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‘Perry Mason’ Season 1, Episode 2: In the Trenches

But Perry is now on a different kind of mission than the one he was on in the trenches: Clearing his client Matthew Dodson of the kidnapping of his own infant. Suspicion falls on Mr. Dodson when District Attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root, who, as always, seems to be having the time of his life) uncovers a secret of Dodson’s own: He’s Baggerly’s son from a one-night stand, back before the magnate found Jesus. Suddenly it makes sense why someone would try to extort a grocer for $100,000 — and who is in a better position to do so than the man who knows best that Baggerly would pay on his grandson’s behalf?

The story, of course, stinks, and only partially because the murderous Sergeant Ennis (Andrew Howard), who killed the kidnappers himself, is on board with Dodson’s arrest. For one thing, Dodson has an alibi, though not the sort that would necessarily hold up in court: He was out gambling that night, and there are eyewitnesses to that effect; the witness who placed Dodson at the scene of the murder of the accomplices was coached by Ennis and his partner, Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange). The two men also tamper with the findings of a beat cop, Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), a black officer forced to change his observant report on a blood trail at the scene to fit his white superiors’ preferences.

Perry, meanwhile, is poking at loose ends of his own. His suspicion falls on Mrs. Dodson rather than on her husband when he learns from a nosy neighbor that she spends hours on the phone when her husband’s away. A little skulduggery with the phone company after tailing the bereaved mother lands him in hot water with Della Street, the legal secretary for their mutual employer, E.B. Jonathan. But it also leads him to a house were he finds a dead body, its head blown to gory, 1980s-horror-movie mush by a shotgun … and a cache of love letters from Mrs. Dodson.

Now an alternate theory of the crime develops, thanks in no small part to Perry’s distaste for Mrs. Dodson’s cheating ways. It now seems likely that her lover, George Gammon, helped set up the kidnapping after finding out from the missis that her husband had a rich dad, and that the baby’s death was a horrible accident. (It’s implied, but not stated outright, that the killer stitched the child’s eyes open as a macabre way to indicate a wish that the boy was still alive.)

Everything comes to a head at the baby’s lavish funeral service, held before an audience of Los Angeles luminaries — should the mayor get an aisle seat, or should it be reserved for Clark Gable? — at the temple of the evangelical preacher Sister Alice. As played by Tatiana Maslany, Alice is not at all what I expected her to be: She seems to be a true believer rather than an obviously hypocritical mountebank, and her style of speaking is down to earth as well as passionate. A lot of characters of this sort are so flagrantly unappealing that it’s impossible to sympathize with anyone who follows them; Sister Alice (whose business affairs are run by her mother, played by Lili Taylor) is a more convincing shepherd of her flock.

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