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Sundance’s Rectify, Perhaps the Most Quiet Drama on TV, Is Truly Christian Art

Michael O'Neill - in the SundanceTV original series "Rectify" - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden

There's no percentage in being quiet and subtle, and yet somehow Rectify, perhaps the most subtle and quiet drama on TV, is starting its second season tonight on Sundance. 

This series about a rural Georgia man (Aden Young) struggling with freedom after 19 years on death row never shouts when it can whisper, and that's a big part of what makes it stand out in today's outrage-driven cable landscape. The filmmaking is consistently intelligent, sometimes striking, yet always laid back. The main character is an accused rapist and murderer, but it has yet to have anyone objectively confirm or deny his guilt or innocence, and there's almost no violence on the series; the cliff-hanger beatdown of the hero that ended season one was the exception that did not disprove the rule. The show's conversations tend toward soul-searching reflection. It feels theatrical at times — not "theatrical" as in "wooden" or "figurative" but "slightly stylized, the better to cut to the essence of things." People shout or cry, but only when they've exhausted all of their resolve. More often you learn who they are by watching them talk, or think, or watch other people from a distance. The series makes its points about freedom and incarceration as states of mind by crowding characters into the corners of frames, or turning doors, door frames and window frames (some seen in God's-eye view) into partitions that break the frame into a series of boxes, and boxes within boxes (like tiny jail cells). A lot of times you glean what, exactly, the show means to say about its characters by staring at frames that are held onscreen just long enough to stare at. 

The writing, by series creator Ray McKinnon, has a gentle, un-pushy warmth and a genuine curiosity about what makes people tick. The tone of it reminds me of conversations I used to have with one of my best friends in college, a divinity student who enjoyed talking to agnostics and never seemed to be looking to convert them. I don't just say that because McKinnon is best known for playing the reverend on Deadwood who quoted Corinthians at Wild Bill's funeral and in so doing, defined the show's ethos. ("The eye cannot say unto the hand, 'I have no need of thee.'") Rectify is a straightforwardly spiritually minded drama in which Southerners weave talk of the presence or absence of God into everyday conversation, along with allusions to prayer and doubt, heaven and hell, sin and redemption. Daniel's deeply devout sister-in-law, Tawney Talbot (Adelaide Clemens), has casual conversations about God, sin, and afterlife with Daniel, and much pricklier ones with his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who isn't too big on the whole "God has a plan" thing, given all that's happened to Daniel and their extended family. Tawney knows her husband Ted Talbot Jr. (Clayne Crawford) is growing apart from her because "we don't pray together anymore." This is a world that a lot of Americans live in, and yet you rarely see it depicted on TV. Here it's portrayed without hype, and with zero condescension. 

Old and New Testament imagery are built right into the story. The first season consisted of six episodes that unfolded over six consecutive days. The season ended with Young's character, the former death row inmate and autodidact Daniel Holden, comatose after being attacked by vigilantes; somehow McKinnon has turned "He is risen" upside down ("He has fallen") and fused it with "On the seventh day, He rested." Add that to all the different variations of death/birth already depicted on the series (Daniel was reborn intellectually through his studies in prison, reborn again upon his release, and then reborn yet again when evangelicals baptized him; his presence in town forces many citizens to grapple with un-Christlike revenge fantasies) and you've got more Christ imagery than you'd think any TV show could handle. Somehow Rectify handles it. It's all part of the texture. It's there if you want to latch onto it, and if you don't, no biggie. 

I found the first season of Rectify compelling, if maybe a bit too '90s indie movie earnest in places. The first three episodes of season two, however, are extraordinary: a huge artistic leap forward for the show. The device of keeping Daniel largely offscreen (locked in his own comatose, dreaming mind) will invite comparisons to The Sopranos, but there's a big difference: Unlike Tony Soprano, Daniel is self-aware and curious about who he is, and who he's becoming. The dream sequences are unlike any I've seen on a cable series because they seem lucid, at times fully controlled — as if Daniel himself is determining their content, particularly the dialogue spoken within them, in order to explore his own mental interior. The final sequence in tonight's premiere is one of the most affecting things I've ever seen on TV, thanks to its psychological acuity (the show seems to to have given a great deal of thought to what sort of dream this man would have). The repeated last line is devastating and yet somehow liberating.

Daniel is the main character but not the only point of interest, and season two doubles down on the idea of Rectify as the story of an extended family and a community reacting to one man's plight. Without giving anything away, I can say that Daniel's suffering drives Abigail into a deep funk and unleashes buried anger, and that Ted, Jr.'s deep discomfort with Daniel drives a wedge between him and the rest of the family, and that McKinnon treats the rationalizations and spiritual status of Daniel's assailants with the same curiosity he brings to Daniel's struggles. The show also pays attention to the sheriff (J. D. Evermore) who last season treated Daniel's release as repudiation of his entire being, and who now finds himself tasked with catching and punishing the men who put Daniel in a coma. The sheriff understands why the vigilantes did what they did, and the vigilantes understand why the sheriff has to investigate them, and the show understands them all. Rectify sees every character's point of view and seems to feel for them while reserving judgment on their actions, and their justifications for those actions. It seems to see through the visible world, past time and flesh. It's truly Christian art. 

Photo: Tina Rowden/SundanceTV