By Matt Cabral
June 21, 2020 at 10:00 PM EDT
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Merrick Morton/HBO

HBO's pulp noir take on the classic legal drama Perry Mason begins on the streets of '30s Los Angeles, just after Christmas. A man, his face covered by the brim of his fedora, carries a plaid baby blanket while briskly walking toward the Angels Flight Railway.

In a nearby room with a view of the cable cars, a scared, desperate couple receives ransom terms from a stranger on the phone. They're instructed to place and open a suitcase full of cash on a nearby desk. Upon getting a glimpse of their infant son, Charlie, on one of the passing cars, they're told to retrieve him.

As they run toward the railway, the apparent kidnappers speed off in a car, swiping a trolley as they race away. Charlie's mother spots the plaid blanket and clutches it to her chest before realizing the baby's not crying. She opens the covering to reveal the deeply unsettling sight of her son, recently deceased, with his eyes stitched open.

The horrific opening segues into a far lighter scene. We meet the titular character (Matthew Rhys) — a hard-boiled private investigator in this origin tale — and his associate Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham). The pair is tracking slapstick movie star Chubby Carmichael, hoping to catch him breaking his studio's morals clause. Fast-forward past a scene of the actor, now naked, enthusiastically consuming pumpkin pie off an equally naked young starlet, and Perry and his partner call it a night.

Mason heads to his extremely disheveled home, grabs a “return to sender” Christmas present from the mailbox, then rescues a cow. Some context: He lives on a dairy farm by an airfield, and the animal was wandering by the runway. While retrieving the cow, he exchanges a knowing glance with a female pilot in the distance.

Back in his house, Perry gets a visit from sharp-dressed lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow). He pitches the skeptical P.I. on a job with “major player” Herman Baggerly. He also points out an egg stain on Mason's tie, then strongly encourages him to show up for the meeting with the potential new client.

Mason's first order of business, however, is making good on his deal with Hammersmith Pictures. He delivers the compromising photos of Chubby, but ups his fee from $200 to $600 because the female in the pictures is none other than Velma “Red” Fuller, the studio's new star. Perry's handler, who also notices the stain on his tie, tells him he'll have to take the renegotiation to his boss, Mr. Hammersmith himself.

Mason's next stop is the morgue, where he shops the fresh corpses for a non-soiled necktie. While he talks with the coroner, we learn Perry's got a son who lives with his mom, a topic he's clearly not comfortable discussing. He switches gears to the small, covered body being guarded by a cop. “Kidnapping gone way wrong ... worst thing you've ever seen,” shares the chatty coroner.

Perry, now wearing a dead man's tie, next arrives in court, where he's serving as a material witness. Things get heated on the stand quickly, and a few of his closeted skeletons are revealed, including an assault charge and dishonorable discharge from the military. E.B.'s assistant Della Street (Juliet Rylance) scoops him up after the hearing to make sure he doesn't miss the meeting with Baggerly.

Apparently a man of great means, Baggerly (Robert Patrick) wants to hire Mason — by way of  E.B. — to look into Charlie's kidnapping. He doesn't trust the police. Also, the boy's parents attend the same church, Radiant Assembly of God, where Baggerly's “life was changed” with the help of Sister Alice.

At the Dodson's home, the police are interrogating the deceased boy's dad, Matthew (Nate Corddry). With E.B. by his client's side, Detective Holcomb and his bad-cop partner make a number of accusations. While things get ugly, Mason takes a stroll through the house. He snaps a few pics, including one of a framed photo of a female pastor — presumably Sister Alice — as well as one of a ceramic turtle in Charlie's untouched room.

He encounters the boy's mom, Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin). Over a cigarette, the despondent mother opens up to Perry, saying she believes God is punishing her. Before breaking down in tears, she tells him her son loved turtles — Mason shares that his estranged boy, 9-year-old Teddy, likes firetrucks.

Back at E.B.'s office, Perry and Street share a flask and discuss what they've learned. The boy was taken from his room while Matthew was at work. Emily gave him a bath, then claims to have fallen asleep. Mason suggests someone, possibly with intimate knowledge of the family's schedule and financial means (the ransom demand was $100,000) was in on the kidnapping.

After proposing this possible inside job, he heads back to his two-cow dairy farm home, where he and the female pilot he saw earlier have sex. Clearly the dominant partner in the relationship, she leaves him gasping for air on the floor before offering him $6,000 for his house/”dump.”

Day 2 of the investigation finds Perry riding the railway car where the boy's body was found before heading to the room where his parents left the ransom. He's greeted with a pistol to the temple courtesy of Detective Holcomb's hot-headed partner. He's ready to arrest Perry for breaking and entering, but Holcomb wants intel. Mason shares that a traffic cop outside told him a speeding vehicle hit a trolley the night of the crime. Despite this fresh wrinkle, Holcomb's set on pinning the crime on the dad.

Back at the morgue, Mason's again bartering with the coroner. For a $4 bribe, he's granted a look at poor little Charlie Dodson's pre-autopsy corpse. With a deep swallow, Perry snaps a pic of the boy's face before helping the coroner remove the stitches from his eyelids. He tucks one of the stitches into a matchbox.

The dogged P.I.'s difficult day is followed by a painful night. At Hammersmith Picture's New Year's Eve party, Perry and Pete are looking to get paid for those moral clause-breaching photos. Mason's invited to a backroom meeting where he's met by Mr. Hammersmith and a pair of goons. The former's none-to-happy about the price hike, so he offers Perry the originally agreed-upon $200 but subtracts $199 as a penalty for Perry playing hardball. Meanwhile, the two heavies heat the nose of Mason's pistol and force the searing metal into his chest.

Cut to a seedy room, where two thugs — including fedora-man — and a really nervous guy await a visitor. The guest soon arrives: It's Holcomb's menacing partner, who cracks wise, then places a suitcase on the desk. Expecting payment, one of the thugs opens it. On top of an empty suitcase, he gets a bullet in the head. The dirty detective shoots the other two men. As one victim chokes on his blood, the corrupt cop says, “They made the car.” The nervous accomplice makes it to the hallway, leaving a trail of blood up to the rooftop. He attempts to escape by leaping to another building but falls hard on a stairwell below.

Meanwhile, Mason wraps his worst New Year's Eve ever with a call to his ex-wife. He wants to talk to his son, but she's not having it. Angry and drunk, he smashes a toy firetruck with a baseball bat. Just as he's about to call it a night, Perry has a light-bulb moment. He stumbles into another room, spreads all evidence of the Dodson case on the floor, and sees ... something. He glances over everything, pulls the matchbox from his pocket, then picks up the photo he took of the ceramic turtle from Charlie's room.

He stares at the picture intently and says to himself, "So he liked turtles...?"

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