It’s nice to know that some things stay the same, all the time, no matter what else is happening around them. The sun, for example. For the foreseeable future, you can bank on the sun rising every morning and burning yellow and hot in the sky. You can bank on pizza being delicious, too, even when it’s kind of bad, because pizza is tougher to destroy than any superhero, including Wolverine, a character whose whole gimmick is being impossible to destroy. And, if you’re the type of person who enjoys fancy but stressful period dramas that involve a murder or many murders, you can also bank on seeing Matthew Rhys looking just as miserable as hell on your television every couple years.
It’s happening again right now, every Sunday night, on HBO’s reimagined prequel-y version of Perry Mason. This version of the famous Raymond Burr character is not a lawyer, not yet, but an extremely hard-boiled private investigator instead, one who is usually drunk or hungover, one whose family farm is failing, one who manages to maintain a perfect “I’m not sleeping enough because of my demons, which I do not want to talk about, please pour the whiskey and leave the bottle” length of stubble on his face. He is also, as you probably know or have guessed by now, played by Matthew Rhys. Here are a few screencaps of Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason.
Have you ever in your entire life seen a more miserable looking sack of meat than this Perry Mason? Look at that face. He looks like he just found out his dog died, in every picture, multiple times in every episode, as though he keeps forgetting his beloved dog died and finds out again every couple hours, or as though he has a number of dogs that are getting systematically murdered by some deranged monster. The man has not had a good day in a number of days. Months. Years. I’m not entirely sure he’s ever had a good day, now that I think about it. It looks like it would physically hurt him to smile, just because the muscles that curl the edges of his lips out and up are probably so atrophied that they can’t bear the weight of the skin and tissue they’re trying to lift. He’s not a happy man. This is what I’m getting at.
Here are some more images of him looking hopelessly despondent.
I should note here that I’m bringing this up only because it’s true and because it fascinates me, not because it’s something that needs to be changed. Matthew Rhys plays a sad loser better than anyone on the planet. I don’t think it’s even all that close, really. A lot of it has to do with him being a terrific actor, which he is, and we’ll be discussing this with more depth shortly. Some of it is just the things he can do with his face. Look at his eyes in those pictures. Look at how sad and empty they are. His mouth dives into a frown so deep you’d need a submersible to retrieve it. Even his cheeks seem to hang off of his face whenever he wills them to, like he suddenly channeled a bulldog through sorcery. We all have gifts. This is his. He is not wasting it even a little.
In fact, let’s back up a bit, in two ways. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said, “Have you ever in your entire life seen a more miserable looking sack of meat than this Perry Mason?” Well, you might have, provided you watched The Americans. The Americans was great. It was a show about two married Russian spies posing as an American family in the Beltway during the Cold War. It was also a show about the struggle between family and work and how sometimes doing what you think is right can make your life impossible. But primarily, it was about Matthew Rhys looking like a guy who had the will to live removed from his body every morning with some sort of giant, painful suction system.
Here are some screencaps of Matthew Rhys as Russian spy Philip Jennings in The Americans.
This doesn’t do it justice, but it’s a start. Philip Jennings was a defeated man in every way. It got to the point that I started doing a series of recap-style posts for the show titled “The Americans Anxiety Report,” in which I ranked characters and things from the show that made me anxious that week, and the entry for Philip Jennings was always just screencaps of his frowning face. I finally broke down and wrote an entire article titled “Philip Jennings Is The Saddest Man On Television.” No one argued with me about that article. Do you understand? I posted an article with a bold claim for a headline, on the internet, and no one argued with me about it. It might be the only thing the internet has ever agreed on.
And how could anyone disagree with it? Look at this series of screencaps from a conversation he had on the show.
The combination of face and dialogue is one of the most heartbreaking things you’ll ever see. There’s almost no way to make it sadder. The key word in that sentence, for the record, is “almost,” because this is where I inform you that he was saying those words to — and making that face at — his son, Henry, a sweet boy who just wanted to play hockey and tinker with computers. Devastating in every way.
Sometimes he was even sad in a disguise.
I don’t know why, but this bummed me out even more than when he was sad with his regular face. Kind of like seeing someone turn into a puddle of tears at the end of their own Halloween party. It happened a lot, too. He was sad in dozens of wigs and fake mustaches and outfits. The only time I can remember him being happy was when he put on cowboy boots and went line dancing with the employees of the travel agency he operated as a front. Think about that one. The only true joy he — a Russian spy trapped in a life he hated more and more every day — experienced in his whole tragic life was doing the single most stereotypically American thing possible. Even his joy is layered in sadness. Are you seeing my point yet?
It’s started crossing into movies, too, from the small screen to the big. He recently starred in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as a reporter whose life is changed while working on a story about Mr. Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. Sounds great, right? It is! But his road to happiness has to start somewhere, and in this movie, it starts… here.
Do you want to know the craziest part of all this? The part that turns this whole exercise on its head a little bit? Matthew Rhys, King of the Hangdog Character, Undisputed Champion of Prestige Television Misery, is… a delightful man. An absolute giggly, silly goofball. I know this because I’ve seen The Wine Show, a European food and travel series that is available on Hulu in which he and countryman Matthew Goode gallivant all over the continent to learn about wine from a series of experts. It is, I promise, lovely. My favorite segment involves the two of them learning about ridiculous wine gizmos while doing awful James Bond accents. It happens every episode.
I don’t think my words are getting this across very well. I think the season one blooper reel will do a much better job.
My working theory is that the beard makes him happy.
A big part of me wants to see Matthew Rhys in the wackiest comedy you can imagine, a modern-day Dumb and Dumber, just to watch him cut loose for a couple hours. Another part of me — the wiser, more rational, much smaller part — isn’t so sure. Maybe if you do something better than anyone else in the world you should do that thing whenever you have the chance. There’s a brilliance here that the world deserves to see. Even if that brilliance is pure misery.
It’s settled. The king stays the king. A hug every now and then wouldn’t hurt, though.