This morning, as I sat down to eat my breakfast with Perry Mason, as one does, I made a disappointing discovery. My DVR had only one new Perry recording on it, and it was the episode I enjoy least of all – the one with a tragic, horrible twist at the end. (Someone online described it as “probably the darkest episode in the series.”)
As the episode begins, Alex Tanner is late for a party. He’s the guest of honor at a bash thrown by his employer, Global News, as he’s just moved to town to become the new CEO. His pretty young wife (the daughter of the recently deceased man who owned the company) calls him back into the house – he hadn’t said good night to their son Robbie, who’s asking for him. She hands him Robbie’s favorite stuffed animal and enjoins him to be sure the side of the crib is up, as Robbie is learning his prayers. Alex takes the toy upstairs then returns and heads out.
Meanwhile, at the party, Danny Shine is drunk and insulting everyone. He’s the columnist for the newspaper and he has nasty things to say to each of the party guests, including Perry. His secretary takes him outside for some air (and did newspaper columnists really have secretaries _and_ assistants back in the 1960s?). Alex arrives, and the columnist mentions he dropped by his house today and met the wife and child, and he’s going to write a column about Alex’s ideal wife, ideal child, and ideal situation. Alex heads inside; the columnist then starts mauling his secretary, which the columnist’s stalker wife (played by Cloris Leachman, remember Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?) observes from her car parked across the street. Back inside at the party, everyone is greeting their new future boss, while the secretary comes in to get cleaned up. Meanwhile, someone shoots and kills the columnist.
The wrong guy is arrested, naturally (and for no good reason). He’s the columnist’s assistant, played by one of my favorite Perry Mason actors, Douglas Henderson. And he has no motive, but the only one who can testify to that is Alex Tanner, and Alex refuses to help, as he has other worries. Baby Robbie has been kidnapped! The kidnappers won’t release him until the trial is over! Eventually, of course, Perry learns and reveals the truth – the killer was Alex himself. His career was on the line, and he was desperate. He didn’t want the world to know that his wife was psychotic… Robbie had actually died before the story ever started.
I paused the recording once breakfast was done, and before it was time to watch a few more minutes with lunch, it struck me that there could be a value to watching the episode more closely to better understand why – beyond the cheap horror written into the script – it struck me as so awful.
So I did, and I thought about it all afternoon. There’s a lot to dislike about the episode. I almost never want to subject myself to stories about dead children, and having a man who seems so kind to his wife turn out to be instead unspeakably cruel to her – that’s not great either. And there’s misleading the viewer: If Perry wanted to experiment with the “unreliable narrator” thing, I’d rather they’d introduced it long before the 270th out of 271 episodes.
But I also realized something else interesting about the episode, and that has to do with poor Mrs. Tanner’s coping strategy. Continue reading