‘Rectify,’ on SundanceTV
With the proliferation of quality TV these days, it’s not hard for a good series to slip beneath the radar. By occasionally recommending to Commonweal readers a show that may have been overlooked, I’ll do what I can to—well, to rectify the situation.
Set in small-town Georgia, Rectify follows the struggles of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), released from prison after serving nineteen years for the rape and murder of his high-school girlfriend, Hanna. His conviction has been overturned through new DNA analysis, but he hasn’t been exonerated; and as the series opens, he is released into manifold uncertainty—about whether he’ll be tried again for Hanna’s murder, about how family and community will receive him, and even about his guilt. The night Hanna was killed, Daniel was found holding her naked corpse and wreathing it in flowers. Hallucinogenic drugs were in play on that fateful night, and his memories are foggy; he was convicted through the testimony of two acquaintances who themselves may have been involved in the crime, and through a confession extracted from him during ten hours of grueling interrogation. Rectify leaves just enough doubt about Daniel’s guilt to tantalize. We don’t think he did it, but we’re not 100 percent sure. He’s not 100 percent sure.
The show’s nominal plot charts the slow wending of a second investigation into the events of that long-ago night. But the real pull of Rectify lies in its deeply empathetic treatment of what these days is called “reentry,” as Daniel, now almost forty, returns to his family and begins the daunting task of trying to restart a life abruptly cut off when he was a teen. That effort is complicated by mistrust, fear, and the desire for vengeance on the part of many in town—and by the complicating presence of other men who may have committed the crime.
Rectify is the kind of quiet character-driven drama that barely garners sufficient audiences to win renewal, even as a cabal of diehard fans and critics shouts its praises. LA Times TV critic Mary McNamara called it “the first and possibly only television show one can imagine Flannery O'Connor blogging about,” adding that “it isn't just good TV, it's revelatory TV.” The show moves slowly, in its overall arc and in individual episodes; at first you may find yourself wondering if it is too slow. It isn’t, but it takes a while for viewers to gear down to Daniel’s sluggish rhythms. Rectify is paced this way for a reason; its slowness suggests a certain stunned quality, that of a man bewildered by unexpected freedom.
Once you accommodate yourself to this slowness, you may find that the series—as McNamara put it in her LA Times review—gradually becomes “mesmerizing.” Bit by bit Rectify draws you into its somber meditative slowness, a pacing of melancholy, pain and deep doubt. Daniel’s extreme hesitancy and air of tormented inwardness reflect terrible damage; flashbacks to his life in prison gradually reveal the extent of his victimization, through sexual assaults, psychological torments, and isolation on death row. His demeanor is methodical and oddly formal, to the point of seeming stilted. In the opening episode, in a news conference outside the prison, he’s asked whether he’s feeling hopeful about his future. “I had convinced myself that kind of optimism served no useful purpose in the world where I existed,” he answers. “Obviously, this radical belief system was flawed and was, ironically, a kind of fantasy itself.” Then, gravely: “I will seriously need to reconsider my world view.”
I'm struck by how canny it was, and how crucial, for writer/director Ray McKinnon (memorable for his acting turn as Rev. Smith in the HBO series Deadwood), to script Daniel with this baroque way of talking. The rigid, mannered formality of his idiom has multiple functions: giving an impression of agonized introspection; evoking an antique Southernness that clangs against the contemporary setting and casts Daniel as a chivalrous and outmoded kind of man (hinting at his Rip Van Winkle–like removal from life); and most of all, suggesting the awful clash between his orderly exterior and the turmoil raging inside him. He is so guarded, and so exposed. A hyper-deliberate diction is his shield and refuge.
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