This odd little show on SundanceTV starts its third season on July 9th. Here’s why you should catch up RIGHT NOW. (No spoilers!)
Now that I’m here in this world, where everything’s marked by hours, or dates, or events, I find myself in a state of constant anticipation. What it is I’m anticipatin’, I’m not always sure.
Rectify defies summarization. The simplest version is this: Daniel Holden has spent 18 years on Death Row for the brutal rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, but when the DNA evidence is suddenly called into question, he finds himself released to an outside world he no longer recognizes. With his family’s help, he tries to put his life back together while his legal status remains in limbo, and in a small Georgia town that still views him as guilty.
That doesn’t sound terribly exciting, or uplifting, but it is. Critics have been raving about this show since it premiered in 2013, and with Season 3 set to premiere next week, I decided to take the plunge and catch up on the first 16 episodes (they’re on Netflix)… and I was flattened by them. Just flattened. Rectify unfolds so elegiacally — each episode covers about a single day — it almost seems like a dare, but it’s never dull, thanks to the aching naturalism in the writing and the performances. This slowest of slow burns is also the brightest. In the second episode, when asked how he kept his sanity for 18 years, Daniel replies that he meditated on “the time between the seconds.” That’s an apt description for how writer/producer Ray McKinnon’s series operates: meditative. It’s not about the words in the dialogue, but what goes unspoken; it’s not about the actions on screen, but how the cast shows their thoughts and feelings with glances and gestures. And it’s not even about whether Daniel is innocent or guilty — he doesn’t actually know, and neither do we. The question is, what does he do now, and how will people respond?
Rectify airs on SundanceTV, the tiny sister network of AMC, which is slowly building a reputation for some of the best original programming on cable. I’ve talked here before about last year’s The Honorable Woman, a British miniseries about Middle East politics and spycraft starring Maggie Gyllenhaal — I didn’t actually write a piece on it, but I should have, because it was fantastic. Currently, the network is airing Deutschland 83, kind of a zippier, German The Americans, and the first series to broadcast in the United States that’s entirely in German — look for a piece on that when it finishes its first season. But the network’s crown jewel is undoubtedly Rectify, and the critical groundswell is so large that SundanceTV is getting ads to run on other networks about how great it is and how you should watch it. And I can confirm: in a perfect world, it would get Emmy nominations for basically everything.
The cast, made up almost entirely of unknowns, is ridiculously good. Aden Young is giving a lead performance unlike anything else on TV: his Daniel is a strange bird, no doubt — his drawl is slow as molasses; he walks like a mummy that’s just been unwrapped — but he has a almost feral intensity and a gravity that draws you in. You root for him, and you want to like him, even though it’s possible he committed a heinous crime. Daniel has spent 18 years with nothing but his books, his thoughts, and the babbling of the inmates on either side of him; he has no clue how to adjust to the outside world (he first returns to his Walkman, because it’s there), and no one can seem to figure out how to adjust to him. His sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, just seen as Velcoro’s ex-wife on True Detective) has spent her entire adult life fighting for his release, but continues to worry and fear for him now that he’s out. Spencer is brilliant at playing a particular kind of Southern girl: the kind that doesn’t want to be one. Her disdain for her hometown and its people is palpable (her strongest relationship is with Daniel’s defense attorney), and Spencer has a jittery energy that tempers her perpetual state of righteous indignation.
The only person who seems to have a window into Daniel is Tawny (Australian actress Adelaide Clemens), the religious wife of Daniel’s smug step-brother Teddy (Clayne Crawford), who subtly evangelizes to him almost from they moment they meet. Clemens is everything Spencer’s Amantha is not: warm, sweet, and rock-steady. Daniel is glad to have someone connect with him as a human being, not as a symbol (for justice, or for injustice, depending on who you ask), but that growing connection is a bomb waiting to go off. Outside of Young himself, Clemens might have the hardest role as the über-Christian housewife — when is that character not an object of scorn or judgement, especially out on the godless wasteland of cable TV? But McKinnon, no stranger to religious characters himself (he memorably played the joyful Reverend on HBO’s western Deadwood), isn’t interested in that. Rectify never mocks Tawny’s faith, not once, and though she herself isn’t a perfect person, it’s evident her heart is in the right place.
What McKinnon is interested in is redemption, perhaps the strongest idea in all of storytelling. The religious imagery and themes hit hard (just look at that gorgeous header image from DP Paul M. Sommers), but not in a phony or constructed way; Rectify makes the case that it’s still possible to make profound Christian art, that captures life in all its messiness and doesn’t preach, but leaves you feeling hopeful. Daniel doesn’t remember — thanks to the mushrooms he had taken that night — whether he actually did the deed that landed him on Death Row, but he nevertheless feels responsible for what happened. (Are we not all sinners?) He doesn’t know if he can, or should, make anything of his life now. Every person he talks to — his atheist sister, his loving mother (J. Smith-Cameron), his jealous step-brother — could give him a different answer. And Daniel also can’t seem to make it a week without compounding his own problems, but the interpretations for his actions vary just as much: is this a man changed by two decades in prison, or is he just showing why he was there in the first place?
There are no easy answers, and Rectify leans into that ambiguity. With one exception — the oily State Senator who first put Daniel away, and will stop at nothing to make sure he goes back — there aren’t really any villains, either. Even Teddy, the step-brother, acts the way he does out of fear: If Daniel really is guilty, how can the Holdens go on like everything is fine? What about the family of the girl that was murdered — can you blame them for feeling like a great injustice has been done, and for taking matters into their own hands? How about the Sheriff of the town (J. D. Evermore), who might secretly be the show’s most fascinating character: he’s assumed for two decades that Daniel was guilty just like everyone else, but he also wants to do his job the right way, even if that leads him to question everything he believes. Everyone in Daniel’s orbit believes they’re “doing the right thing,” but even the best of us struggle finding the balance between justice, and grace. With these heightened emotional stakes, that might be impossible.
Rectify is a challenging but ultimately rewarding experience, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The song over the credits, “Bowsprit” by the instrumental ensemble Balmorhea, sets the tone from the very beginning, as moments from the season appear on the screen as moving Polaroids, both coloring what came before and teasing what’s to come. But what hooks you isn’t the plot — it’s the relationships, and the mood, and the beatiful photography, and the flashes of oddball humor. If it all sounds too much for you, I understand, and Daniel’s mother agrees: “I don’t think we need to tell sad stories; life’s too short.” But after a long pause, Daniel replies: “That’s exactly why we have to tell them.”