It’s difficult to watch television in this day and age. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s onerous. Appointment television is a myth even though there is a genuine community of viewers via social media sites like Twitter. This doesn’t mean we all watch less, what it means is that we have more outlets through which to watch. Unfortunately, it can be a slog to try to find a new program—not to be first but ahead of marketing hype, before you are brow beaten into having to watch a show simply to maintain cultural literacy. Netflix mining can be mind-numbing, which is why discovering a fresh story can be so exhilarating.
This Spring I stumbled upon the Sundance Channel original Rectify having since watched, re-watched, and re-re-watched the six episodes of the first season. These six forty-five-ish minute episodes present the first week of Daniel Holden’s (portrayed by Aden Young) release from Georgia’s death row. Sentenced nearly twenty years ago as a newly turned 18 year-old for allegedly raping and murdering his high school girlfriend, Hanna, Holden is exonerated by DNA evidence—at least, in the eyes of the law. We are presented with a man who has spent nearly the entirety of his adult life in solitary confinement. The story is about this man trying to bring himself into accord with society, a world that is now foreign to him.
It’s not a new premise. One of my favorite shows that failed to survive the 2007-2008 writers’ strike was Life starring Damian Lewis. Cop shows are always terrible but what made Life more than tolerable was the simple act of making our everyday world strange by presenting someone who missed out on all the things we take for granted—cell phones in every pocket, Blue Tooth, Starbucks, etc.—that came ubiquitous in a remarkably short time. Lewis’s character of Detective Charlie Crews is released from prison after serving twelve years of a life sentence he was wrongfully convicted from 1995-2007. Mull that over, someone who missed out on the Clinton and Bush II years and now steps back into the world. I never got tired of seeing Crews confusion and bemusement at what had become rote in his absence.
Life died, which freed Damian Lewis to star in Homeland, a show that for at least one glorious season was a fantastic show. Lewis’s portrayal of Nicholas Brody was at its best when Brody was grappling with reconciling his beliefs—his faith in the world—with the world around him. Like Battlestar Galactica, Homeland was at its best when we were made as uncomfortable and as challenged as the characters. It’s in this way that television is able to confront us with stories that perform one of the vital functions of quality narrative, which is probing moral obligation. Given the current news media’s near sickening gusto to conflate Homeland’s narrative and the return of Bowe Bergdahl, we would all do well to mull over just what it means for someone to be re-integrated into civil society.
This is what Rectify affords us, the opportunity to see our mundane world as fresh, strange, beautiful, and horrific. The series is an opportunity like Daniel Holden states to the news media gathered outside the prison for his release “to reconsider my world view.” Simple viewers will become obsessed with the simple television tropes of “whether Daniel is guilty, who else could be guilty, what the local justice system will decide to do” instead of engaging in a reading that allows the story to impact us in a more substantial manner. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the kind of melodrama pervasive on network television, its distraction and entertaining filler. But Rectify isn’t interested in amusing or diverting you; it’s a story that is indifferent to your comfort, has its own expectations, and will insist on revealing itself in due course. Perhaps what will turn off viewers the most is the quiet of show. Slow, tepid, boring, too calm, and due to its lack of violence no suspense, this speaks to our collective dearth of patience.
In the first episode, questions regarding the guilt or innocence of Daniel Holden, the events of the grisly rape and murder are put down—literally—as two characters who were obviously involved the night of the incident talk around the event of nearly twenty years ago before one of them (who has been hiding out in Florida) commits suicide at the scene. What this signals is that we as viewers need to excise the police-procedural aspect of the show, this will not be a who-done-it or a detective story. Doing so allows the story to explore “a host of substantive issues, ranging from morality and religious belief to issues of connection and isolation.”
The characters interlock in a casual yet intimate manner. Amantha Holden (played by Abigail Spencer), Daniel’s younger sister (only twelve at the time of his conviction), was the driving force behind getting him free. She is tenacious, willful, and protective spending her adult life defining herself against her the small town county upbringing. She is a not a stranger to this world town, but rather an apostate. Pulling her brother out of death row is only the first of the battles that Amantha is primed and eager to fight. Her insistence to pull Daniel back into a normal life is at once endearing, noble, and maddening.
Ted Talbot, Jr. (Clayne Crawford), Daniel’s stepbrother, is a complete stranger seeing Daniel as a rival looking to take away his livelihood and position in the family. Ted Jr. is a classic ass, a good ol’ boy unable to think beyond his own interests or the most superficial of interactions. While not ignorant, menacing, or hostile, Ted Jr. is Daniel’s opposition—he is the peer who does not and cannot understand how Daniel experiences the world. He is perhaps the most real character in the story, the most relatable and as such the foil through which we viewers feel the most guilt and superiority.
It is Ted Jr.’s wife, Tawney (played by Adelaide Clemens, who redeems her career after the complete train-wreck that was Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), who makes it a point to try to reach out to Daniel on his own terms. Tawney frames the world through a version of Christianity that is painfully earnest and queerly modest. She is easily a stand-in for innocence perhaps even an equivalent for the long deceased Hanna to Daniel. Her actions are guileless and as such set her apart from the rest of the town who although they profess the same faith as Tawney obvious do not feel the need to adhere to it in act. Tawney’s presence does a beautiful job of implicating others in hypocrisy but in a non-accusatory manner making it that much more shameful.
As Daniel moves though the first days of his new life (or reprieve), we experience with him a re-familiarization with world. In his first foray into town, he wanders into a park where he lays casually in the grass feeling the open space around him. In the third episode, he spends a good portion of the day naked in his room bathing in sunlight and pillow down for the simple reason to have the sensation. He then explores his old room now occupied by his youngest brother who is the age he was when he was convicted in the hopes of finding something familiar. There is a wonderful tactile eagerness to Daniel, he needs to feel the world around him and he does that first by literally touching as much as he can. In his brother’s room he encounters a scrape book housing clippings of his trial, sentencing, appeals, and release his little brother had been keeping. The act of paging through it sends Daniel into a panic unleashing a torrent of feelings long suppressed.
Recovering from this, Daniel transitions to actually clothing himself in memory. In the attic, he discovers and unlocks a chest that holds the treasures of his eighteen year old self—his Sega and video games, his mix tapes and Walkman. Putting the headphones on and playing his tapes, we see Daniel relax, put on old duck hunting garb, and dance around like (what we can assume was) his old self. It is a bizarrely anxiety inducing and relieving scene, perhaps one of the best I’ve seen. The song selection (Cracker’s Low, Stone Temple Pilots’ Creep, and Mazzy Star’s Into Dust) is perfection taking us back to that time (1993) and oddly reflecting not just the adolescent melodrama that made them popular but the actually drama that infects Daniel’s life. Remember, this is a man who is emotionally underdeveloped—his most sincere experiential time is now as a 37 year old and then as an 18 year old. The confluence sets Daniel on a trajectory to inhabit an adult emotional sphere not just an intellectual one (which he inhabits in a far superior manner than those around him).
Detachment and grace, symbolism (real and fake), and menace (real and fake) fill these handful of episodes. Daniel Holden is not an everyman or an only man, his character is that of a lone man: “He is helpless and searching, quiet but given to occasional confessions about his mental state, and that is easily mistaken for a sort of purity.” And we are left to try to figure out “Is he pure? Or is he just floundering? How much of Daniel’s calmness and silence and curiosity is intrinsically him, and how much is the result of his experience, or the result of his new circumstance?”
Yet Rectify isn’t just about a man, it’s about a town. The fictional community of Paulie, Georgia isn’t a Southern caricature, which it could have easily been made into, rather it is an exemplar of the county lifestyle. In small towns you are at once known and unknown by everyone, you know and don’t know everyone, and you are habitually at ease and irregularly discontent. It is important to remember that a community defines itself as much by who it excludes as it does who it includes. The casualness of small town life hides its insularity; we inhabit this community with Daniel, he and we are both native and foreign. As such, simple being a part of the community is a trial. This is the heart of the series, Daniel Holden is on trial by his community. Are they judging him based on their own guilt over what they allowed to happen, over their own fear of having judged someone erroneously, by the rubric of wanting to maintain the status quo, or by some as yet unarticulated set of rules?
I am drawn to this series for a variety of reasons but primarily because of its thoughtfulness. It is a series that makes me think, it makes me feel, I must consider and reconsider, and I let it act upon me. What might be considered languid storytelling is rather a fullness that demands my patience. I look forward to experiencing more of the story.
Season 2 of Rectify will be a longer series, ten hour-long episodes, and return on June 19th. Given the World Cup, the return of Orange is the New Black, and the barrage of new and returning shows, Rectify could very well get lost. I hope it doesn’t. I also hope it doesn’t succumb to mainstream criticisms and try to become something it isn’t (the second season trailer does suggest a more ‘action packed’ and conventional show).
Rectify isn’t necessarily a show you watch with others. I will never live-Tweet it, I will never have others over to my house to watch it. Rather, Rectify needs my devoted attention.