I never went to church as a kid. Well, no, that’s not entirely true. I would sometimes join my best friend at her Presbyterian church on Sundays when I was about 13. I’d get dressed up and join her and her family for a sermon and a Sunday school lesson and then go directly back to my life of pre-teen heathenism. I can’t say I got much out of those Sundays other than the utter joy that comes with hanging out with your best friend at the age of thirteen. I’d pretty much do anything to be around her at that time – even pretend that I had an interest in church or pretend that I believed in God.
Rectify (originally on the Sundance Channel, now available on Netflix and renewed for a second season) is about a man named Daniel Holden who, as a teenager, was convicted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Hanna Dean, in a small town in Georgia. Daniel is sentenced to death for the crime and spends the end of his teen years and early adult life on death row. Nineteen years later, new DNA evidence is uncovered and Daniel is set free. The show follows his life after imprisonment and his re-integration into the small town he grew up in and the family that has lived past him. This all sounds incredibly depressing and, yes, it is at times. But there is also a surprising amount of humor in the show – some of it, unexpectedly coming from Daniel himself. And there’s an abundance of heart and humanity and God/love or whatever you’d like to call it rarely seen on TV, as well.
We meet Daniel after he has been released from his tiny cell where his only connection was with often brutal guards and two other prisoners who he communicated with through grates in the wall. Daniel, released from those confines, is once again is living in his family home. His mother has re-married to one of his father’s best friends and co-workers. This man, Ted, has a son of his own – Ted Jr. (or Teddy) who is as suspicious of Daniel as anyone else in the town and makes these suspicions well-known. Teddy’s wife, Tawny, is a loving, devout woman who Daniel finds a quick connection with. Daniel also has a sister, Amantha, who loves her brother endlessly and is having an affair with Daniel’s lawyer. There is a younger sibling, too, Jared who is about the same age as Daniel was when he was put in prison in the first place. And there are the many other townsfolk who knew Daniel before the incident and are faced with his presence again. But the show belongs mostly to Daniel, its slow-moving essence is dripping with his piercing, inward looking, wondrous, lost soul (a very large part of why this works is because of Aden Young’s tremendous, generous performance) – and is concerned with his waking up after a very long while in a half dream state.
Daniel has been described as having been frozen in time. But this isn’t entirely accurate. Daniel hasn’t experienced our world but has experienced something over the years he was imprisoned. His life has been slowed down, getting closer and closer to death. Daniel explains that he was resigned to his death, he accepted it and that was all he knew for years. When we see him in his small, white cell talking to his fellow prisoners through the grates in the wall, we are seeing a man in limbo. He is unable to move forward, is stuck in the year he left our world but time still moves on for him – just not in the way it moves on for the rest of us. Daniel isn’t a fully formed human being yet. He doesn’t know exactly how to interact, he is patient and slow-moving and everything he does is considered. And even though he’s not fully formed or maybe because he’s not fully formed he seems both more human and more other-worldly.
Daniel is compared to a lot of things on the show: an innocent, a baby, an alien (my favorite comparison is when someone calls him “Starman”). Daniel is such an odd male character in the world of Don Drapers and Walter Whites – men that know exactly who and what they are or at least can pretend to be what they want to be. Daniel is a guy that wears his confusion, his wonder, his fear on his sleeve. What we come to know about Daniel is that he’s a strange man. Whether or not he was a strange man before his incarceration is harder to know.
Rectify feels new because it does something that most art concerning this subject matter would not: it is not concerned with Daniel’s guilt or innocence. Instead, the show focuses on the way that Daniel explores the world that has moved on without him and the family that has, for the most part, done the same. If you are interested in a murder mystery – a procedural where a crime is solved by the end of the season – you will be undoubtedly frustrated by Rectify. If you are interested in the inner life of a man whose life almost ended – who was on a slow-moving asteroid to an inevitable outcome that burned up in the atmosphere – then you will be transfixed. When we find out who killed Hanna, or even if we never do, we will still be interested in Daniel wading through a world of cell phones and the internet and flat screen TV’s and 3D video games – things didn’t exist in this world when Daniel existed in it.
Rectify’s empathy covers a lot of ground, not only with Daniel. It extends throughout Daniel’s family to the other folks in the town. Most of the folks who encounter Daniel after his release are surprisingly kind, even tender, if not a bit shocked. There are many beautiful moments with secondary characters that reach out to Daniel in unexpected ways. There is the hair salon owner who went to school with Daniel that offers him some tenderness. There is the bookstore owner who has a funny and touching conversion with Daniel about farce and tragedy being two sides of the same coin.
Then there is Tawny – beautiful, angelic Tawny – who is almost too beautiful for Daniel to behold. Tawny who talks to Daniel about God and nature. Daniel’s conversations with Tawny all happen outside, by trees, near nature where they are free to linger together even though their talking is sure to cause a stir. And it does. If only because Ted Jr. is a suspicious and jealous man and doesn’t like his wife hanging around other men. Especially men who were convicted of raping and murdering a young woman. Tawny brings Daniel into the church and suggests that he get baptized. And Daniel sees something in Tawny that makes him believe that the baptism will change him, fix him – that he will rectify himself and by doing so fix all the hurt and anger in the town. Because Daniel symbolizes the murder even if he didn’t do it. Before he goes through with it, Daniel tells Tawny that baptism is a “beautiful ritual” clearly not expecting any change to come with it. And after it is done, he says at first he felt it may have worked. He pretends to believe for Tawny, for himself, for the town. And then realizes that he feels exactly the same as he did before his head was submerged.
At the end of the season, Daniel is beaten by Hanna Dean’s brother and a bunch of thugs. If the divine didn’t bring change upon the community perhaps something more sinister will. But we soon realize that this situation will not be fixed no matter how many of the characters might try. No matter how the legal system might want Daniel or whoever committed the crime to pay with his life. No matter how Daniel gets beaten for the sin of the crime itself. No matter that people want Daniel gone. No matter if Daniel tries to fix himself. The situation will not be rectified because there is nothing that can be done to bring back Hanna Dean, this character that we do not know but we feel through the feelings of others. Nineteen years later and the town is not fixed. Because a crime was committed on Daniel, too. But life moves along. Time doesn’t cease. The kitchen will be updated. Finally.
Before he is executed, Daniel’s death row friend, Kerwin, says he believes Daniel is innocent. Then Kerwin repeats the words “I know you” three times. It is an incantation, a challenge to Daniel or a way of willing into being what Kerwin truly believes. Kerwin knows Daniel even though Daniel may not know himself. We know that Daniel confessed to the crime but, as we learn from Amantha, he was high on mushrooms at the time. We know Daniel was exonerated because of newly discovered DNA evidence. We know that not everyone in town cares about this evidence and still believes Daniel is guilty. And we know that Daniel has been shaped by this and bound by his own guilt – no matter if he killed Hanna Dean or not. And that’s really what the show is about. Not the mystery of who killed Hanna Dean (although, that plays into the mechanics of the show at times) but rather “who is Daniel Holden”. And, more precisely, how does Daniel Holden move through life now, knowing what he knows and seeing what he has seen. How does Daniel Holden find himself and fix himself in this world that has been so foreign for so long?
And that’s why the God line at the top of the page, importantly coming after Daniel decides to get baptized, is my favorite from a show that consistently has some of the most beautiful, poetic language on TV. We just don’t know. Maybe there is a God and maybe there isn’t. Maybe Daniel is the murderer and maybe he isn’t. Life is a bounty of variables – things that you could never expect despite their possibility. Love from people who could be hurtful. Pain from people who could be kind. Daniel is going through a life unexpected. Things happen. Miracles maybe.