Sundance Channel’s new six-episode drama last year had my attention when, during the trailers, I heard the words “from the producers of Breaking Bad,” and “How does it feel to be free but not exonerated?” My ears were sufficiently pricked.
Starting intentionally slowly-paced, the show gives you time to warm up to it, get to know it and its characters well. You come to love or loath them all quite intensely by the time the end of episode five comes and leaves you gasping. The first time I watched the show, I’d recorded them on the DVR and was watching while I edited; I rarely watch TV without editing. I was enjoying myself the whole time, but at the end of episode five, I literally stopped breathing for a few seconds. And I was so glad I could immediately launch myself into episode six. It was compelling enough for me to set my editing completely aside, and I wept through almost the entire second half of the last episode. To say it hooked me would be a dramatic understatement.
I kept those beautiful, perfect six episodes on the DVR for a long time. In fact, I recall only feeling comfortable deleting them when I knew that the season would be released on DVD soon. I was compelled to go back and watch them over and over again. Like the very, very best story-telling, there is enough for you to grab onto the first time through, but it has so many layers and levels, you pick up new details and nuances each time you experience it again. And good heavens, how ballsy is Ray McKinnon, the show’s creator, for waiting until the very last moments of episode five to sink that hook into your mouth?
Rectify follows the story of Daniel Holden, a man who has spent the last 19 years of his life on death row for the brutal rape and murder of his highschool girlfriend. New DNA evidence has emerged to show that Daniel at the very least could not have been the sole perpetrator, and possibly wasn’t involved in the murder at all, so he is released from prison but his name is not truly cleared. Back home in the imaginary small town of Paulie, Georgia, everyone has an opinion on Daniel’s guilt or innocence. The town has been steeped in this murder for the past two decades and everyone is prepared to fight for what they believe is the truth. Is Daniel truly guilty or innocent? The show bravely decides to not supply the viewer with the answer outright, but leaves you with enough breadcrumbs to follow if you wish.
Rectify is perfectly cast. I was new to Aden Young, but his strikingly soulful eyes and body language say so much for him without needing words. Daniel was always shy and not much of a talker and spending 19 years away from society hasn’t helped that any. To those who believe he’s guilty, his awkwardness is another nail in the coffin. To those who believe he’s innocent, anybody would be a little awkward in his situation. One of the most brilliant bits of the show is that through some very clever plot points, Daniel himself does not know whether he’s guilty or innocent. The waters are murky for everyone.
I have to say, I love Daniel, in a way which almost rivals my love for Richard Harrow. There’s something similar about both of their characters too; by no means are they interchangeable, but the Venn diagrams of their personalities overlap in some significant ways. They both have an innocence, a sweetness and purity about them, despite some of the bad thing we know (or suspect) they’ve done. I can strongly identify with both of them for their shyness, their introversion, their outsider-ness. But while they both seem to have hearts shining bright with solid gold, we know there’s deep pain within them both, and we’ve witnessed them doing some bad things. Often, I would venture, for good reasons, or at least what their character believed was a good reason, but they are not fresh, untrampled flowers of purity. I think that dichotomy is what makes them such fascinating characters.
There is a religious undercurrent to almost everything in the show, and if you were raised in a Christian house like I was, you’ll pick up on them. Ray McKinnon deftly uses these subtle metaphors and allusions to underscore various points, sometimes answering your question for you, adding extra layers of meaning, or purposely confusing things even more. Kerwin’s declaration to Daniel that he knows Daniel is innocent “Because I know you. Because I know you. Because I know you,” brings to mind Peter’s thrice-over betrayal of Jesus, and subsequent thrice affirmation of his love and devotion. Even the fact that the show takes place in exactly six shows, over six days; this brings to mind “on the sixth day, God created man.” The story is ultimately about Daniel’s new life, his rebirth into society, so the metaphor makes perfect sense.
The clarity over what’s real and what is not is always in question and only gets murkier as the season progresses. The Goat Man, played by W. Earl Brown, is a perfect example of both those points. Does he represent God, wrestling with Daniel in the wilderness, or Satan tempting Jesus in the desert? There is no ivy on the stature the Goat Man shows to Daniel, but there is the next day when he visits it with his sister Amantha. Was the Goat Man real or not? If he isn’t, where did that big wad of cash Daniel has come from? God, Satan, real, not real… I could believe that the Goat Man is all these things at once.
The end of the last episode by no means wraps things up tidily, but was incredibly satisfying nonetheless. I was ecstatic when I heard that Rectify had been picked up for a second season, this time being given an entire 10 episodes to mesmerize us and fuck with our heads. Will we find out the truth behind the murder Daniel was convicted of next season? I hope so. And I have my own strong theories about what will be brought to light. Rectify, I will be glad to see you back.