At its best, the understated story-telling rhythms of Rectify are mesmerizingly beautiful. This is a somber, compelling, and morally complex drama that isn’t always easy to watch, but rewards patient, thoughtful viewing.
At eighteen years old, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend. Nineteen years later, after several stays of execution, he’s released from death row when DNA tests conclude he didn’t commit the rape—evidence that throws his under-duress confession into question. After two decades in prison with limited human interaction, Daniel returns to his hometown of Paulie, Georgia like a man emerging from a time machine, exploring a future he doesn’t quite comprehend. But the events of the past loom over his every move, and not just for his conflicted family. The murder of Daniel’s girlfriend still casts long shadows over Paulie, a small town where everybody knows everybody. The opinions of random strangers make Daniel everything from a pariah, to a celebrity, to a political football for the crooked senator, Roland Foulkes (Michael O’Neill), who built his career on Daniel’s conviction. Armed with little more than years of reading in his cell, Daniel moves into his new life in a state of traumatized confusion, balancing the new joys of freedom with the difficult conflicts his release has fomented, and the dark memories his years of meditative seclusion have suppressed.
Rectify, particularly in its first season, is an extraordinary accomplishment, anchored by Young’s nuanced performance as a walking enigma around whom all the small-town drama swirls. Outwardly a man pushing middle age, Young brings an impressive touch of the innocent, arrested teenager to his performance that etches his troubled history into every scene. I was particularly impressed by the way early episodes painted his mundane activities—shopping at a convenience store, wandering through a Target—as science fictional experiences. It throws into sharp relief how much of the world Daniel missed while he was away, and how little of his life he had managed to live before everything tragically changed. Occasionally, his book-learned observations and musings emerge as poetic dialogue the likes of which I haven’t heard since Deadwood.
The mysteries at the core of the story, both on its surface and at its heart, are masterfully handled; in this respect, it reminded a little of Bloodline, a show which possesses striking similarities. For most of the first two seasons, Daniel’s guilt or innocence is left in question, his unwillingness to come clean contributing to the controversy surrounding him. I expected to grow irritated with this coyness, but instead it had the effect of strengthening the fascinating moral and philosophical dilemmas at the core of the narrative. How much suffering is too much? Why do we feel justified in choosing sides and passing judgement on things that have no direct bearing on our lives? What is justice? What is forgiveness and when is it warranted? The ambiguity of Daniel’s actions affords room to explore these issues and investigate complicated emotional reactions. Ultimately, the mystery comes increasingly into focus, but without ever becoming too vivid to rob the drama of its thought-provoking questions.
It’s a quietly confident show, unflashy but well produced, and full of terrific acting, especially from Young. But the great supporting cast also includes Abigail Spencer (as Daniel’s steadfast, cranky sister Amantha), J. Smith-Cameron (as Daniel’s devoted mother), Clayne Crawford (as Teddy, Daniel’s stepbrother and nemesis), and Adelaide Clemens (as Teddy’s wife, and Daniel’s encouraging new friend). Contributing greatly to the power of the series are flashbacks to Daniel’s death-row experiences. His deep connection with neighboring inmate Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill) may be one of the most beautiful friendships ever committed to screen.
If there’s a flaw to the series, it’s perhaps an unrelenting bleakness; season two especially lacks the uplifting rays of hope that make the tragedy of the situation bearable. This makes the series somewhat less marathonable as it moves through its second year. But Rectify is otherwise an emotionally rich, thematically robust drama, well worth watching.