“We are what we don’t throw away: Teddy bears and barbells.”—Daniel Holden, “Act As If”
One of the late George Carlin’s most famous stand-up routines hinges on the power of “stuff.” I won’t try to recreate here; it’s a spectacularly written bit, but the humor of the piece depends greatly on Carlin’s inflection and rhythms. Here’s the jumping-off point, and why it’s relevant to “Act As If”: All anyone ever needs is a place to keep their stuff. (“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”) Live to be a certain age, accumulate a certain amount of experiences, and eventually you’ll find yourself curating a marvelous treasury of stuff.
Carlin’s word choice is vague by design: We each give meaning to our own stuff. I have shelves full of TV on DVD and VHS, and each piece in that collection has some sort of personal value, sentimental or otherwise. But I wouldn’t expect anyone else to fully understand the importance of hanging onto to videotaped episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that are readily available, in higher-quality video, on YouTube. We define our stuff, and as Daniel suggests in “Act As If,” that stuff comes to define us. Ted Jr. and Tawney have a framed “T” on their wall that could stand for either of their first names—or their surname. But in an inspired piece of production design, the capital t appears in the background of “Act As If” shots of Ted, while a cross—which looks an awful lot like a lowercase t—hangs over Tawney’s shoulder.
Season two of Rectify feels like it’s fighting the uphill battle against stuff. It’s a multi-front fight against stuff’s similarly versatile synonym, clutter: Both words can be used as a verb or a noun, and the mise en scene of “Act As If” captures that wonderfully. The episode is stuffed and cluttered with stuff and clutter, a densely packed space like the Talbot’s garage presented in close proximity to the rambling corridors of a roadside antique shop. When Lezlie (with a “z”) sees Daniel (with a “d”) enter his store, he spots a kindred spirit. They’re outsiders interested in old things, but it goes beyond that. To my mind, Lezlie can tell Daniel’s a guy who’s comfortable with a little clutter. He might be a little cluttered internally; certainly he could stand to deal with the clutter of a wild, booze-, drug-, and shotgun-fueled party.
But it wasn’t that long ago that an untidy stack of books was all Daniel Holden could call “clutter,” and we’ve already seen him fill garbage bags with the things that remind him of his old old life. The Columbia House Record Club skeet-shooting sequence in “Act As If” is the next logical extension of this purge, and not for nothing are the names “Spin Doctors” and “Michael Bolton” spoken before their discs are hurled into the air and blown to smithereens. The CDs themselves are one symbol of the era in which Daniel went to prison, but connecting them to specific artists deepens their meaning to “Act As If.” The choice makes emblems out of stuff.
To that point, “Act As If” looks at how Daniel might be cluttering up his mother’s home, more than any previous episode of Rectify. The cold open begins in the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s kitchen demolition, as Ted Sr. rummages through busted-up cabinetry in search of the coffee maker. Inasmuch as Ted Sr. has been a presence in Rectify thus far, this is the first real indication (that I can recall, at least) that Daniel is getting in his way. Obviously he knew what he was getting into when he married Janet, and has come to view Daniel as his own son—but now that son has torn up “a perfectly good kitchen,” a mess Ted Sr. takes it upon himself to clean up. When the character starts talking about rules, there’s an interesting disconnect between what I expected to come next and what “Act As If” goes with: Rather than laying down ground rules about staying under his roof, Ted Sr. instructs Daniel on how and when he can conduct the remodeling project. It’s sweet, in a throwback, “father knows best” way. Daniel is as much a part of this home as that vinyl flooring used to be.
Daniel might not think so, but he’s a better fit in Paulie than Ted Jr.’s rental-rim merchandising or Amantha at the Thrifty Town checkout. He’s more stuff than clutter, inching toward his own identity in a place that long ago endowed him with one. Getting used to all of the “input” of life in Paulie is still shocking to him, but it’s relative: When Andrew Bernstein’s camera peers down on Amantha’s Thrifty Town shift, the job has bored big-city sister into catatonia. And yet she stays, because as Jon (only part sarcastically) suggests, she needs to think about something other than herself. “Act As If” portrays the mind as a little trap, one to which Lezlie’s type of hedonism is the antidote. “Act As If” is a tactile episode of a thinking show, and the scenery is appropriately tactile: The antiques look suitably worn, as do the rooms of Lezlie’s house.
Yet it’s thoughtful enough to avoid the pitfalls of TV bacchanalia: No video effects attempt to recreate Daniel’s altered state of mind; behavior at the party is depraved, but it falls short of the apocalyptic orgy seen in the Leftovers pilot. “Act As If” is cluttered in all the right places, an excellent counterpoint to the more sophisticated sensory overload of “Donald The Normal.” Both episodes find Rectify’s protagonist wandering through environments he’s just short of being ready to handle. (The scene between the senator and the district attorney reminds us that Daniel’s access to these experiences remains conditional.) Like Tawney and the love homily Ted Jr. reads to her, Daniel doesn’t always understand the world around him, so he lets it wash over him. In those moments, he’s like Trey trawling the river for George’s body; like each and every one of us, awash in a sea of stuff.
- So if Daniel’s new buddy spells his name with a “z,” is it spelled “Lezlie”? Or have I made a terrible mistake, and should I be spelling it “ZLeslie”?
- All this mention of stuff and clutter can’t go without a little praise for Rectify’s production design and properties departments. The spell cast by the show is at least partially tied to the way it’s never quite clear what’s been constructed for the purpose of Rectify, and what was found by the series’ location scouts. The antique store and all of its contents certainly fit that bill, and a big part of the episode’s appeal is the way it rides the divide between the real and the unreal. Additionally, whoever scored the light-up ice cream cones for Lezlie’s kitchen deserves a promotion.
- The big bit of forward momentum from the episode is the death of Rutherford Gaines, Daniel’s original defense attorney and the Hal Holbrook character that gives “Modern Times” its title. The death hits Daniel hard, and when he escapes to the garage (another cluttered “Act As If” space) to mourn, it launches Janet’s lovely little parable about not confronting one of Daniel’s many canceled executions. That section of Victoria Morrow’s script is such an elegant way of elaborating on what this family has been through: The state spared Daniel’s life (with Gaine’s assistance) so many times that Janet could take that lengthy bike ride, relatively confident that her son (and her pain) would live to see another day.