There May Never Be a Show Like Rectify Again

Aden Young as Daniel - Rectify _ Season 4, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: James Minchin/Sundance TV
Aden Young as Daniel. Photo: James Minchin/Sundance TV/© 2016 SundanceTV

There has never been a TV drama like Rectify, which ended its run last night, and there may never be another. It is the product of a singular sensibility — that of actor-writer Ray McKinnon, perhaps still best known as the reverend on Deadwood who presides over Will Bill’s funeral — but throughout its run, it was clear that everyone who worked on it, from cast and crew to writers and producers, were on the same page, probably one taken from the New Testament. (The moving finale ended with a shot of an adoptive father and a mother who’d been impregnated by an absentee father contemplating a newborn in a sunlit field: a modified Jesus-in-the-manger image.) In telling the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a convicted rapist-murderer from small-town Georgia released on a technicality, the show went against nearly every trend that had been established in so-called “quality TV” since the début of The Sopranos.

It was intimate rather than overwhelming, talky and meditative instead of busy and densely packed, drily rather than raucously funny, and more horrified by violence than fascinated with it. Scenes often played out at length, often in close-up, establishing a vibe more reminiscent of a filmed play than a traditional TV series or movie — although Rectify was also, at times improbably, cinematic, conveying subtle shifts in the relationships between Daniel, his family, and his friends through silent close-ups, wide shots that placed the characters in context of architecture or nature, split-screen effects and focus shifts that conveyed barriers that prevented understanding, and glorious bursts of sunlight timed to philosophical insights and affirmations of love and respect. The show’s spine was Daniel’s story, but it also showed how his alleged crimes and their aftermath affected the lives of his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), his mother Janet (J. Smith Cameron), her new husband Ted (Bruce McKinnon), Daniel’s stepbrother Teddy Jr. (Clayne Crawford, Jr.), his half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker), and Teddy Jr.’s wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens). Other characters got pulled into the vortex as well, including Jon Stern (Luke Kirby), a lawyer for an Innocence Project–like organization, and the two key figures in Daniel’s prosecution, the now-senator Roland Foulkes (Michael O’Neill) and Sheriff Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore), who succumbed to his nagging conscience and let the lawyer see files that appeared to exonerate Daniel.

The show took its time letting its various subplots play out — it took all season, for instance, for Janet and Ted to decide to sell their tire store to Rite Aid, and we saw them struggle with it in a series of conversations. Paradoxically, though, the show’s time frame was tight, and it often seemed to be devised with a poetic or even biblical impulse: the six-episode first season, which unfolded over six consecutive days, inverted the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, starting with a rebirth (Daniel’s release from prison) and ending with a figurative crucifixion (the beatdown that landed him in the hospital).

The same qualities that I (and others) admired ensured that Rectify would remain a cult item. Almost every time I praised the series on social media I’d get an instant pushback from somebody complaining that it was too slow or pretentious, or that “nothing happens.” Of course, plenty happened; it just didn’t happen in the obvious way that it happens on the vast majority of TV series, where characters barge into rooms and start explaining themselves to you, not in the searching, self-contradictory way they did it on Rectify, but in a boringly prosaic way, to deliver facts quickly and get us into the complications faster. A lot of the action on McKinnon’s series was interior, and the aesthetic found a way into that — not the only possible way, but its own stubbornly unique way, seemingly derived from the austere dramas of Robert Bresson, the language of Freud, and the Old and New Testaments (with a splash of Buddhism), and incantatory dialogue that channeled such masters of Southern American fiction as Flannery O’Connor (who, like McKinnon, pitted rationality against tribal reflex and placed spirituality at the center of her characters’ struggles).

Did Daniel do the deed? Probably not. McKinnon was adamant throughout the first two seasons that it didn’t matter whether his emotionally shattered hero was guilty of the felonies that sent him to prison — that the show was more about what happens to a man who has been away from the world he knew and suddenly has to re-enter it, but is barred from full participation because of the cloud hanging over his identity, and what his plight does to his family and community. In interviews, he often made it seem as if he was slightly frustrated by audiences’ desire to know for sure one way or the other (although he was always so polite that this never tipped over into open resentment).

But eventually, even he seemed to realize that “it doesn’t matter if he did it” was an untenable position, because it didn’t suit the temperament of the series. Rectify was always grounded in the emotional reality of its characters and our response to their troubles, and for that reason, it couldn’t keep treating guilt or innocence as an abstract concept that led the storytellers into other areas. Plus, the longer Young played Daniel, and the longer the writers wrote for him, the more obvious it was to viewers that he was too decent a person to have committed the crimes he’d been sent to prison for. If the show had reversed course and suddenly asserted that he did it, it would’ve felt like an arbitrary “twist” of the type that lesser series would attempt. And so plot developments that appeared near the end of season three and snowballed in the final few episodes of season four introduced new evidence, all but certifying that Daniel had been railroaded by the local district attorney, the sheriff, and other officials who got fixated on a narrative and bent facts to make them fit.

It’s only the show’s intuitive, empathetic relationship to its audience that makes Daniel’s (probable) exoneration feel like something other than a cop-out. We got the ending we needed and that was consistent with everything Rectify had shown us. Throughout the show’s run, there were moments when Daniel let us know he had the capacity for lethal violence. This was seen most recently in a season-four episode where Daniel demanded that a fellow inmate in a halfway house stop masturbating in front of him and seemed ready to kill him if he refused, although the coffee-grounds incident in season two was the most disturbing. But eventually it became clear that this was a response to the brutality Daniel saw and suffered in prison (including repeated rapes) rather than anything innate to his character. Daniel always was a searcher and a storyteller, and we could see this in his awed and fascinated response to art in season four — incarnated by his pregnant Nashville girlfriend Chloe (Caitlin FitzGerald), who came perilously close to the redemptive Manic Pixie Dreamgirl stereotype but thankfully never quite crossed over. Daniel’s mother even says after her Nashville visit that when Daniel was a child, he was so curious about the world that she expected him to become a writer (like Ray McKinnon, perhaps). Chloe’s warehouse-studio living space merged the show’s religious-spiritual elements and its belief in the redemptive power of storytelling and art: She makes sculptures there, but it’s also an oversize confession booth for her and Daniel and anyone else who wants to have a safe space to speak from the heart. The windows have mosaic-stained glass patterns, suggesting a church accessorized by a mid-twentieth-century modern artist like Piet Mondrian. When Daniel briefly seems to be on the verge of walking out on her (“Go to Ohio, have your baby, send me a postcard”), a circular stained-glass window halos Chloe’s head in the manner of a Renaissance oil painting of a saint.

Although the show distributed its attention democratically among its supporting cast, Rectify seemed to have special insight into Tawney, perhaps because of her deep spirituality, which unlike Daniel’s was specifically tied to organized religion. The loss, return, and daily maintenance of faith—and the more basic questions of what it means to have faith, and whether it’s the opposite of rationality or its ancient handmaiden: Rectify was fascinated by all of this, and Tawney became a particularly fruitful way to explore it. Daniel’s journey was always at the center of the show, and it was always compelling, thanks to the writing staff’s knack for constructing elaborate, at times sermon-like monologues and call-and-response dialogue exchanges for Daniel, and Young’s astounding facility for delivering them in a natural-seeming way (his deep voice seemed to be fighting its way up from a pit, and his eyes often got cloudy or teared up). But there were points when Tawney became a sort of second lead — especially in season four, which saw her bonding with the elderly, sick resident of a nursing home. She was so devastated by losing him that she vowed to join Doctors Without Borders and minister to the afflicted in other countries, like a missionary whose goal is to comfort rather than convert. Tawney’s mix of sweetness, empathy, and relentless self-inquiry put her on a track that often paralleled Daniel’s and illuminated the other supporting characters, who were all grappling with some version of the same question: Where do I go from here?

Even Tawney’s estranged husband, Teddy, seemed to absorb and learn from her: One of my very favorite moments on the show is the one where he accepts the inevitable and doesn’t just say he wants a divorce, but asks for it, phrasing it as a humble request (“Will you grant me a divorce?”) and then repeating it, turning a moment that’s usually marinated in failure and regret into a moment of generosity and mutual respect. (Here, too, the show brings its filmmaking “A”-game: Notice that after the request is granted, Tawney and Teddy are photographed only in isolated close-ups or with one of them out of focus, as if to confirm that they are no longer part of a couple.) What I’ll miss the most about this series is the gentleness it displays in moments like this. Even when it confronted upsetting subject matter head-on, it did it with compassion, curiosity about experience, and an abiding belief in the potential to transcend suffering, or at least get through the bad times.

There May Never Be a Show Like Rectify Again