(This article contains some spoilers for the July 26 episode of “Perry Mason” on HBO)
This week on “Perry Mason,” LAPD Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) reached a turning point. After spending the previous five episodes carefully navigating his fraught situation and wrestling with his conscience, it looks like he’s decided to take a stand — after taking the stand.
As you saw, the trial of Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) for the murder of her baby son Charlie continued this week, and Drake had to take the stand and deliver false testimony to help keep Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard) out of the spotlight. Drake did what he was supposed to do, and Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) came very close to revealing the truth: that Drake had secretly given him evidence that there was a fourth man involved in the kidnapping of baby Charlie.
But Mason holds back, and Drake — clearly wondering during this scene if Perry is going to expose him — has this sort of relieved-but-guilty expression on his face as he leaves the courtroom. After the trial, Drake’s boss gives him an envelope of cash, and it seems like that’s the last straw — “I don’t like feeling owned,” he tells Mason later, as he explains why he wants to help free Emily Dodson.
In an interview with TheWrap, Chalk spoke about what has been going through Drake’s mind throughout this story, and how what his character experiences in “Perry Mason” as the rare Black police officer in 1932 Los Angeles is not really that different from what life is like for Black people in the present day.
“Paul is surviving by shutting his mouth,” Chalk said. “If you say the wrong thing too fast, you die. If you say it too slow, you die. Not even die, but just lose your job.”
And so Drake is very careful about what he says, and how he says it, at all times. This manifests in many scenes as Drake appearing quiet and almost slow to respond — but he’s really just doing everything he can to make sure he says what he should. Because for a Black man, as Chalk said, it would be very easy for his life to collapse with any misstep.
“Paul is not necessarily the greatest liar of all time. But Paul does know how to wear different veils in order to adapt in various societies,” Chalk said. “But he’s such a curious human being, and he’s always looking for a way out. So there’s always like an activity behind his stillness.”
Chalk, a native of Ashville, North Carolina, said he could relate to his character’s reticence. “Me, Chris Chalk, I grew up very insecure, very much an observer — it’s a very white world I grew up in, a violent one,” he said. “The Klan used to march across our yard, I’ve had shotguns held at me by white people. I have had experiences that have put me in a — to use your words, I don’t think it’s a deer-in-the-headlights look, because I think that’s fear.”
But Drake, who has been a beat cop for so long that he’s pretty experienced at navigating the racist mess that is the LAPD. He has a pretty good idea of how to handle these things.
“He’s not panicked. He’s just like, ‘S—, let me see how I can adapt and evolve and evade any potential damage in this situation, while not letting them think anything about me.’ Because that’s what it is, you know,” Chalk said.
“If you look at every single person that looks at Paul, even his wife, they’re expecting something from him, and they’re expecting it in a certain way. And he has to constantly figure out the best way to please everybody until the moment when he’s sick and tired of trying to please everybody.”
And, well, that’s not too different from how so many Black folks are pushed to behave in the present day. And we couldn’t help but discuss how story on “Perry Mason” is reflecting the personal arcs of so many people in the present day — what with our national reckoning with racist and abusive police, and a pandemic that’s kinda forced everyone to pay attention to what’s going on.
“It’s no surprise to me that racism, if we talk about racism honestly, that in any era it’s gonna be reflecting the times. But it is interesting to me how, in the 1930s, there’s just more time in the day, period. So you’re forced to reflect. How many games of cards and bottles of gin can you drink before you have to deal with your own s—? I feel like that’s what’s happening on the show, and that’s what’s happening in 2020,” Chalk said.
“We are stuck in our own stuff, and we’re forced to decide — are we gonna take action or are we just gonna let the norms come back after the end of the pandemic? That’s what Paul, that’s what Perry, that’s what Della, that’s what all of the people dealing with, is their own come-to-Jesus moment, for lack of a better term, in this moment. They’re all faced with something that is life or death, and they have to decide, am I going to choose to help, or am I going to choose to ignore, or choose to hurt?
“And that’s where we are! It’s exactly where we are while we’re sitting in our homes, many many years later, deciding, 90 years later, what are we going to do to make this world livable for ourselves and for other people. It’s a fun, and hard, and necessary discussion.”