Of the many reasons to be impressed by Rectify—and if you’ve hung on to the series into its fourth hour, at least something about it has impressed you—I keep coming back to the show’s ability to balance the lowbrow and the highbrow. In spite of efforts by the likes of Rectify, this is a lowbrow enterprise by definition: Television’s come a long, long way in the last 50 years, but it’s still not the most dignified medium in which to tell the story of Daniel Holden. (It’s just the best one.) But the balance that keeps me in awe of the show goes beyond that, from the way it treats its subject matter—the release of a death-row inmate has certainly been the starting point of tawdrier fare—to its incorporation of the everyday ephemera that still wows Daniel on his fourth day as a free man. Rectify isn’t a show that shuts out what other works with its lofty ambitions might ignore. The series keeps its lens wide open, like Paul Sommers’ camera during Daniel and Tawny’s sun-dappled conversation about God, Buddha, Confucius, and Nietzsche. It captures it all, each point of light and every piece of the puzzle Daniel is attempting to connect into a life outside death row. For the man who spent 19 years interpreting existence through shadows cast against a wall, objects as seemingly inconsequential as a video-game demo screen or a fading prom picture are fraught with meaning.
The circumstances surrounding Daniel have a lot to do with that sense of gravity, to an extent that Rectify gets away with what would qualify as over-reaching for other homecoming stories. Daniel’s trip to Walmart, for instance, is a florescent-streaked sleepwalk in “Plato’s Cave,” an illustration of the abundance and convenience that came to Paulie while Daniel was away. Yet put it in a movie about, say, an undergraduate returning to his podunk hometown during a semester break, and the emotions it elicits are less profound. This man has seen things, but he’s also stared at nothing but white for the better part of two decades, so let him stare at a bank of HDTVs for a few seconds. It lacks the strange distinctiveness of his solo dance party in “Modern Times,” but it succinctly translates what Daniel is going through in that moment. And with the exception of being a space where Plato and Sonic The Hedgehog deserve equal consideration, there’s nothing Rectify does better than letting us in on what it might feel like to be Daniel Holden.
How he feels, however, is anyone’s guess. There are two mysteries at the core of Rectify, one that speaks to the show’s baser instincts (“Is Daniel guilty?”) and one that speaks to its higher aims (“How does his guilt or innocence affect how he perceives himself?”). The first is the central question of the crime procedural forever tugging at Rectify’s sleeve; this week’s visits to that alternate universe include Jon’s thwarted attempt to throw the new prosecutor and Sheriff Daggett’s visit to plottin’, schemin’, ambiguously-up-to-no-good Trey. I’m growing fonder of these detours from Daniel’s story with each passing episode, if only because there’s an equally intriguing story in Jon Stern: Big City Defender Takes On Small-Town Justice. As he ingratiates himself to the new regime in Paulie, he runs aground on the hard truth laid out by Hal Holbrook, Esquire in “Modern Times”: Paulie projects the illusion of progress, but it’s still stuck on this whole eye-for-an-eye business. The perceived symbols of progress in that trip to the district attorney’s are at Mad Men-season-five-levels of bluntness—The DA is a woman! And a black woman at that! And her receptionist is a male! Perhaps things have changed in Georgia?—but it gets the point across effectively. Jon may think he has Daniel’s latest appeal all figured out, but he’s no less grasping at shadows than his client.
Yet the epicenter of Rectify’s daring, as ever, is its protagonist. As Daniel warms to the world yet again, opens his windows just a crack to spare the lives of a few well-meaning creatures (at least that’s how I choosing to interpret this week’s cold open, where the thud of bird against window pane is all that stirs Daniel from his Genesis jag), “Plato’s Cave” pulls some complicated moves involving sensuality and sexuality. Daniel’s session with his gift from Ted Jr. at the end of “Sexual Peeling” is one of the toughest bits of Rectify to digest—it is, after all, startlingly frank and straight-faced for a TV depiction of masturbation. It’s not used to make us laugh, and it doesn’t illustrate some deeper “deviancy” within the protagonist—it’s just a man, alone, fulfilling a desire from which he doesn’t seem to derive any pleasure. Earlier in that episode, Daniel tells Ted Jr. about the abuse he endured in prison; it’s another scene that refuses to pull punches. In “Plato’s Cave,” the fallout from that human cruelty is witnessed by Tawny. I’m not sure which moment caused me to lose more breath: the infinitesimal-yet-clearly-too-long embrace Daniel and Tawny share or Aden Young’s read on the line “It does something to you, not to be touched in any positive way for so long.” Oftentimes the proceedings of Rectify bury their significance; this makes it all the more potent when the characters come out and say something like the quote above.
It’s Rectify’s singular sense of balance that lets Daniel’s admission to Tawny sink in as deeply as his mother-son “yarn bubble” bit with Janet. It’s also praiseworthy that a single episode can contain such a warm, quaint flash of humor and the brutality of the death-row book confiscation—neither feels out of place or more “important” than the other. Similarly, “Plato’s Cave” doesn’t feel out of place from the rest of Rectify, even as it banishes Amantha to Atlanta and gives over its quiet times to larger, less precise meditations on the afterlife—or the chance for rebirth in this life. I’m not as crazy about “Plato’s Cave” as I was the previous three installments of Rectify, but it still takes turns that other shows wouldn’t. The episode’s two most potentially explosive sequences—Daniel and Janet’s encounter with a TV news crew and the “haircut on the house” he receives from a former high-school classmate—are played for exactly what they are: two more pitstops along the road of Daniel Holden’s extraordinary life. In the light of his earlier scene with Tawny, his rendezvous with Susan Gunter (née Prescott) could’ve been a grandiose moment of release, but “Plato’s Cave” treats it just as it is: a woman, reaching out to a man, to make a physical connection in a positive way. Jim McKay’s direction makes no attempt to sex it up; the background music is tender, not sultry. Aden Young doesn’t let out any orgasmic moans—he merely accepts the gesture and sinks into Lara Grice’s hair. It’s a highbrow treatment of a lowbrow subject, and Rectify is all the better for it.
- I’ve been writing these reviews under the assumption that Rectify had a limited run of six episodes, so imagine my surprise (and minor embarrassment) when the show was renewed for a second season of 10 episodes. Here’s hoping it can stay this good—and don’t let the “B” fool you, this is still a great hour of TV, if not as good as the previous three—for that long.
- A realization made two weeks too late: Trey is Sean Bridgers, a.k.a. Johnny Burns from Deadwood.
- There’s no way for the show to build to this development without stringing the viewer along, but it’s clearer every episode that Kerwin’s going to die—either as legally mandated or at the hands of the guards—before Daniel gets out. Unless the show plans to zig where it looks like it’s going to zag, and Johnny Ray Gill shows up in the season finale to head off into the sunset with his death-row buddy, setting up the second season as some sort of road caper. Either way, Rectify sure can make you feel for people accused of doing terrible things!