RECTIFY: “The Source”

The quietly powerful third season of Rectify comes to a close with confessions for some, and fresh starts for few.

You’re not the first to romance the cocoon.

–Janet, to Daniel

For the second time since he left Death Row, Daniel Holden has been baptized. Not that he would see it that way; his dalliance with “old-time religion” was brief, and tied to his budding relationship with Tawny. But the sensation of being made clean by the waters, the “Source” of life — and joy — of the episode’s title, is the same. Daniel, voracious reader and kooky philosophizer that he is, would call it an even older-time religion. An ancient one, when humans were just playthings for the gods of mythology, actors in a story that illustrates a larger point about human nature.

Rectify demands patience from its viewers as a rule, but this season tested those limits almost as far as they could go. If you stood back a few paces from these six episodes, like Janet as she watches Daniel wade out into the waves, you’d be tempted to say that almost nothing happened. And it’s also true that each season could be telescoped that way. First, Daniel comes home; then we realize he can never stay. In Season 3, he prepares to leave. Daniel himself stays more or less the same off-beat, slightly naive man he’s always been, but his place in the world — and what that world expects of him — keeps getting kicked farther down the field.

What makes Rectify so extraordinary as television is how is plays so little like television. That’s not to say that it feels like film, which is the easy comparison for the modern slate of “cinematic” prestige dramas. Rectify doesn’t feel scripted at all. It feels like real life, unfolding in painful real time before us. Ray McKinnon (who wrote and directed “The Source”) can afford to add those tiny, life-giving moments that would hit the cutting room floor on any other show, because he’s not churning through “plot” but simply observing what’s already there. The performances are so lived-in three seasons in that we feel like we know the Holdens as well as our own families. Sometimes they infuriate us the same way. Sometimes we laugh at inside jokes that won’t make sense to anyone else, or flee the scene to protect a box of apple fritters. And sometimes a picture really does say a thousand words, like when Daniel takes his familiar position, sitting on the grass, looking out (yet also looking back) at the prison where he spent all of his adult life. By now, we can guess exactly what he’s thinking; his conversation with Janet afterwards only adds shading.

How recognizable, even, are the little gestures of futility and frustration from Ted Sr., when he just can’t connect with his wife? How many times have you felt like Tawny or Teddy, valiantly using southern politeness to mask deep pain, hoping that maybe, if you’re kind enough and for long enough, your estranged partner will forget what you’ve done and said, stop you on your way out the door, and say not to go? McKinnon can tell these stories with incredible economy because there’s no artifice, no leaps of logic. Clayne Crawford’s head tilt and J. Smith-Cameron’s pursed lips are our shorthand. This family is broken, and removing Daniel from the picture won’t fix it. Janet may have brought her son to New Canaan ahead of schedule, but there’s no promised land for those he’s left behind — only a re-modeled kitchen with no one who wants to enjoy it.

Carl-Daggett-Rectify-306-09-1000x594Growth is progress, even without action. The Holden-Talbots are in the wilderness, but they’re not the same people they were just weeks ago. Yet doing the wrong thing for the right reason will ultimately leave you worse off, as Sheriff Daggett may soon learn. His methodical investigation into George Melton’s death has led him to Trey’s front door, and with the shaken Chris’s testimony as his metaphorical smoking gun, Carl thinks he may have finally put this whole thing together. For three seasons his conscience has been nagging him about Daniel’s innocence, and that plea deal — where Daniel was exonerated for the rape but confessed(?) again to the murder — only makes Carl want to do right by him even more.

And when Trey finally cracks, trapped by his own ill-concieved attempt to frame Daniel for George’s murder, it’s natural to feel like justice has finally been done. Trey’s sputtering like the slimeball he is, and the more he denies raping Hannah Dean 19 years ago, the easier it is for us to believe he killed George. But unlike Carl, who we like a great deal, we actually saw George pull the trigger on himself… and we still want Trey to go down for it. Once you realize what’s actually happening — Carl is repeating the mistakes of the past, and a man is being accused of a crime he didn’t commit — it’s deeply unsettling. Nothing Trey has done should buy him any sympathy from us, but McKinnon is pointing out the hypocrisy within our own moral code. It’s obviously tragic when a good man gets railroaded. But it should be when a bad man does, too.

Teddy may not be a “good man,” either, and he’d say as much. His revelation to Jared back in “Thrill Ride” about his own teenage exploits was chilling, as much for what he described as for the remorseless way he described it. But the difference between Trey and Teddy is their perspective. Only the latter is willing to admit the truth. Only Teddy would tell his half-brother a story like that and end by begging that he not go down that same road. Teddy doesn’t think he can be redeemed; Trey doesn’t think he has anything to be redeemed for. So if we can spare a sliver of sympathy for Trey, how much do we owe Teddy, who at least offered his home back to Tawny, and is edging out of her life as magnanimously as he can muster? Sure, he gets to take the high road because it’s Tawny who was having the emotional affair with Daniel. But his failings as a husband have much deeper, more rotten roots. When he bonds with his step-sister Amantha at the episode’s end over gin rummy, is it truly fraternal, or can we not even trust him with her?


Each one of these people needs that walk into the ocean just like Daniel did, to get a fresh start in the wake of his “banishment” to Tennessee. He spent half the season painting (and re-painting) a pool, looking for peace in the mundane. When it became clear that Paulie wasn’t going to let him have it, he was astute enough to realize it was time to go. Janet, for whom the road trip is over all too quickly (they don’t even get to have that dance), has to learn to forgive herself for her perceived failings as a mother. She also needs to have an honest talk with her husband, and soon — perhaps Season 4 will bring that to center stage. Tawny is lost, spiritually and emotionally, and has only Daniel poking at her in a dream as she wonders aloud where her God has gone; it’s the only scene Aden Young and Adelaide Clemens have shared all season, which only emphasizes her isolation. (It’s also edited to at first seem to be Daniel’s dream, hinting at an almost psychic connection between these two sensitive souls.)

Amantha, whose accidental new career in Paulie is as much a surprise to her as anyone, is left wondering whether Jon is right, and a “less distracted” lawyer might have gotten her brother off completely free, or if that would even be justice. (“Never thought a lot of things,” she tells him bitterly.) Jon also says he’s finally returning to Boston, but a late-episode stop to taunt Senator Foulkes perhaps says otherwise. He is right about one thing: true justice for Daniel won’t come from punishing Trey, or Chris, or anyone else who acted like the teenagers they were the night of Hannah’s death. It’s the adults like Foulkes whose Pharisaic arrogance ruined Daniel’s life then, and the rest of his family’s now. (You could argue the Senator’s debilitating stroke is punishment enough, leaving him in his own form of solitary confinement.) Daniel’s already over it — he’s moving on, and happy to do it. He’ll even have a roommate for the first time in his life. But Jon is wired to always need a cause to fight for, and now that isn’t just Daniel’s case, but the very system that made Daniel who he is.

The more you look at Rectify, the more there is to see; the more nuances to sift, and symbolism to unravel. It is a truly extraordinary show, gorgeously filmed, expertly crafted, and powerfully performed. It supplements its pathos with the right amount of low-key humor. It’s a little bit strange, and difficult to describe, and uninterested in television’s natural rhythms. And, for six short weeks out of the year, it’s the best show on it. McKinnon is moving his story forward on his own pace, and without much forward planning — the characters are leading the narrative, not the other way around. They aren’t playthings for the gods of the writers’ room; they represent what it means to be truly, messily human.

4 thoughts on “RECTIFY: “The Source””

  1. Great piece, thank you.

    Just two things I’d pick on. Don’t think it’s fair to use the word “railroaded” about Trey. It implies intentionality, which is not happening. We don’t know what’s going to unfold yet, and certainly as you say, we are forced to consider the idea of a bad man being falsely accused or convicted. But Daggett’s clearly meaning to get at the truth, not to railroad anyone. Poor Trey’s made himself very hard to believe by being a lying sociopath, but I’m hoping this will be rectified (sorry, couldn’t help it).

    Also, I don’t agree that Teddy was not remorseful about how he treated the girl. He tells the story in that slightly menacing way that, at first, leaves us uncertain about how he views himself. But for me it becomes clear that he felt shame for who he had been, who he’s afraid he still might be, and that what looked menacing was really self-loathing.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I completely agree — Carl is acting on the evidence he has. “Railroaded” is a bit hyperbolic but hey, it was super late at night! Same with Teddy: I was focusing on how it would appear to Jared, not how Teddy really sees himself. But self-loathing is right.

  2. Good article that goes some way in explaining the the allure of Rectify which, for me, is a most astonishing and powerful work of art. A brilliant concept with a perfect cast, impeccable direction and superb writing.

    The humour, usually in the form of witty one-liners, mostly from Daniel, is often extremely funny – especially so considering the context or perhaps because of it. The humour helps explain, in a broader sense, how people are able to survive appalling adversity and cling to hope for a better future.

    Just Brilliant.

    1. I agree — Daniel is the funniest character on the show, and half the time is because you don’t expect him to say something funny.

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