The Sundance Channel series Rectify works for many of the reasons that television series–at least in America–usually don’t work. It is slow-paced, artistic, lacks gratuitous violence and is generally written and acted with an affecting sense of realism.
Fans of the series point to their appreciation of the deep psychological battles that its main character Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and his family undergo. Daniel escapes death row after his sentence is commuted three times on a technicality. Convicted for the murder of his girlfriend when he was just 18, Daniel has spent twenty years—the entirety of his adult life—in jail. And the sheriff who originally led the investigation aims to lock him right back up. Daniel has a formidable defender in the person of ace attorney John Stern (Luke Kirby) who also happens to be dating his sister.
The crux of the drama lies in the fact that no one seems to remember what happened on the night of the murder, and the townspeople are all more or less convinced of Daniel’s guilt. In one ethereal episode, one of the boys who was with Daniel on the night in question returns to the scene of the crime and commits suicide: guilt? Was he—or another friend who accompanies him that day –the real killer? No one in this series is actually going to tell you, and that’s the beauty of Rectify. Rectify isn’t just that rare series where both “sides” get fair play: we come to understand not just the harm that has been done to Daniel’s family but to that of the dead girl’s family equally, as well as to the whole town that has been grieving ever since. More interestingly, we never really find out what is going on in character’s heads or in events from the past—we experience them the way one might experience them in real life, left to guess, to doubt. It’s kind of revolutionary.
Take Daniel himself. He is an unlikely subject for a television portrayal because he–like many people in real life–defies easy stereotyping. He is a remarkably bright guy who reads throughout his jail stay and inspires his African American cellmate to face his upcoming death–unlike Daniel, the latter is executed. He visits the friend’s mother after his execution. But Daniel also seems borderline autistic (or something similar, we never find out) and that makes his reaction to things–from the murder of his girlfriend down to being raped in jail and then beaten after he gets out—almost undecipherable. He takes off on long seemingly aimless walks and pulls apart the family kitchen down to the floorboards when he misunderstands his mother’s wish to renovate. He is, to put it simply, one odd fellow. Not only does he not defend himself physically when he is beaten up, but he purposefully chooses not to identify his attacker to spare him being prosecuted.
Why does Daniel not identify his attacker? Is it because he understands the grief that the latter—who happens to be his murdered girlfriend’s brother—has undergone as well? Or is it simply to avoid wreaking more needless havoc in his small Georgia small town? Or is he perhaps guilty of the crime in question? For the first two and half seasons, we simply don’t know.
The character of Daniel’s mother–virtuous and forgiving; his sister , played by Abigail Spenser—clever, cynical and gorgeous and dedicated to Daniel to a point of almost self abnegation; and of his step brother Teddy (Clayne Crawford) , a red-blooded business minded yahoo of sorts who wants to take over the family business and abuses his religious wife Tawney Talbot (Adelaide Clement) are all layered and fascinating. Tawney admits that she cannot figure out if her attraction to Daniel was purely out of empathy—or perhaps it was physical as well? Or was it propelled by the treatment she experiences at her husband’s boorish hands? Her inner struggle with her own need to believe and the authentic goodness that emanates from her make her a truly fascinating, deeply layered character.
Rectify is also one of the most textured depictions of small town-America, small Georgia in this case, a place where everything from unapologetic white trash, to tried-and-true working class to a few wonderfully bright and liberal denizens seek in spite of tragedy and obvious economic downturn to somehow co-exist.
More reasons to watch Rectify: a scene in season one where Daniel visits a skate park with his younger brother provides one of the most beautifully shot scenes in recent TV memory: young men at play, angle against angle, shape against, shape, limb against limb: the slow-motion sequence manages to be beautiful without being exploitative, violent or sexual. And at the heart of the series lies the mystery of what really happened one warm summer night to a young girl, on a rock in the deep Georgia woods. Rectify is one part tragedy, one part cop drama, one part American Gothica. And towards the end of season two Daniel does some remembering of his own which brings the series to a surprising climax. It may be a bit slow for some folks to handle–but for those who find the pacing to their liking, it’s a once-in-a lifetime treat.
This is a great summation of a truly remarkable TV series.
This was the most gripping, authentic feeling drama I have ever seen on a tv program! What a writer! What a cast! I stayed up all hours of the night watching this. My heart bled for Daniel & his family.No one I knows how to act with him home again. Aden Young is an AMAZING actor who did an excellent job with what I’m sure was a challenging role. I am planning on watching this again after I recover from this viewing. OUTSTANDING! Thank you!
I will never be the same after watching this series.
I don’t even wish to browse anything else on Netflix right now after watching the last episode last night. I stretched it out as long as I possibly could as I treated myself to 3 episodes per night. It gripped me from the first few scenes and I thought that enevitably
It would have to go downhill and become gratuitous like all the other junk on tv trying to satisfy some sick craving for sex and graphics having to have everything spelled out for us. What a surprise when it did not go that way at all!! Instead it s l o w l y unravels this beautiful tapestry filled with pain and reality in its real sense. And above all virtue and HOPE, and people doing the right thing after all and people giving up their lives to help fight for justice for the broken.
I just can’t say enough about this masterpiece and am sooo grateful to have had a chance to restore my hope of edifying movie making, but on the flip side I fear I will be forever sad that every time I turn on my television from herein, I will never be so transported ever again?
Yup .. its about as good as it gets. This was an exercise in restraint, while pleading for sanity , for clarity and above all ,honesty. The mirror is ever present to deciept , to muting innuendo, to the out and out lie. All that is needed for purity and redemption are the simple beautiful truths that plead to be shared. Really this is epic film making . It works at the heartwrenching pace that humanity has always chosen. .