HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ Is A Welcome Spiritual Allegory For Our Dark Times By Brian Dunigan for The Federalist
Dismissed by some critics as a needless origin story, HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ reboot is exactly the type of high-minded storytelling we need today.
This article contains spoilers.
The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.
— Franz Kafka, “Before The Law”
Franz Kafka hated the draconian bureaucracies of the state that he saw beginning to take shape in the early 20th century. To him, they were ugly apparatuses of injustice that eventually spread across Europe after his death, culminating with the oppressive and murderous reigns of the Nazi Party and the Soviet Union.
In HBO’s new series, “Perry Mason” sees the titular private detective (played by Matthew Rhys) work out his contempt for the corrupted institutions of law enforcement and the bureaucratic judicial system in 1930s Los Angeles. At the top of Mason’s list of loathing are those who live within its rotting framework and do nothing to remedy it.
“God left me in France,” he tells Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany), the evangelist who will later become his spiritual nemesis. The horror of “the war to end all wars” has left a deep-seated cynicism within Perry and much of the world at large, paralyzing chances for individuals to reach their full potential and construct a meaningful existence. They are, as Gertrude Stein once supposedly told Ernest Hemingway, the “Lost Generation.”
In “The Trial,” Kafka writes about an alienated protagonist’s legal battle against a corrupt establishment of injustice while exploring a more abstract judgment of guilt within himself, one that is both existential and metaphysical. “Perry Mason” is similarly interested in this narrative duality. On the surface, it’s the story of a man investigating the kidnapping and murder of an infant named Charlie Dodson, whose mother Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) becomes the prime suspect.
As he comes to believe her innocence, the elasticity of the legal system is tested. But perhaps more importantly for Mason is the inner trial, one with even higher stakes: the battle for his soul.
‘The Clown Carries You’
“The Clown Carries You” is the password the gate guard requires from Mason every time he drives into his paternal farmland. It’s an apt metaphor for the hard-boiled man we meet in the first episode. Discharged from military service because he mercifully executed some of his wounded, deformed men who lay helpless on the battlefield as mustard gas rolled in to painfully finish them off, Mason carries that dark day in France with him into Los Angeles.