I promised I would write about the S2 finale, which will be the first extended post about this fine series that I have managed. I don’t know why I find it so hard to write about Rectify, but there’s no denying the facts. Even this post comes almost a month after the season finale. Perhaps in part the problem is that I can’t imagine convincing anyone to watch it, so more than usual for this blog, I am talking to myself.
A summary of the show is in order, since I’m guessing most people who happen upon this won’t know much about Rectify. It was created by Ray McKinnon, a fascinating actor best known for his roles on Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy. It was the first original series for the Sundance Channel or whatever they call it now. The cast is made up largely of unknowns and hey-it’s-that-guys … Aden Young is the lead, Abigail Spencer was on Mad Men for half-a-dozen episodes, J. Smith-Cameron is a recognizable actor in indie productions, Adelaide Clemens is in her early 20s … you get the idea. Jayson Warner Smith, who has a bit part, once favorited a tweet of mine that said Rectify was worth hunting down, which is another of my brushes with fame.
Young plays Daniel Holden, who has been on death row for a long time for the rape and strangulation of a 16-year-old girl. As the series begins, new DNA evidence suggests Daniel was falsely accused, and he is released pending the resolution of the old case. Much of the first season … well, much of the series as a whole, but especially the first few episodes, deal with Daniel’s complete alienation from life outside of prison. McKinnon gives Daniel plenty of time and space to begin the process of assimilation, which is why the most common complaint for the first season was that it was extremely slow-moving. Spencer is Daniel’s sister, who has spent much of her life obsessing over her brother and trying to bring justice. Clemens is the wife of Daniel’s stepbrother … she is very religious, and she thinks Daniel can be saved … her feelings for him grow over time. Most of the characters have something to hide, and for many of them, their secrets revolve around what happened that day long ago when Daniel did or didn’t kill the girl.
There are a couple of characters who are just bad, and maybe one who is just good, but for the most part, Rectify excels at showing complex characters whose behavior can surprise us, although they are never out of character at those times … McKinnon gives us believable characters struggling to deal with everyday life. Daniel is mostly sympathetic, but he doesn’t always act “right” … his alienation makes him seem weird, and he has violent tendencies that occasionally erupt. We don’t want to believe it, but it is at least possible he really did kill that girl.
Aden Young is given a seemingly impossible task: making Daniel, with his long silences and socially inappropriate responses to others and his deep-seated guilt (over what is still not clear), a character that we care about. We want him to be good; just as important, we want Daniel to see the goodness in himself (whenever he is asked if he is a good person, he replies “no”).
It may seem like nothing happens, but Season Two ended with a couple of cliffhangers, which implies that something is indeed happening. But the plot is not the point, which is why Rectify is not for folks looking for the next big police procedural. It’s a character study, a group character study that shows us not just individuals, but individuals in a community. Everyone’s actions have consequences … in Daniel’s case, it might be said that his inactions have consequences. Rectify is very intense, because every moment is full of possibilities.
So, what do we have? A series that has maintained a very high standard for two seasons, with at least one more to come. We have a series that makes demands of its viewers, a series that can’t be watched casually. It’s a series that thus far has avoided feel-good moments. In essence, it’s different than any other show you can think of, and maybe that’s why I’ve found it so hard to write about. To say that the writing is good, that the acting is good, that it is a character-driven series where the characters are finely-drawn … all of that is true, but it doesn’t distinguish Rectify from other good shows. That kind of praise neglects the most significant fact, that McKinnon has given us a unique show. I can’t give Rectify my highest rating, because too often it sits on the DVR, I’ve never felt like I had to watch every episode the minute it came out … there is something about Rectify that makes even a fan like me a bit reticent. Grade for series: A-.