Rectify, a little-seen drama series that aired earlier this year on the Sundance Channel, starts out with a tantalizing premise that could easily go astray in the hands of lazy writers and formula-minded network executives. Instead, over the course of six quiet episodes, Rectify asserts itself as one of the most interesting dramas on television.
The pilot opens with the release of Daniel Holden (Aiden Young) from prison after a seventeen-year stint for raping and murdering his high school girlfriend. He’s spent the entirety of his adult life confined to a prison cell, with only the occasional piece of respectable literature and a friendly but distant next-door neighbor to keep him company, to say nothing of the horrors he’s witnessed and the trauma he’s endured. A batch of new DNA evidence suggests Daniel’s conviction was premature, and so he emerges, squinting because of the bright Georgia sunlight, yes, but also because the world around him has changed so greatly since he left it.
In addition to the social and technological changes that have passed Daniel by in the seventeen years since he experienced the outside world, Daniel’s family has been busy evolving. While he was incarcerated, his father passed away, his mother (J. Smith-Cameron) remarried and now he has a stepbrother (Jake Austin Walker) who’s about the age as Daniel was when he left for prison. His stepfather has a son of his own, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) with a pretty wife who seems to take a special interest in Daniel from the minute she sees him. And no one – not even his loving sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) – has figured out how to speak to Daniel without either being too cautious or too condescending. After all, no one knows for sure what happened on that now-infamous night, and the DNA evidence is far from conclusive.
Whenever I like a show, I always go through a mental exercise: can I imagine a terrible version of this show with the same characters and premise? In this case, I most certainly can. On that show, Daniel would emerge from prison with the media swarming around him endlessly as he cantankerously fended them off and demanded to be left alone. His family would promise to fight for him no matter what, and the six episodes would follow the trial and lead up to a verdict that confirmed Daniel’s guilt or innocence. Flashbacks would take us back to that night over and over again. Essentially, we’d be watching a stale courtroom drama with a white male antihero, and we’ve got enough of those already.
Instead, Rectify takes full advantage of the eccentricity and filmmaking savvy that Sundance is clearly seeking. The show’s creator is Ray McKinnon, an actor best recognized as…well, whatever you’ve seen him in before. He’s a character actor, a “that guy” who shows up in movies and TV shows for a few scenes but never really steps into the spotlight. Maybe you saw him in The Blind Side or the Footloose remake or on Deadwood or Justified or Sons of Anarchy.
Maybe he’s never become a household name because he’s been too busy concocting a fascinating and unique character study of a man whose internal psyche is far from clear-cut, even by the end of the first season.
These episodes unfold over the course of a week, as Daniel struggles to adjust to his “freedom.” I put that word into quotation marks because that’s what the show does. Even as Daniel can now do whatever he wants and go wherever he wants, he really can’t. The entire town resents his release, he can barely operate a cell phone let alone function independently, and the seventeen years in prison seem to have seriously affected his ability to grasp the mundanities of everyday life. And do you blame him? He tells his stepbrother in one episode that he experienced sexual abuse in jail, and everyone who speaks to him starts out with a “Hello, Daniel,” that feels loaded in the extreme.
He’s also confused about his spirituality, and that’s where Ted Jr.’s wife Taney (Adelaide Clemens, a dead ringer for Carey Mulligan) comes in. She’s a born-again Christian who sees something in Daniel that others don’t: a latent decency, a desire to make himself better, a capacity for strength that most people dismiss because his outward personality is so quiet and awkward. Daniel’s relationship with Taney is the most interesting on the show because neither character’s motivations or feelings is ever entirely clear. Daniel seems to be interested in Taney romantically, but not so much that he’s unwilling to simply appreciate the warmth she’s bestowing upon him without greedily seeking more out of it. Taney seems to be quietly rebelling against the reactions of the rest of the townspeople, a beacon of support in a sea of judgment.
Because the pace is slow, the subject matter harrowing and the characters confused and often inscrutable, Rectify can be difficult to watch. But I found it pretty easy to adjust to the show’s unusual rhythm, which favors long takes, subtle music and minimal dialogue. Rectify lets its actors use their gifts to speak for themselves without relying on clunky exposition. Young’s performance slowly reveals itself as a deeply felt study in bubbling compassion with an undercurrent of menace that his death sentence leaves behind, while Clemens radiates warmth even when Taney’s struggling to relate to her often overbearing husband. The other members of the cast observantly evoke the strained family dynamics in the Holden household with honesty that often comes at the expense of “likability.” The show’s morality is closer to that of real life than a binary between good and evil. Even the characters who are presented as enemies (like the sleazy state senator, played by Bruce McGill, who remains convinced that Daniel ought to return to jail) are doing what they’re doing for the right reasons.
This show mines the quiet moments of sadness for potent drama without ever resorting to cheap histrionics or excessive melodrama. There’s dark humor, as when a young boy in a Best Buy schools Daniel on the art of playing shoot-em-up video games, and surreal digressions, as when a possibly imaginary “goat man” (W. Earl Brown) gives Daniel an exorbitant sum of money and leads him to his father’s car dealership. But mostly there’s observation and contemplation. The easy answers, if there are any, will come in future seasons. For now, we’ve gotten a glimpse of Daniel assimilating back into a world that’s left him behind and wants to continue to do so. And in that six-episode glimpse, we’ve found a sad, thoughtful drama that asks the hard questions. If you haven’t already, Rectify your viewing habits and make time for this show.