Rectify Is Among the Most Radical Storytelling on TV

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Aden Young in Rectify. Photo: Curtis Baker/Sundance

Rectify is such a quiet, patient series that it takes awhile to realize how radical its storytelling is. Near the end of season two it seemed to rethink itself, and the first couple of episodes of season three, which begins Thursday night, suggest that the show is about to reinvent itself and shift its focus while trying to hold on to the qualities that made it so special — and frankly, peculiar. 

This Sundance series from writer-actor Ray McKinnon (Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy) spent two seasons examining the life of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a convicted rapist and killer suddenly sprung from prison on a technicality, but it did so in a way that took advantage of TV’s endless capacity to extend and even pull apart time. Much of the action took place over six days, and there were many flashbacks and dream sequences. I can’t think of another series that spent so much screentime examining such a comparatively small expanse of dramatic time, except for ticking-clock stories like 24, which are different by virtue of their reliance on loud and brutal nonstop action. After a while we felt not that we were watching a TV series or even witnessing some kind of stripped-down theatrical experiment filmed in real locations (McKinnon’s dialogue is often quite lyrical) but that we were actually there, in the same parks and backyards and rooms and prison cells, with Aden and his friends, family, and enemies. The camera was never in a predicable place, either. It was always looking for beauty in forests and backyards and suburban kitchens and motel bedrooms, in sunlight and moonlight, for ways to create frames-within-frames via doorways, windows, and the edges of walls and buildings. (Was Daniel framed? some of the compositions seem to be asking, and to one degree or another, wasn’t everybody?)

Most radical of all, not once did the series tell us that Daniel did or did not commit the crimes of which he was accused. Of course we got the sense that a lot of people believed he was innocent, especially his loyal sister and staunchest advocate, Amantha (Abigail Spencer, whose ability to project wary, cynical intelligence is unmatched). And we knew that other characters couldn’t be entirely sure but still wanted to believe the best, such as Tawney Talbot (Adelaide Clement), the wife of Daniel’s stepbrother Teddy (Clayne Crawford). And there were people in law enforcement and government who either truly believed Daniel did it or had to convince themselves that they believed it because their careers were invested in that narrative: Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore) and former prosecutor turned senator Clay Faulkes (Michael O’Neill), to name two.

But despite this wide spectrum of belief or doubt, the show itself didn’t seem to have an opinion on the matter, or else it heroically refused drop hints or toy with the "did he/didn’t he." It was much more interested, in its infuriating and insightful way, in the conflict and emotion that happened as a result of Daniel’s release, and how that event, as well as the precipitating event of the murder/rape, affected the lives of these characters, and their town. The crime thus became an absent presence in the story, thought about and sometimes talked about and increasingly argued about legally, but never addressed directly by the show, or by most of the people in Daniel’s orbit.

Then we arrived at the finale of season two, with Daniel on the verge of taking a plea deal that would require him to leave the town forever. Faulkes insists that he takes part in a debrief, during which he would be expected to confess to the crime again as a condition of the agreement. Instead, Daniel tells a different story: that he did mushrooms with the murdered girl, Hanna, and was about to have sex with her but couldn’t get it up, then ran away into the woods in shame, then witnessed her having sex with a group of teenage boys down on a beach. Daniel concludes the debrief by saying that he confessed to the murder because the cops were holding him for hours upon hours without a lawyer and he just wanted to go home. It was the most shocking episode of Rectify, not because of the content of Daniel’s statement but because it seemed to represent a radical break from what the show had previously been. Now we’re really in the “did he/didn’t he,” and without giving too much away, I can say that the first couple of episodes are filled with conversations about this subject because of all the emotional and, in some cases, political capital that everyone has invested in their positions.

What does this do to Rectify as a series? I wouldn’t presume to guess about that right now. But I can tell you that the first couple of episodes of season three proceed logically from the last four episodes of season two, and that taken together, they suggest a series taking stock in itself and realizing that “We have no opinion on Daniel’s guilt or innocence” is a fascinating position to hold for a while, but it probably can’t sustain a series of this kind indefinitely. It’s one thing to thwart audience curiosity for artistic purposes — to say, in essence, “This show isn’t about whether Daniel did it, it’s about the experience of being Daniel and knowing Daniel, and perception versus reality, and the presence or absence of God, and a lot of other things.” But it’s quite another to present a world in which the characters who were affected by the original verdict — including Daniel himself — just sort of tiptoe around the thing all the time, as if it were a sinkhole that had opened up in the soil. No matter how stylized a series gets, after a certain point it’s unbelievable, and frankly affected, to show people not talking about something like this in a head-on way.

To its credit, though, Rectify isn’t suddenly turning into a plot-crazy show like Damages or How to Get Away With Murder (nothing against those dramas, they’re just very different animals). It is still Rectify, and by that I mean it raises the issue of Daniel’s guilt/innocence directly, and repeatedly, only to complicate it in all sorts of ways and question the motivations and mind-sets of everyone who brings it up. McKinnon doesn’t strike me as a “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” kind of writer. His dialogue meanders and muses and woolgathers and talks around subjects in the manner of a guru, therapist, or hippie preacher. Even the most unsavory aspect of Daniel’s testimony and the prosecutor’s reaction to it — the question of whether the victim’s history of “promiscuity” would have exonerated Daniel if it had been allowed to be introduced — is muddied in a way that should blunt any concerns that Rectify is going to a tedious, very old, and very sexist storytelling well. What happened down by the river sounds more like chemically enabled nonconsensual sex. Rape. And not by Daniel.

But again, we can’t be sure about that, and I don’t know if the show wants us to think that we can be sure. Daniel has his kind, sweet qualities, but there is darkness in him, and he’s not an entirely honest man. He’s having an affair with Tawney, who’s married, despite being asked point-blank by her husband to stay away from her, and when Teddy pressed him for details on the harsher aspects of prison life, he knocked him out with a choke hold and stuck coffee grounds in his rectum to give him a taste of what it was like. Daniel insists that the act wasn’t rape, but it was definitely assault, and sexual assault. We can’t look at him now without thinking about what he did to Teddy and wondering if he only became capable of such a thing because he spent all those years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, or because he spent all those years in prison because he did commit a crime of which he was always capable. It’s no huge shock when Teddy considers using the attack as leverage to keep Daniel away from Tawney, and him. This is all very Rectify — always looking beyond either/or, yes/no. It is a both/and kind of show, all the way.

When prosecutor Sondra Person (Sharon Conley) questions Faulkes about his motive for pressing Daniel to confess again, and his anger at Daniel’s refusal, she asks if he thinks his course of action is “perilous.” Faulkes replies, “Life itself is always perilous, that’s what gives it its spice” — a non-answer answer, attuned to a series that’s built around a convicted rapist and murderer but that resisted the urge to flat-out tell us if he committed the crimes. Faulkes also says during this conversation that Daniel confessed again to the murder, if not the rape, but that’s not accurate. I believe what Daniel said during the debrief was that he confessed to the murder under great pressure from authorities, not that he killed Hanna. (To quote my favorite line from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

When Amantha meets Daniel’s lawyer and her sometime boyfriend Jon Stern (Luke Kirby), who’s about to move away, he asks her if she slept with him to get her to represent Daniel, and she counters by asking if he represented Daniel because he wanted to sleep with her, then concludes, “It certainly wasn’t premeditated, maybe it was.” Then she asks, referring to Daniel’s statements during the debrief, “Does he say he did it? The deed? Does he say it, Jon?” “I think sometimes he believes he did and sometimes he doesn’t,” Jon says. “I don’t think he knows.” “I’m beginning to wonder,” she says.