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Rectify finale: The beautiful, confronting quiet of the Sundance TV gem

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Curtis Baker/Sundance TV

Another exquisitely quiet season of Rectify came to another too-quiet end Thursday night. This finely crafted Sundance TV gem doesn’t provoke as much conversation as the likes of The Walking Dead or True Detective, which is a shame, but understandable. The ongoing story of dazed and damned Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and his fragmented, fluxing family, collapsing and reforming following his release from prison for long-ago crimes, is the antithesis of the kind of show social media typically seizes upon. It’s all patient plotting, subtle performances, wry humor, symbolic images and plaintive score, adding up to a melancholy drama about guilt, forgiveness, intimacy, grace and memory that is often described as “dreamy” or “like a poem” for lack of more specific words for its elusive beauty. Despite also being a mystery of sorts, it doesn’t aspire to grip you with whiplash twists or pulp sensationalism. Instead, it tries to stir your imagination with a spare, elemental images, as it did Thursday night with Daniel in a field of grass under a gray sky, gazing at his former prison home in the distance, or move you with portraits of small-scale, domestic brokenness, like Ted Sr. (Bruce McKinnon) shattering his son (Clayne Crawford) with a confession of emotional adultery, and how that faithlessness contributed to the demise of his marriage to Ted Jr.’s mother. Here’s Rectify’s idea of a cliffhanger: Watching Daniel check into a facility devoted to helping ex-cons damaged by years of institutionalization. Not exactly the kind of sexy development that produces a storm of “OMG!” tweets and “We need to talk about THAT ending” blog posts.

Written and directed by series creator Ray McKinnon, “The Source” was a showcase for Rectify’s many strengths and its unique identity. Daniel and his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), turned his trek into exile into a four day road trip. Stops included the aforementioned prison gaze, as well as a day at the beach (where Daniel played catch with a kid and waded into the ocean, a baptism to commemorate his acceptance of self and fate) and dinner at a dubious seafood restaurant that included a dance cut short by a pianist who insisted on taking a break. I love what was unspoken here: This journey was ostensibly about Daniel, but really, it was a gift from Daniel to Janet, from a grateful son to a faithful mother, a ‘thank you’ for her commitment to him, reciprocated in kind with a commitment of time. That all of this took place after a season in which Janet acquired a more sober view of Daniel, in which she was confronted with his damage and the hurt he had caused others made it more poignant. The accumulation of bittersweet vignettes – culminating with a mutual exhortation of self-forgiveness and the final shot of Janet watching Daniel walking through the door of the New Canaan Project – was staggering in the aggregate, and it left me in a state of wistful reflection for many minutes after the cut to black. “The perfectly strange goodbye of Daniel Holden” (to borrow a phrase from Daniel’s sister, Amantha, played by Abigail Spencer) was a meaningful meander of contemplative side trips marked by quirky humor, minimal yet precise dialogue, and deep feeling, the series in a nutshell.

In the midst of Daniel and Janet’s journey, there was a scene that stood out for its strangeness and risk. It initially presented as a flashback to Daniel’s incarceration, but it quickly declared itself a dream belonging to Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), Ted Jr.’s estranged wife… or perhaps Daniel and Tawney, if you believe in the idea of shared dreaming. (Rectify occasionally flirts with mysticism, but for the most part, it’s a naturalistic drama with touches of surreal psychologically grounded surrealism.) The dream hit hard some of Rectify’s spiritual concerns, like the value and difficulty of faith in the modern world, and more specifically, the challenge to religious belief presented by the problem of evil. Tawney – who has gone from unreflective Christian to skeptic about everything over the course of the series – confessed that she no longer believed in God, while Dream Daniel insisted upon His existence, that He was present in the space between seconds, in the rain, in her tears. (Alt interpretation of this dialogue: God = Daniel, or Tawney’s feelings for him.) Then he told her – with total sincerity — that “God is a rain frog,” and they kissed. Now that’s a bit of business that could have gone all kinds of wrong. But it didn’t. I want McKinnon, Young and Clemens to do a commentary track that explains how they did this scene, how they succeeded in producing a moment of unabashed hopefulness that felt true and earned.

The finale’s most significant subplot tracked Sheriff Carl Daggett’s (J. D. Evermore) investigation into the death of Daniel’s childhood friend George, and by extension, the rape and slaying of Hannah Dean, Daniel’s high school girlfriend. If this was a conventional murder mystery saga, Daniel would be driving this part of the narrative, playing vigilante-detective. But Rectify is wiser than most pop pulp fictions. Daniel may or may not have raped and murdered Hannah, but he certainly holds himself responsible for her degradation and destruction. This idea – people taking ownership for their portion of historical injustice, no matter how small, no matter how direct or indirect – is as important to Rectify as the actual truth of the past, as the who did what and why. Daniel’s complicity makes him important to the cause of rectifying the wrong that robbed Hannah of humanity and life, but unworthy of being its agent, because it would risk making it all about his justice, not hers.

And anyway, it’s just not his job. I like the unspoken statements being made by a show that lets a lawman handle this work, and makes him do it in a careful, legal way. Daggett’s pursuit of the truth represents a correction to the sloppiness and abuses of power that sent Daniel to prison, but I like how Rectify and Evermore don’t romanticize the sheriff’s heroism; he’s a cop doing a job, and trying to do it well… or as well it can be done given the circumstances. In the finale, Daggett added up the evidence and came to a perfectly logical conclusion: Trey (Sean Bridgers) – another “friend” from Daniel’s past – killed George to prevent him from telling the cops that he, Trey and another pal were Hannah’s rapists. In truth, George shot himself and the evidence implicating Trey was generated by Trey’s foolish bid to keep his other sins hidden. Now, Trey finds himself in Daniel’s old ironic shoes: Wrongly accused yet guilty as hell. The mythology that Rectify is accruing risks confusion, but the drama is so compelling that it inspires me to do the occasional homework (i.e., refresh with episode summaries) required to keep it straight. Rectify represents a rejoinder to the poor example recently set by True Detective’s second season: Yes, it is possible for a television show to tell a complex mystery dependent on so much backstory that’s character driven and emotionally resonant. 

Rectify has always one of television’s best shows over the past three years, but this season was more effective than last for various reasons. It was shorter (6 episodes instead of 10), and I think a more compact set flatters the show’s storytelling strategies and mitigates the potential for tediousness and pretentiousness. It also attended well to the supporting characters as they were to forced confront their broken, flagging identities and reboot their lives from places of disorientation and humility, and by submitting to the conscience and wisdom of others. I was struck in particular by Ted Jr., whose arc left him an exile in need of character rehab not unlike Daniel, with sins to match: Episode 2 ended with a scene in which he told his step-bro Jared (Jake Austin Walker) that he lost his virginity in high school by forcing the issue with a young woman with a promiscuous rep. Typical of many of the men on this show, Ted Jr. was willing to let the story indict him as a bad person, but refused to embrace the specific charge of date rape. It’s a sign of how much more Ted Jr. has to go that he recognizes his need for change, but only if he can dictate the terms. Growing beyond this, I think, was part of the subtext in that finale scene in which he turned their house and all of its keys over to Tawney – but was taken aback when she told him she wanted to change all the locks. He agreed to it, though. Progress. (Another thing Rectify does more thoughtfully than True Detective: Deconstructions of masculinity.) Rectify’s ambition to dig into its characters and empathize with them, even at their worst, is inspiring: The characters don’t invite judgment, but reflection; they often leave me asking hard questions about myself. The show may not provoke much cultural conversation, but it does spark internal conversation, and I’m grateful for it.

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