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In ‘Perry Mason,’ Matthew Rhys Is As Sad As Ever

In HBO’s miniseries about the rise of a criminal defense lawyer, the Welsh actor is in his element: portraying a man with a lot of emotional baggage weighing him down

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

If somebody were to create a contemporary version of Perry Mason, the celebrated criminal defense lawyer of Erle Stanley Gardner’s fiction novels and the Raymond Burr–starring CBS series from the ’50s and ’60s, it would probably have all the qualities of a prestige crime series. Dark. Brooding. Edgy. Bordering on nihilistic. Having the guy responsible for creating True Detective—Nic “Batman could credibly defeat God” Pizzolatto—reboot Perry Mason sounds like a bit, but it really almost happened. (In an alternate timeline, Pizzolatto’s Perry Mason would’ve starred Robert Downey Jr., which is fun to think about.)

Alas, even without Pizzolatto’s direct involvement, HBO’s Perry Mason miniseries has the look and feel of a 1930s True Detective—or, for the gamers out there, it has the vibe of a particularly knotty mission from L.A. Noire. But for the series to work, Perry Mason himself had to be portrayed by the right actor; someone capable of looking weary and weighed down by all the corruption surrounding him, but still determined to fight the system. Someone who just exudes sadness. I think they found the right dude:

Screenshots via HBO

That’s just one of many sad looks Matthew Rhys dishes out in the Perry Mason trailer, where we see that the series has surrounded the Welsh actor with a stacked cast that includes John Lithgow, Tatiana Maslany, Shea Whigham, Juliet Rylance, Stephen Root, Andrew Howard, and Chris Chalk. (HBO’s Perry Mason is a That Guy paradise.) But the appeal of Perry Mason and its title character all goes back to Rhys, in his first starring TV role since his Emmy-winning turn in The Americans, for his indelible ability to look extremely sad. It’s what he’s excelled at for much of his career, and it’s precisely what he was brought in to do. “You get away with more sadness because you have very, very attractive Matthew Rhys,” Perry Mason co-showrunner Rolin Jones told The New York Times in May. “Who doesn’t want to see him brood a little bit, for crying out loud?”

I couldn’t agree more. As The Ringer’s resident Rhys-ologist, I was thrilled to see one of my favorite actors return to the small screen doing what he does best: make a face that contorts into subtle variations of a perfect, nuanced :-(. So rather than just review Perry Mason’s Sunday night premiere, I decided to investigate just how much the episode delivered on a Matthew Rhys Sadness Scale. These are my findings.

Los Angeles, 1931. If you know your basic American history, you’ll know we’re in the middle of the Great Depression; also, prohibition is still a thing. Not a great time to be an extremely mopey private investigator who happens to look just like acclaimed actor Matthew Rhys:

Yes, Perry Mason is supposed to be a lawyer who’s really good at getting witnesses to crack on the stand, but the HBO series seems to be a prequel of sorts—showing the character at a low point in his life before he begins to practice law. This version of Perry Mason is separated from his wife and kid; he’s barely putting together enough money as a P.I. with his pal Mustachioed Shea Whigham; he lives on his late parents’ very sad farm with some very cute cows. Perry Mason is, in other words, at the perfect point in his life to be played by Matthew Rhys.

Anyway, before we can get to Perry Mason’s big case—which appears to be something that will take a full season to solve—he and Whigham’s Pete Strickland tackle the unseemly assignment of investigating a Fatty Arbuckle–esque film star to see if he is violating the morals clause of his contract by [clears throat] eating pumpkin pie from another star’s … private area as a prelude to sex. Mason’s caught taking photos of the two stars, and runs to Strickland’s getaway car. It’s at this point our lead is—get this—smiling. Matthew Rhys hasn’t looked this happy on-screen since Philip Jennings went line dancing. I’d take a screengrab of the rare Rhys smile, but there is also a naked man chasing him on the street in the shot, and I don’t want to be fired. Still, this is promising stuff for Perry Mason: Maybe he’s not going to be so sad and mopey after all!

Unfortunately, Mason’s happiness is short-lived, as the details of the central mystery of the series become clear. A couple’s baby has been taken for ransom, and after they agree to give $100,000 to the kidnapper for the safe return of the child, they find the child dead in a railway car, his eyes sewn open in a particularly macabre detail. It’s really grisly stuff, and is enough for Mason to drop the act of a skeptic who’s seen it all to be visibly affected by the case. Sad Matthew Rhys is officially back at DEFCON 3:

Because Perry Mason is an HBO product, there’s some things you expect from the series: solid production values (check), an impressive roster of actors (check), and sex scenes that would violate all sorts of old-timey morals clauses (... check). I’m not referring just to Pumpkin Pie Cunnilingus—Perry Mason displays a bit of humor by throwing out a variation of the Obligatory HBO Sex Scene formula with Matthew Rhys getting closer to the lite, ’30s-era Chuck Rhoades treatment, courtesy of an aviatrix. This is how he’s left post-coitus:

I’m not even kidding; in the aggressive sex montage—which, again, I am not GIF-ing in any form because I like gainful employment—Rhys looks stern as hell. Unhappy, even. It is not that far removed from Philip Jennings having sex for valuable intel in The Americans. At this rate, if Perry Mason was revealed to be a stealth Americans prequel—where one of fiction’s cherished fictional lawyers is secretly the grandfather of a KGB spy—I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

I’m sure the details of the murdered infant case are going to affect Mason in some profound ways—pathos is Rhys’s bread and butter and, with any luck, its presence in this series might put him back on the Emmys’ radar—but most of that is set up for later in the season. In the meantime, Mason makes the grievous error of trying to blackmail the studio that hired him for more money after catching a second star in what we’ll now call the Pumpkin Pie Act. But instead of ponying up $600 to share between him and Strickland, he gets his chest burned on New Year’s Eve by a couple of goons. Mason is distraught, gets hammered, calls (or more accurately, shouts at) his ex-wife, and destroys one of his son’s toy firetrucks with a baseball bat.

Through one episode of Perry Mason, Matthew Rhys more than lives up to the billing of being very sad: His Perry Mason is a brooding, self-loathing mess of a man who will need to get his act together if he’s going to learn the truth behind what happened to that poor baby. But if Perry Mason follows its source text and eventually sends its title character into a courtroom, that reckoning should arrive by the end of the season. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be enough for Matthew Rhys to crack another smile or two, even if we—series creators included—know that his greatest strengths lie in taking his characters to their breaking point.