'Rectify' review: When 'whodunit?' is beside the point
Daniel Holden wanders his world dazed and confused, humbled and harrowed, like a fuzzy-headed Lazarus lost for bearings after getting called out of the tomb. Whether this dead man walking deserves his miraculous parole is the hazy question mark at the center of Rectify, a somber existential mystery about guilt, alienation, and other deep stuff. Season 1 tracked and pondered its protagonist, a veritable philosophical zombie, as he shuffled back and through his hometown of Paulie, Georgia — a fictional place; the name suggests (to me) sudden impact Pauline conversions and that apostle’s legendary jailbreak — after 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend, Hanna. Newly discovered DNA evidence has vacated the verdict, and no one is more dumbstruck than Daniel. After all, the boy confessed to the crimes back in the day.
Another series might have immediately concerned itself with investigating what-really-happened and who-really-dunnit. Rectify creator/showrunner Ray McKinnon decided it would be more interesting to spend six episodes observing and expressing Dan’s struggle to reconnect with himself, with his family, with society, with nature itself after two degrading decades stuck inside a white-walled box with only the voices of the hell-bound to keep him company. McKinnon’s gambit paid off with a strange and thoughtful take on by-now familiar tropes and themes. Injustice and vengeance. Morally hideous mad men. Broken people living lost and stumbling toward redemption, or not. Those six eps made for an engrossing character study. And Aden Young as Daniel was mesmerizing in a performance that suggested Forest Gump blown up and stitched together wrong, a shell-shocked Frankenstein mournfully wise about human horror. Still: Does Rectify have enough insight into humanity and sufficient imagination in the tank to fuel an ongoing series?
Rectify‘s 10-episode sophomore campaign begins answering that question by digging deeper into its core characters. The first three episodes are framed by the aftermath of last year’s brutal cliffhanger and build to a surprising resolution. Just when Daniel seemed motivated and capable of moving beyond fugue and engage his unexpected new life, vigilantes convinced of his guilt and determined to execute the punishment — led by Hanna’s brother, Bobby Dean — beat him to a pulp in a graveyard and left him for dead. You hurt for Daniel, of course. But you ached for Bobby Dean, too, and his want for justice. Rectify is effective at inspiring consider-all-angles sympathy and empathy because of the fog of uncertainty that permeates everything: You have to entertain the possibility that Daniel is innocent, you have to entertain the possibility that he is not, and you have to entertain the possibility that the truth is so complex that it defies such simple judgments. I hope Rectify can take its time getting to the clarifications without ever feeling like it’s marking time, because the ambiguity produces so much richness.
The premiere imprisons Daniel all over again: It sticks him in a coma and sends him on a spaced-out odyssey — a dream narrative that functions to restate the show’s premise and Daniel’s relationship to himself — that stretches from one personally/mythically significant haunt (his old prison cell) to another (a pasture with an ever-changing statue) as Daniel decides anew whether or not to get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. Rectify loves speaking symbolically. A wayward bird that crashes into windows. Inflatable, flagging sock men. A rotting tree limb that falls from the trunk. A goat-stealing trucker who might be an angel or a demon or a pagan deity or Jungian shadow aspect or something. Probably “something.” Or maybe a goat-stealing trucker is just a goat-stealing trucker. (The show also likes loaded references. Last year: Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” This season: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s treatise on uncertainty, the fallacy of randomness and catastrophe, and how we make sense of worldview-busting, game-changing events.) Rectify risks being too obscure with these storytelling tactics, but they are often effective and resonant: Daniel strolls his limbo in the premiere with his death row BFF, the penitent murderer Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill), that culminates with a powerful declaration of brotherly love — or self-love, if you roll with dream analysis that everyone in a dream is merely a representation of yourself.
The new season continues the practice of quick cutaways to Daniel’s prison stint, where he only had books, his conscience, and the voices of the two prisoners on either side of him for friends: Kerwin and sadistic predator Wendall (Jayson Warner Smith), a kind of good-angel-on-one-shoulder, bad-angel-on-the-other pair. Where Kerwin gives the older Daniel someone to care for, which in turn makes him feel like more than a worthless animal, Wendall’s degrading verbal assaults cause him real anguish; they’re like psychic rapes. These prison scenes not only flesh out Daniel’s story, but double as allegorical expressions of Daniel’s state of mind.
Rectify isn’t just a post-modern Book of Daniel, full of dislocation mope and coded dreams. The drama attends equally to the members of his family, equally frazzled by the prodigal’s deus ex machina return. (Talk about “the impact of the highly improbable.”) His widowed mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), who remarried while Daniel was in prison; his sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who spent years fighting for Daniel’s release with his lawyer (and her lover), Jon Stern (Luke Kirby, a young Lindsay Buckingham lookalike); a stepdad, Ted Talbot (Bruce McKinnon), who now runs the tire store founded by Daniel’s father; stepbrother Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) and his religiously devout wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens); and a teenage half-brother, Jared (Jake Austin Walker).
As Daniel is reassembling, many in his disassembling. Some of their stories are more compelling than others. Free-spirited and furious Amantha was a bit unfocused in season 1. Season 2 sharpens her up by clarifying that her essential problem is — ironically — a lack of focus. She spent her adult life trying to free Daniel, so what now? Mom is similarly lost. Ted Sr. and Jared remain ciphers. This set of characters need more development in season 2.
The strongest stuff belongs to Ted Jr. and Tawney. Threatened from the get-go by Daniel’s release and return — would Daniel take his place in the family tire store? replace him as the number-one son and big brother? — Ted hardens his heart even more toward Daniel (and tries to get the family to do the same) and struggles to shore up his flagging identity by recklessly pursuing a new business opportunity. (Ted has some legit reasons to fear Daniel. In season 1 he made the mistake of showing some unseemly curiosity about the kind of horror Daniel endured in prison, and in an extraordinarily chilling soliloquy, Daniels enlightened him — not by describing gory details, but the spiritual/psychological effects. Later, with tensions petty and profound mounting between the stepbrothers, Daniel responded to Ted’s anxious provocations by knocking him out with a choke-hold then pouring coffee grounds up his butt. If Ted was genuinely interested in knowing what it’s like to be buggered in the big house, well, now he knows, in a “symbolically speaking” sort of way.)
Tawney — keenly invested in Daniel’s spiritual redemption (she convinced him to get baptized last season), and possibly attracted to him too — struggles to fortify a faith shaken by the violence done to Daniel. Her relationship with Ted becomes strained — it was never mature to begin; they married too young — and the scenes about their crumbling union are exceptional, especially a confrontation in episode 2 in which their characters draw close, then miss each other and retreat anew, as a question about the practice of prayer becomes a window into just how estranged they’ve become from each other. It’s a heartbreaker. The so-called golden age of TV has made many meaty meals out of cynically skewering male flailing and sketchy faith; Rectify comes at them with nuance and grace. I can roll with either modality; I find the latter, right now, welcome and rewarding change of pace.
The world of Rectify is even bigger than Daniel and his family, but not by much. (This might be a function of budget; I assume a show on Sundance TV doesn’t have much money to play with. Rectify is a testament to how much richness can be produced with great writing, a handful of inventive actors guided by sensitive directors and cinematographers with great eyes. If they can get some more dough for some additional series regulars, though, a few non-white faces would be nice. It certainly needs a character that can speak more eloquently for Hanna’s memory and everything her death represents — especially in these #YesAllWomen times — than her brooding brutish brother.) Season 2 tracks the efforts of Sheriff Daggett (J.D. Evermore) to arrest the men responsible for Daniel’s beat-down, a politically risky mission, given how Paulie is divided over the matter of Daniel’s guilt. (There also the hint of a conspiracy and secrets linked to Hanna’s murder involving the town’s power players.) The new season nurtures the mystery of her death — but again, lightly and indirectly, as if it isn’t its chief concern — via an original witness to the crime (and perhaps a participant in it), Trey (Sean Bridgers), who was last seen making the discovery that another “witness”/possible participant, George, had killed himself at the riverbank where Hanna was strangled and left for dead.
In a key scene early in the season, Death Row Daniel angrily mocks several phrases from a pamphlet describing appropriate, mentally healthy inmate behavior. Chief among them: “Motivation to change.” Daniel’s rage is rooted in a few things, like the irony or hypocrisy of a flawed institution resistant to needed reforms or incapable of cultivating the transformation it prizes. This theme is articulated in a variety of permutations this season, explicitly and metaphorically, and across many characters, as they try to improve their lives, or fight over the form change should take, or simply resist. In episode 3, Born Again Daniel produces a provocative complication that sets the stage for the middle act of the season when he chooses to respond to an evil done unto him by turning the other cheek. It’s an admirable spiritual position, but one that subverts society’s interest in law and order, and more, can’t be completely trusted, given the fundamental mystery concerning the show’s not-yet-rectified original sin. Is his grace genuine? Can there be forgiveness and redemption without justice and atonement? The answers are locked inside the cell of Daniel’s head. Now, we wait for the jailbreak. May Rectify continue producing arresting meanings along the way.