larger scheme at play—terrible things were done to this infant in a plot to steal a large sum of ransom money.
When Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) arrives at this safehouse, the paradigm once again shifts. We learn, in this moment that Ennis knew of the scheme, and was part of it. He brings the three men the same ransom box that was seen at the beginning of the episode. But when it’s opened, the box is now empty—and he shoots one of the men in the face, right through the box. He takes the other man (the man in the sketches) out as well, and eventually chases the Dodson lookalike down until he falls from the top of a tall building, presumably to his death.
This tells us two more things: that Ennis heard something that got him spooked, and so he went to cover his tracks, and also that he now has all of the ransom money to himself. To read further into this, we’ll have to return back to a previous scene, when Ennis met Mason outside the office window where the Dodsons observed their son passing by on the car in the episode’s opening scene.
When the plan is to arrest Dodson for the kidnapping and murder of the baby, Ennis is aggressive and normal—he’s on board, because no one knows about his involvement, and he doesn’t give a damn if Dodson goes down. But when Mason mentions that he knows of someone entering a green car and zipping away, clipping the trolley, just as the murdered child was discovered, Ennis turns and gets a look on his face. He’s clearly jarred—he knows that the road Mason is going down could eventually lead to him. If it’s more than just Dodson, who knows how big the investigation could get? He doesn’t want any of them saying anything more to anyone, for whatever reason (which we will surely discover in future episodes). But as of this moment, his tracks appear covered. And no one knows about Ennis’ involvement—at least, not yet.
But what about Perry Mason? And the turtles?
The episode’s final scene shows Perry on New Year’s, looking as unkempt, drunk, and down-on-his-luck as any old-timey PI you’ve ever seen (Matthew Rhys is really crushing it in this role).
After a fit of intoxicated rage where we overhear that his ex-wife won’t let him speak to his young son, he emerges with a baseball bat and smashes a toy fire truck sitting around his home.
This gets the gears moving in his head, clearly, as he at least somewhat sobers up for a moment. He reviews the newspaper, the photos of the deceased Dodson baby, and recalls his conversations from earlier. We know that Mason’s son likes fire trucks because Emily Dodson offered up the information that her own deceased son was fond of turtles. At this point, he’s onto something, and when he sees the photo he took of a turtle statuette from the Dodson house (see on the left in the screenshot below) he knows that there’s clearly something to investigate there.
The episode ends as Mason reviews his evidence, pondering, what he could possibly glean from all of this. “So you like turtles,” he says, as the first episode cuts to black.
It’s unclear, at this point, how the turtles of it all figures in. But it’s interesting to look at the way the symbolism of a turtle could play into solving the central mystery. One clear interpretation could come from one of Aesop’s timeless fable’s The Tortoise and the Hair. The moral of that story is one that’s been told many times: slow and steady wins the race. And in this episode, we see two fairly distinct schools of thought. There’s the Detective Ennis’ of the world, who are aggressive, fast, and take all sorts of action (even though we still don’t know his level of involvement with the scheme), and, at the end, we see the Perry Mason’s; taking time to think about what this all could mean.
The hard shell of a turtle could also stand to mean perseverance and protection; in his side situation attempting to extort a movie studio executive, we already saw Mason overplay his hand and wind up getting beat up in an empty warehouse. Yet here he is, still trying to scrap by and make a living, getting himself once again into potentially messy situations.
That Tortoise and the Hair analogy could also be seen as a message to viewers, who are just now in on Perry Mason for the first of what will be an 8-episode journey. Stick with us—this story is just beginning, and we’re in it for the long haul.
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