A lot of popular television series revolve around a question. Who shot JR? Who is the mother? What is the smoke monster? Rectify also revolves around a major question, yet has somehow succeeded in making the answer to it, which has yet to be revealed and may never be, almost unimportant.
Rectify, the Sundance Channel’s first original scripted series, tells the story of Daniel Holden (played to perfection by Aden Young), who is released from jail as a result of new DNA evidence after spending 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend when he was 16 years old. As expected, both the world and his family have changed significantly in the nearly two decades he was in prison, and his attempt to readjust to civilization greatly disturbs the lives of everyone connected to him.
The tone of the series, which is set in a sleepy small town in Georgia, is hauntingly grim. The plot generally unfolds slowly (the 6-episode first season covers only Daniel’s first week out of prison), and the show is primarily a character study. The theme of the first season seemed to be that whether or not Daniel was guilty does not matter, while the second, which just concluded last night, crept more in the direction of ‘but what if it does?’ The answer to this question is intentionally unclear. The circumstances under which sixteen-year-old Daniel originally confessed to the murder were sketchy at best, and possibly a product of coercion and poor handling by the police. Both Daniel and Hannah were on mushrooms the night she died, and it is heavily implied that even Daniel himself may be unclear on what happened due to a combination of drugs and post-traumatic stress. It was quickly revealed in season one that Daniel was not the only teenage boy there on that night when many fates were sealed, which lines up with the DNA evidence from the scene not matching Daniel. To me, the most compelling piece of evidence came midway through season 2, in a beautiful scene where Daniel visits the family of his fellow death row inmate and dear friend, Kerwin. Kerwin’s brother comments that Daniel’s story is different from his brother’s because Daniel didn’t do anything. This makes Daniel visibly uncomfortable, and he cuts the visit short, making a hasty exit. This moment certainly makes you wonder, but was it an admission of guilt or proof that Daniel doesn’t remember but is afraid he might be guilty? While his innocence or guilt is ambiguous, it has been clear since the pilot that, as a human being, something about Daniel isn’t quite right. To borrow a word he uses to describe himself in the second season finale, he often appears “unhinged.” This manifests in various ways, ranging from a disturbing physical and psychological attack on his stepbrother to haphazardly gutting his mother’s kitchen by hand in the middle of the night after a brief discussion of possibly remodeling it. When you see Daniel behave this way, it is certainly plausible that this man could be capable of a horrific crime.
I have found, however, that I do not want him to be- if not for his own sake, for that of his family. His younger sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) has been the one person to unwaveringly believe in Daniel’s innocence since day one, and she devoted her life to getting Daniel out of prison, leaving behind many opportunities for herself in the process. Once she succeeds, it is clear she never thought about what would happen next, and the emotional disconnect between her and Daniel as well as a new lack of purpose cause her to be more lost than ever. How devastating would Daniel’s guilt be to Amantha, whose entire life has been precariously constructed around this belief in his innocence? Meanwhile, Daniel’s sixteen-year-old half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker) is morbidly fascinated by Daniel, whom he is meeting for the first time, and struggles to understand and relate to him. The outstanding supporting cast also includes Daniel’s stepbrother Teddy (Clayne Crawford), who has a face that begs to be slapped and a personality to match, and his wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), a deeply religious woman who feels an emotional connection with Daniel that complicates her life.
This series would easily fall apart in less capable hands than those of Aden Young. Daniel has to be likable and relatable enough for the audience to root for him at least a little bit, and Young plays Daniel’s social awkwardness in a way that is simultaneously endearing and disturbing. The show features, particularly in season one, flashbacks to Daniel’s mostly horrific experience on death row, which he got through only because of his friendship with Kerwin and the many books he read. It is impossible not to feel for Daniel when he matter-of-factly describes being raped repeatedly by fellow inmates. There are also, however, many times during the series when you are frightened of Daniel. It is a shame that Young has not been more widely recognized for what is truly a remarkable performance.
Rectify is a difficult show to write about because while you quickly realize while watching that it is something special, the mood and pacing are so unlike other things on television that it is hard to quantify just what makes it so good. It is the kind of show that is at its best during long, riveting scenes between two people- one from the penultimate episode of season 2 between Teddy and Tawney comes to mind, as do a couple from the superb season finale. It is one of the most unwaveringly bleak, dark shows I have ever seen, yet it remains understated. It almost makes sense that it exists in the television universe so quietly, sneaking by under the radar with low ratings despite writing and performances easily on par with the most acclaimed dramas currently on the air. Sundance is airing a marathon of all 16 episodes that have aired thus far this Sunday, August 23rd, and I encourage you to check it out.