Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rectify: “Donald The Normal”

Illustration for article titled Rectify: “Donald The Normal”

The central mystery of Rectify is not “Who killed Hanna Dean?” The central mystery of Rectify isn’t even “Is Daniel Holden guilty or innocent?” The man is the mystery, a puzzle that no one can solve because a) as much as you may think you know Daniel, his actions remain utterly unpredictable, and b) some puzzles aren’t meant to be solved. Some pieces go missing, or there’s some inexplicable imperfection in the design. Or maybe, to borrow a thought from “Donald The Normal,” we’re watching this man at a point when the paint is still drying on his canvas.

This is very much a “step back and survey” episode of Rectify, a sense director David Lowery heightens by setting up several Paulie tableaus—and then slowly backing the camera away from them. It’s a spectacular addition to the show’s visual toolbelt, complementing the “eye of God” motif and infusing a tremendous amount of intimacy into such a voyeuristic concept. “Donald The Normal” portrays a day in the personal and internal lives of Daniel, Amantha, and Ted Jr., who have separate yet similar experiences on a lazy Sunday, in and outside of Paulie. At times, Lowery’s direction suggests the sense that the characters are stepping outside of themselves, poking at their own day-to-day existence in hopes of a fresh start—or the discovery of their own missing puzzle piece.

Further connecting these slice-of-life stories (and providing a counterbalance to that lingering camerawork) is the sense that all three characters are enjoying a day free of supervision. For obvious reasons, this is a more revelatory incident for Daniel—but that’s also why his free day ends with the biggest mess. And yet no one makes a big deal about his bus ride into Atlanta: If they even know what he’s up to, it’s of no great concern to Janet or Amantha. Janet and Ted Sr. are even thinking about going to the movies, a brief glimpse of normalcy before Daniel’s impromptu kitchen remodeling returns things to their previous upside-down state.

“Normal” is the watchword here (thanks Veronica Mars episode title!), and without Daniel to fret over (or defend against capital punishment), Amantha succumbs to boredom for what must be the first time in years. Her sleepwalk through the drive-ins and dollar stores of Paulie is a mirror of Daniel’s time in the big city, with a put-upon manager as her version of the Southern culture vultures headed up by guest star Frances Fisher. There’s an implication of something darker in her junk-food shopping spree—its secretive nature, Janet’s line of questioning, and the lurid saxophone on the soundtrack suggest an eating disorder—but it’s just as likely that she’s wolfing down a hamburger because she just doesn’t know what to do with herself otherwise.

Teddy’s day of faux bachelorhood, meanwhile, looks like the product of having too much to do. Or at least the feeling of needing to do too much: I’m no great fan of the character’s store-saving subplot, but “Donald The Normal” makes it plain that it feels like a thin excuse for giving Ted Jr. something to do because it is a thin excuse for Ted to forget something that was done to him. Here’s another place where Rectify differentiates itself from the cable-drama herd: Daniel assaulted and violated Ted, and that encounter is not without deep, emotional consequence. Just as his time on death row and the abuses he suffered there are allowed to show in Daniel’s characterization and Aden Young’s performance, whatever happened at the end of “Drip, Drip” hangs over Ted like a dark cloud. “These types of events have weight,” Rectify acknowledges. “These types of events can be difficult to talk about,” adds “Donald The Normal.” When Ted brings what little information he has to Sheriff Daggett, it’s a major turning point and the first step down the road to healing. The intimation of sexual assault isn’t used for shock or titillation, nor does it turn into any sort of lazy causation for Ted Jr.’s erratic behavior. It’s just the most jarring of several recent disruptions in the character’s life, one that further unnerves the individual the longer it’s kept private.

Without trivializing Ted’s trauma—or treating it with more gravity than what happened to Hanna Dean—Daggett raises some important questions about the nature of the attack. He personally believes that Daniel is capable of much worse, but I believe Rectify means for us to step back and re-evaluate what is happening and what has happened to Daniel Holden. I don’t invest much into whether or not Daniel is Hanna Dean’s killer, but I will cop to wanting him to be innocent. The empathetic presentation of Rectify is such that it makes the viewer want to protect a fictional character, just as his fictional sister wishes to. “Donald The Normal” argues that he doesn’t need anyone’s protection as much as he needs their understanding. Daniel has interactions with total strangers in this episode—Fisher’s Peggy; Kerwin’s mother and brother—who relate to him more immediately than the family that saw him through his death-row stay. Compare that to his encounter with the couple in the diner, who only want to add to their number of photos with “oddballs”: They want to collect Daniel, not relate to him. Their snapshot at the counter isn’t a “watching the canvas dry” scenario—it’s one boring story fixed in time, not an ever-occurring wonder.


And since they’ve asked for a photo with an oddball, an oddball they get. Placing myself in Daniel’s shoes, I think I’d be more polite about being equated with a man who shot a nail through the roof of his mouth—but I don’t truly know that, because Rectify can only do so much to show what it’s like to be in Daniel’s shoes. That gives the show a capacity for wonder that’s both exciting and terrifying. Exciting because we’re watching a defeated man come back to life; terrifying because the mysteries of Rectify leave the door open for the type of erratic behavior that concludes “Donald The Normal.” Our minds wander when we’re alone; Daniel’s mind might wander more than most. The best we can do is hope that what he pictures during that wandering is what he winds up seeing in the real world.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of “the issue of great expectations”: For all the isolation of “Donald The Normal,” I feel like Daniel’s trip is written with the character hoping he’ll run into intellectually inclined people like Peggy and her friends. Too bad so many of them turn out to be kind of snobby and condescending.
  • That said, his mishearing of “panini bread” might be the funniest thing to ever happen on Rectify, if it weren’t for Aden Young’s very matter-of-fact interaction with the sign-twirling gorilla in the cold open. Set to Chris Montez’s Naugahyde-smooth take on “The More I Want You,” the trip-to-Atlanta montage puts “Donald The Normal” in the A range from the start (a place it never winds up leaving). It’s not as flashy as Breaking Bad’s “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” sequence, but it hits the proper, sensory-overload notes nonetheless.