So far I haven’t been all too impressed with what has been said about Ray McKinnon’s Rectify, the new six-episode show on the Sundance Channel, which was just cleared for a second season next year. It’s not that the reviews have been negative or untrue—they just haven’t seemed to be on the level upon which the show wants to operate. And now, in trying to sort out what I’ve just watched in the last couple weeks, I understand that I cannot do this either.
You may have seen previews or the striking ads on subways or sidebars, and if you did, you saw that the show’s production team comes from AMC’s Breaking Bad. The shows creator, writer, and director, Ray McKinnon, is best known for his acting—in the Blind Side (Coach Cotton) and Deadwood (the Reverend Smith), and most recently in Jeff Nichols’ Mud—but won an Oscar for his short film The Accountant in 2001.
Within the first minutes of watching, you notice it was not just the ads that were stylistically striking—the entire show is sensory, and the critics have been quick to make note of that. The L.A. Times says: “Shots linger on the green wonderland of an ordinary backyard or the crowded silence of an empty morning kitchen. The scrape of a fork on a plate, the opening and closing of a door, all force the viewer to look again, look anew, as if we too had been separated from reality for all those years.” The pacing has also been a point of discussion—with six episodes about a murder case in the Deep South, you’d expect the show to move at a clip. Instead, it is deliberate in the fullness of whole scenes. It is unhurried in it’s depiction of the world of Daniel Holden.
To set it up—don’t worry, no spoilers—Holden (Aden Young) is a small-town Georgian, convicted at 18 of raping and killing his girlfriend, and has since spent 19 years on death row. The show picks up as new DNA evidence has forced his conviction to be vacated. He is released unto the small and brooding town of his childhood. As you might expect, the town ethos is wary, as is the new Holden family. Daniel’s father is now dead, his mother is remarried—he has a stepbrother now, a stepfather, a step-sister-in-law, a half-brother. His mother and older sister, Amantha, are there, but things are unshakably new and awkward. Daniel must re-enter a town (and life) that has grown older–in his absence–than he is.
Critics have been right about Young’s performance as Daniel, making connections to other characters making tortured re-entries into society (think Damian Lewis in Homeland, think Damian Lewis in Life)—that he does a far superior, more nuanced job of it. Daniel evokes a depth of experience that is at once unpredictably dark and, somehow, profoundly elevated. Yet critics haven’t really said why. I want to share some thoughts I have on the first season. I will stay away from spoilers—it’s hard to spoil, to be quite honest—and, when I need to make mention of scenes, I’ll do it delicately.
-There’s definitely a Terrence Malick thing going on in Rectify, and it’s not just the sun-dappled pecan tree shots. There’s a mysticism of the common, a “sacramentality” that Rectify has attempted that is truly beautiful. Two scenes come to mind where Daniel is confounded by the colors of modern commerce—a gas station, a Wal-Mart. In one episode, entitled “Plato’s Cave,” Daniel gets glasses—his re-introduction to the world of colors and movement and space is, well, wonder.
On top of this, and something that the L.A. Times was onto, was this notion of space around scenes, a longevity afforded to conversations and situations that most television shows do not pay for. Like Malick, who has also become quite acquainted with the uses of voice-overs and long periods of silence, it seems McKinnon and company use faces and bodies and environments to complicate Daniel’s re-entry, as well as to speak the truth after the speaking has been done.
-Justice is an ongoing theme. With a title—and backdrop—that sounds an awful lot like “Justified,” there’s some of that going on. It’s not so much about self-justice as Raylan and Boyd’s narrative details, as it is about the violence of justice. The show—which spends about an eighth of its time back in a prison cell with Daniel—depicts justice as a blunt and uncomplicated answer to a life of mixed motivations and confutable evidence. In Daniel’s world, “innocent until proven guilty” is inverted, and innocence is impossible. This isn’t just a jail-cell flashback theme, either. The violence of justice pervades the Georgia small town. Although Daniel has been released, he cannot be exonerated.
-In this way, Ray McKinnon has created a freedom-bondage binary has also been inverted for Daniel. Like Walker Percy’s nuthouse, the prisoner has an oddly gratuitous window into life—“I know that narrow world by heart and I can tell you from here a few things you may not have noticed…” (Lancelot). In his all-white jumpsuit, in an all-white cell, Daniel reads and talks to his death-row-mate Whitman. While there are memories of violent beatings and torturous cellmates, these are places of quiet reference for Daniel. How can prison be the place of grace?
On the other hand, the “freedom” the world offers is a terrifying anxiety. All is new for Daniel—a touch on the shoulder feels like the hand of a prison guard, he stands befuddled before SmartWater, before his new half-brothers room (which used to be his own). Nothing is normal, which means that any everyday experience is charged with the power of potential, thus creating fear. Daniel’s comfort blankets become his childhood SEGA system and old mixtapes he finds in the attic. Who concocts a freed man this way, a darkened bedroom and a closed door?
-Finally, it seems that faith is an unnamed character in the show. Daniel—via McKinnon?—seems to have been a Catholic-trained reader in prison. References to Dante, Aquinas, and O’Connor abound. And this starkly contrasts the Southern Baptist colloquialisms that he finds in Tawney (Adelaide Clemons), his new step-sister-in-law. An immediate magnetism surfaces between Daniel and Tawney—perhaps because of her sincerity and tenderness, perhaps because of her sincere faith in God—but it almost certainly lies somewhere between the two for both characters. Rectify muddies the water here beautifully. You get the feeling that Tawney wants to save Daniel’s soul, but that’s not all—you get the feeling Daniel is in love, but he decides, I believe sincerely, to get baptized. Daniel calls Tawney his “Beatrice”—Dante’s earthly muse, and guide and vision through Paradise. Here, we see Rectify showing its cards: Beatrice is the love—the human love—through which the love of God makes itself visible to Dante. So, too, for Daniel. Love, human love, shines through the anxiety of the present and all its constituent and imprisoning freedoms—and God is this Love.
But this show is also about faith, as it is. The viewer is given all it needs to build a case for or against Daniel—and leaves the viewer enraptured: why do I believe him? It seems to ask, why do we believe what seems absurd to my neighbor? Why do our hearts choose and our minds justify? If this is the case, though—and I don’t see it being any different in season two—then I can’t see it going well for Daniel. For as Beatrice says to Dante in the Primum Mobile of Paradiso, “On earth no king holds sway; therefore, the family of humans strays.”