OPINION: How ‘Rectify’ brought arthouse to the TV screen and became a standout drama.

by | Dec 2, 2021 | All, Opinions

A look at one of the best dramas ever to air that you’ve never probably heard of. 

First aired  Monday 22nd April 2013 2015 on SundanceTV

Contributed by James Donaghy

Placing murder front and centre of your prestige TV drama is a solid strategy. Nothing gets the blood pumping like a dead body, after all. It might be the eerie noir of The Killing, the intricate whydunnit of The Fall or the delicate cold case excavation of Unforgotten. Great as all these shows are, they adhere faithfully to the conventions of their genre. In 2013, SundanceTV began broadcasting a show concerning a historical crime that was quite different. The protagonist was a convicted murderer/rapist released from death row but we never really knew if he was innocent. He appeared to have absolutely no interest in clearing his name. There was no wondering if he’d kill again, sifting through red herrings or weekly pursuit of a one-armed man. The pace was glacial, the action minimal. The show was Rectify and it’s the best and strangest drama you’ve never heard of.

It might very easily have never happened. Writer-director Ray McKinnon originally had the show commissioned by AMC in 2008. The network was on its uppers having produced two touchstone TV shows in quick succession, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Although new to TV directing, McKinnon had some clout having won the 2001 Academy award for best live-action short film for the film The Accountant, produced with his wife Lisa Blount and the actor Walter Goggins. Rectify originally spent three years in development hell at AMC, with Goggins set to play the starring role. He never got the chance.

Perhaps feeling they already had enough on their plate, they passed it over to their sister channel, the much smaller SundanceTV, part of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, an organisation committed to the values of indie filmmaking. It was clear from the off that while it would never have a big budget Rectify would get the time and space to explore its themes and characters without network intervention. Much like Sundance’s Golden Globe-winning miniseries Carlos the Jackal in 2010 and the subsequent Top of the Lake in 2015, Rectify would have the feel of the arthouse movies of the Sundance Festival. McKinnon explained “(SundanceTV) are letting us do it the way we feel like is the way to do this, with very little interference”. 

As we begin, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from death row after 19 years returning to his hometown of Paulie, Georgia. New DNA evidence makes the conviction unsafe but stops short of exoneration – his sentence is merely vacated. Convicted at 18 after having confessed to the murder and rape of his girlfriend Hanna, he steps into a weird hinterland – not exactly guilty, not entirely innocent; free to come and go as he pleases but with no idea how to.

As Daniel struggles to come to terms with coming home, home struggles to come to terms with him. His mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) has now remarried, his father having died while he was jailed. He returns home to his stepfather Ted (Bruce McKinnon) and stepbrothers, the friendly Jared (Jake Austin Walker) and hostile Ted Junior (Clayne Crawford). An immediate connection is formed with Ted’s wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens). She sees something beautiful and broken in Daniel, believing it’s her Christian duty to redeem him. At first, the relationship is chaste, almost childlike but over time romantic feelings develop. It’s a complication he can do without.

Because the after-shocks of Daniel’s release resonate long and hard in Paulie. Hanna’s murder is still an open wound for the town’s residents, particularly for her family. Daniel is not one of those exonerees who loudly proclaims his innocence. He’s not really saying much of anything, creating a vacuum the justice system is happy to fill.

Never happy admitting a bad call, the law are happy they got the right man first time around. Senator Roland Foulkes (Michael O’Neill) prosecuted Daniel, got elected to Senate on the back of the case and is in absolutely no mood to reassess his original conclusions. With his political reputation on the line, his mission is to get Daniel back on death row through any means available to him.

All of which may make you think that you’re in familiar territory but Rectify is often a show defined by what it’s not. It could have been a campaigning show about an innocent man released but it’s never exactly clear how innocent Daniel is. It might have been about the cruelty of the death penalty but if you’re looking for soapboxing you’ll be disappointed. It could have exposed the small-mindedness of small towns but Paulie had both revenge and forgiveness in its heart. No one’s irredeemably bad, no one’s impeccably good. Characters are messy by design and our hero may not be heroic. It forces viewers to confront a tough question: can we still empathise with Daniel if he is guilty?

One way or another, empathy is what the show demands of you. Naturally, we connect with the lost, broken Daniel but it doesn’t stop there. We walk a mile in Teddy Junior’s shoes as the stepbrother he’s never met forms an intense relationship with his wife. We feel the rage of Hanna’s brother Bobby Dean (Linds Edwards) as Daniel is freed, another victim trapped by circumstance. We sense the dread in Daniel’s mother as she tries to resettle her son in an alien world. Janet knows Daniel better than anyone but even she can’t crack the enigma.

It’s not surprising. Daniel is never an easy read – palpably bemused by the new world around him but never saying too much about it. Years of isolation and abuse inside have taken a toll on him but it’s hard to say exactly how. He’s prone to gazing into space, lost in some mystery reverie – he’s a study in rumination. On the surface, he’s gentle and childlike but every now and then darkness surfaces. After provocation from Teddy Junior, he chokes out and sexually humiliates his stepbrother. On another occasion, he strangles a dummy made of pillows as he listens to a tape recording of his murder confession. It’s either what prison did to him or it’s a reason why he should still be in prison.

Flashbacks to his time inside give us some clues to the making of the man. Dressed all in white in a white-walled cell the size of a parking space, entirely isolated, it feels like his own private purgatory. Through the walls, he forms a touching friendship with fellow death row inmate Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill) while on the other side he is tormented by the jibes of one of his rapists Wendall. (Jayson Warner Smith). The ambiguity of Daniel’s innocence or guilt forces raises the question should anybody be subject to these conditions for decades at a time, regardless of their crime. It’s not a campaigning kind of show but the point is powerfully made regardless.

Someone who’s no stranger to campaigning is Daniel’s sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer). 12 years old when her brother was sentenced to death, she has spent most of her life fighting to save Daniel’s. Smart, tough and testy, Amantha has built up a stockpile of resentment over the years as she put her life on hold waiting for Daniel’s release. “God I hate this f***ing town,” she says of Paulie but she’s never tried to leave. Working a deadbeat job in a supermarket, the only serious romantic relationship of her life is with Daniel’s appeal lawyer Jon (Luke Kirby). With Daniel released Amantha has to answer the question “what now?” As much as Daniel struggles with his new life, Amantha struggles to find a new identity. 19 years on a single issue has left her with few transferable skills, woeful employment prospects and a rolling ball of tumbleweed where a life plan should be. Small wonder she gets cranky.

The siblings come into conflict in season two when Daniel faces a stark choice: submit to a retrial that could send him back to death row or plead guilty to murder to avoid further jail time but be banished from the state of Georgia. Amantha can’t believe he would even consider taking the deal and pleading guilty. Her entire identity and most of her life is invested in his factual innocence, not some legal technicality. All of a sudden it seems like all her sacrifices were for nothing – the 20-year struggle to clear her family’s name as much as Daniel’s rendered worthless with a nod of the head from her brother. She reminds him that he wasn’t the only one doing time.

And time itself is a peculiar thing on Rectify. When you complete the show it’ll feel like an age has passed but the show’s entire four-season run takes place over a period of around six months. While other shows set a breakneck pace, Rectify lingers, often on images – an inflatable air dancer, a pecan grove, a hand disturbing a beam of sunlight. It employs the techniques of the hypnotist, not the ringmaster. So much of the study of Daniel, in particular, takes place in the non-verbal that it asks an awful lot of its leading man. Fortunately, they have Aden Young delivering a powerhouse performance, at turns vulnerable, angry and woozy, undercut with a terrific surreal sense of humour, particularly in scenes with Janet.

It got the kind of critical reviews usually reserved for elite Hall of Fame TV. Philadelphia Daily News’ Ellen Gray said “There’s not a bad performance to be had in Rectify,” while Alan Sepinwall of HitFix raved “There is nothing else on television quite like it, and for those who have the patience to sit through Daniel’s still, slow journey, the emotional rewards are enormous.” The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan wholeheartedly agreed. “This wonderful, resonant show clearly has a deep belief in the power of redemption and connection. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself. Please.” The bold creative choices – the pacing, investment in character and purposeful ambiguity – had paid off. Artistically, it was a smash.

It wasn’t just the critics it impressed. Damien Echols, who spent two decades imprisoned on death row before being released (but not exonerated) on DNA evidence, wrote “I can tell you from first-hand experience that Rectify is a very realistic show.” He spoke of how perfectly the show captured “the shock and trauma of someone just released after nearly 20 years on death row.” Echols saw his own experience mirrored as the dumbfounded Daniel emerges from years of a sensory starved environment to a glut of noises, colours, shapes and sounds.  “I was drunk on the river of human energy that flowed all around me, over me, and through me. The human interaction and energy I’d been starved of for almost 20 years.” It’s a sad but profound endorsement from a real-life Daniel Holden.

Perhaps predictably the killer reviews couldn’t stop Rectify from posting heroically low ratings. Typically garnering audiences of 100-200K per episode, it was a show even many TV critics didn’t even bother with. I know from experience it was a tough sell to potential viewers. “Terminally ill chemistry teacher becomes crystal meth kingpin” is a hell of a hook. “Possibly innocent man gets released, wanders round in a daze” not so much. The audience size would have tested the most understanding of channels. Standing by your show is one thing but it had the kind of barely audible low-level buzz that kills a show halfway through its first season. Sundance though stuck to their guns and saw it through all the way to the end of a fourth season and the Ray McKinnon-penned series finale. Few shows in history have been so relentlessly backed by a network.

No one at Sundance feels like it didn’t earn it. Even as a viewer Rectify is a series that makes you work for it. It’s not the kind of show you can have on in the background while you’re doing a few chores and get the general gist. There are layers of meaning in the framing, composition and silence vital to the story. McKinnon explains “I grew up around subtext. There was subtext in my family. There was subtext in my community. There’s always the things that aren’t being said. If we’re observant, we see this, we feel that.”

In other words, it demands your full attention but few shows deliver as completely. You won’t regret it.

James Donaghy

James Donaghy

02/12/2021

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