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Rectify debuts with back-to-back episodes tonight at 9 p.m. on Sundance Channel. Next Monday, it moves to its regular timeslot of 10 p.m.
Visually stunning, thought-provoking, and told at patient pace that nonetheless builds anticipation for the next episode, Rectify is a superb piece of television doomed to be enjoyed by only small segment of the viewing public. But that’s just right for a series of Rectify’s scale and interests, a human-sized drama concerning Big Questions about isolation, family loyalty, the nature of truth, and the human capacity for forgiveness. In short, it’s everything that the Sundance brand originally stood for in the independent-film realm, applied to six hours of difficult-yet-rewarding TV.
What sets Rectify apart is its quietude. Television dramas of the last 15 years haven’t shied away from reflectiveness—the source of a highly visible onscreen role for Rectify creator Ray McKinnon among them. Moments of pause were a facet of McKinnon’s time among the lawless cocksuckers of Deadwood, but “contemplative” is Rectify’s default setting. Marketing for the series highlights its connection to Breaking Bad; both are productions of Mark Johnson’s Grand Via shingle, the click-clacking vanity card of which should be familiar to anyone who’s indulged in a Heisenberg binge. However, Rectify’s closest contemporary in tone and atmosphere is HBO’s recently departed Enlightened. The first two hours of the miniseries suggest that show’s creator, Mike White, integrating the Nicholas Brody component of first-season Homeland into the tight-knit American South of Justified, with a photographic assist from Terrence Malick. For a show whose protagonist stands accused of the ultimate in human ugliness, Rectify is capable of profound beauty.
Those filmmaking touches provide a critical leavening to the endeavor, as bleak, soul-scrambling stuff abounds in the fictional setting of Paulie, Georgia. Rectify begins at the end of a stay on death row for Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who nearly two decades prior confessed to the murder and rape of his high-school girlfriend. DNA evidence has since contradicted that confession, and an exoneration leads to Daniel’s reintroduction to a world he no longer knows. This adjustment is made no less difficult by the people convinced of Daniel’s guilt, chief among them the grandstanding former prosecutor (Michael O’Neill) who wrote his political ticket on Daniel’s conviction. But Daniel needn’t look far for that kind of skepticism: His own mother (J. Smith Cameron) weeps for joy at his release yet keeps her son at a distance; the stepbrother he acquired while in lockup (Clayne Crawford) sees his newly freed kin as a liability to the family business. A family business, mind you, he and his father inherited because Daniel wasn’t around to claim it for himself.
Daniel’s only true allies are his younger siblings: A brother, Jared (Jake Austin Walker), who grew up not knowing his big bro, and a sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), whose intense closeness to Daniel slots her into the role of his defender in the non-legal sense. The first two hours of Rectify keep a tight lid on the miniseries’ secrets, but they do give off the impression that every drag Spencer’s Amantha takes off her ever-present cigarette is a confidential matter she’s trying to suppress within—but must breathe out eventually.
Rectify concerns the fallout from a criminal case that consumed an entire community, but opening episodes “Always There” and “Sexual Peeling” keep their scope intimate. Outsiders creep in via TV news coverage of Daniel’s release or through scenes with the law-enforcement agents who investigated Hanna Abigail Dean’s death, but this is no high-falutin’ procedural. Tonight’s two-hour opener indicates that the case of Hanna’s death is due to be reopened, but that’s not the thread that commands the priorities of McKinnon and his team. In fact, “Always There” is at its weakest when it breaks off from the Holden-Talbot clan, the limits of its budget showing through in a brief vignette at the local sheriff’s office that feels shipped in from a lesser piece of indie filmmaking.
In line with that focus, the heart of the miniseries is Aden Young’s performance—though the utter numbness that performance requires might be a turn-off for some. His portrayal of Daniel is pitched somewhere between a newborn baby and a crash-landed extraterrestrial; at one point, Clayton’s Ted Jr. refers to his stepbrother as “Starman,” and whether that’s a Jeff Bridges or David Bowie allusion, the comparison is apt. McKinnon’s scripts give Daniel the occasional attack of the Brodys—as when he tells his mother about his disinterest in becoming computer- or cellphone-literate—but these scenes are salvaged by the emotional honesty of Young’s portrayal. A better, funnier variation on that moment arrives when Daniel combs through the shelves of a convenience store, picking up every seemingly futuristic item that might tantalize a man emerging from 19 years of captivity: a protein bar, an energy shot, and a Smart Water. When he asks of the third item in that list “Does this work?”, it’s the palpable mix of wonder and terror in Young’s voice that keeps the exchange grounded. (And there are enough flashbacks to his time on death row to inform the “terror” part of that equation.)
That’s also the point in time where the first sign of reprisal from the citizens of Paulie looks like it could rear its ugly head—but the group of young toughs trailing Daniel are in search of kicks that the character would find just as puzzling as a case of 5 Hour Energy. These early hours leave any mob-gathering implied—the suspicions of Daniel’s family members and the guilty-until-proven-innocent stance of O’Neill’s Senator Foulkes suffice for any sense of sinister skepticism. Rather than dwell on sideways glances from scared neighbors or preparations for a new trial, Rectify would rather pay attention to Jared and Daniel bonding over the latter’s first viewing of Dazed And Confused.
McKinnon’s scripts don’t lean too heavily on pop culture as a barometer of the years stolen from Daniel’s life, but the Dazed And Confused cameo is an artfully deployed choice. Just as there’s an ache for a lost innocence in what’s nominally a period-piece stoner comedy, Rectify exhibits a refreshing humanity hidden beneath deeply troubling subject matter. Tragedy haunts Daniel Holden’s past in Paulie—and calamities to come are foreshadowed in a meeting between the two men who were with him the night of Hanna’s death—but the present is of the most interest to Rectify. That present’s lack of incident further links the series to the work of Richard Linklater and other children of the 1990s indie boom—it’s also what makes that scene with Trey (Sean Bridgers) and George (Michael Traynor) resonate with menacing portent
Or lack of what’s generally considered incident on a television show: McKinnon’s boldest choice in preparing Rectify was his decision that living is incident enough. Daniel’s release is an extraordinary circumstance, but for the time being, confirmation of his innocence or guilt is set aside in order to watch a man come to terms with the society that condemned him to death. He’s been born anew, and while the series splashes this impression with a soupçon of baptismal imagery, its truly affecting visuals are those that take in the lush landscape that Aden Young’s character has been thrust back into. It’s not the most easily digestible way to approach the topic, but Rectify is a television experience that’s meant to linger. Like its protagonist, it’s a haunting presence, one which challenges preconceived notions and contains multitudes of secrets that may or may not ever come to light—and it asks the viewer to be comfortable with that ambiguity.