Rectify concluded it’s third season on Thursday night and I’m sure that virtually none of you were aware of this. Hell, you probably weren’t even aware of its existence. It’s on a channel that everyone has but no one watches (Sundance), it doesn’t have an immediately engaging hook like ‘Sopranos in Middle Earth‘ or ‘Mr. Chips becomes Scarface’, and it stars no famous actors. And yet, Rectify is the best show on Television. It’s a meditative, funny drama that deals with complex themes like loss, despair, abuse, identity, and the struggle for a meaningful life. The fact that it does all those things well would make it a good show. What makes Rectify a great show is that it never forgets to focus on the joys of life, be they massive or tiny. All of the show’s characters are lost, yes. Most of them live in a prolonged state of depression, yes. They’re trapped by the society around them and by their own inertia, yes. But they also all try to do things differently. They fight for the life they want and to pick up the people around them. They don’t always succeed and are frequently only capable of making baby steps but the attempt to change is always there. It’s beautiful to watch. Rectify may deal very well with the aforementioned themes but it’s not about them. It’s about hope.
First of all, the premise: Daniel Holden (Aden Young) has been death row since he was seventeen. He was convicted for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, even confessed to the crime. But his younger sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) has always believed him to be innocent and has spent most of her adult life searching for a way to get him out of jail. When the series begins, she’s succeeded in her mission. Daniel has been released from prison after his lawyer got the DNA evidence overturned. He’s not exonerated of the crime but it’s enough to overthrow the original case. When we first meet Daniel, he seems like a gentle man, not one capable of murder. He looks at the world with big wide eyes and takes it all in with a gaze that reminds us of a starstruck child. Which makes sense because that’s what Daniel is. He’s spent his whole adult life behind bars and is not prepared to be a ‘normal adult’ in any way, shape, or form. The worst is seemingly behind him but he’s stuck with the question of, ‘what now?’
That’s actually a question that every character has to ask themselves. Amantha’s whole adult life has been about getting Daniel out of jail. Now that he’s free, she has to figure out what her own goals are, what she wants out of life, and whether or not she wants to stay in the same small southern town she grew up in. Daniel’s mother Janet (J. Smith Cameron) came to terms with the loss of her son a long time ago and never truly believed he’d get out. But he has and she finds herself having to be a mother again to a boy she never quite understood. It doesn’t help matters that her husband Ted (who has never known Daniel) doesn’t know how to process any of this. And then there’s her stepson, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), a stereotypical alpha male with a pretty young wife. To Ted Jr., Daniel was always just a name he’d hear about, a sort of family ghost story, not anything he’d have to come face to face with. He bristles whenever Daniel walks by and makes it clear that he believes the man to be a murderer. His wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) isn’t so sure. She’s a religious young woman with a troubled past of her own and looks at Daniel as a lost soul that she might be able to save.
So there’s your crew of main characters. The show isn’t interested in big surprises, twists, or shocking moments. It’s interested in these people. It wants to explore how this new arrival shakes up their world and makes them see things differently for perhaps the first time ever. It gives them room to breathe. Every conversation or character moment is organic and understandable. There are no bad guys on the show. At first glance, Ted Jr. might seem like one. He’s arrogant, cold or outright cruel to Daniel, and all too focused on material things. But consider his life for a minute. He was raised to think this way. Also, the woman he’s called ‘Mom’ most of his life has suddenly left him in the dust, ignored his existence in favor of a man who may very well be a killer. Then there’s his relationship with his wife. He doesn’t like her hanging out with Daniel but hell, who would? He’s not a sleazy womanizer or an abusive monster. He’s a stubborn man who genuinely loves his wife and doesn’t have the slightest idea how to express that. There’s a lot more to him too. In fact there’s a tremendous amount of depth to every character but to say more would be to give away some of the surprises. See, that’s the show’s idea of surprises and shocks: getting to know people. We think we know all there is but then someone has a conversation with a family member or tells them a story they’ve never spoken aloud before and our whole outlook on that character changes. It’s incredible to watch. And honestly, I get more excited about ‘little’ scenes where a character suddenly opens up, or makes a change, or breaks down than scenes where lots of people get killed by zombies or an army of dead things fight a giant and some dudes dressed in black.
This is because the show’s creator, Ray McKinnon, has created a fully realized world. He takes care with each and every character, from the clerk at the convenience store, to the woman on a park bench, to the waitress at the diner. Take the town Sheriff for example. In any other show, he’d be nothing more than an antagonist, a figure standing on the sidelines waiting for Daniel to make the slightest mistake. That’s not the case though. Sheriff Carl Dagget (J.D. Evermore) is as complex as everyone else. He was a young deputy when Daniel was first arrested and remembers the crime with vivid detail. He doesn’t trust Daniel but also knows that doesn’t matter. It’s his job to protect his community. And if that means keeping an extra eye on Daniel while also making sure the town doesn’t go after him with pitchforks, well then that’s what he’s going to have to do. He’s not a villain or a hero. Like everyone else on the show, he’s a human being.
Which brings us to one of the show’s main points. Rectify is firmly in favor of life and that’s why it does not matter if Daniel is innocent or guilty. The point is that we should not cage things. People are not meant to be locked up and the system we have in place seems to only exist to cause more pain. It’s a never ending cycle of misery masquerading as justice. The show never comes right out and says this but we get the idea after awhile. Part of this is due to flashbacks from Daniel’s time on Death Row, where he found a friend in Kerwin, the young man who shared the cell next door. When we watch these two interact, we don’t care what they did that got them there. We simply see two people trapped forever in a tiny white room made of stone walls. It’s horrifying. And yet the two men are able to laugh and joke and have deep conversations about everything from prison food to works of literature. No matter how low Rectify makes us feel, hope is always right around the corner.
The acting is exemplary. Aden Young is able to do so much with a glance or shift in his gait. He truly does seem like a child thrust into a completely new experience. He’s funny as hell too. There’s a wonderful scene from this past season where Daniel has a day to himself and no idea what to do. Watching Young bouncing around, mumbling, and coming up with menial tasks to stay occupied gave me more laughs than most sitcoms. Abigail Spencer is a treasure as Amantha. We feel her rage at Daniel for sometimes acting almost like he wants to be back in prison. She’s also relatable as a twenty something who suddenly has to face adulthood and is woefully unprepared for it. Her search for meaning provides some of the show’s most cathartic moments, such as the emotional breakdown she has at a training seminar. I’ve already spoken about Ted Jr. but failed to mention that much of the reason he doesn’t come off as a villain is due to Clayne Crawford. It’s not easy to make the stereotypical asshole sympathetic but Crawford makes it look simple as hell. Adelaide Clemens brings a gentleness to Tawney that makes us understand what Daniel and Ted Jr. see in her. But she’s not just some little-angel-woman there to save these men. She’s got her own soul searching to do and watching Clemens slowly bring Tawney out of her shell helps to create the show’s most dynamic character arc. All four actors deserve Emmy nominations.
So please, I implore you, watch Rectify. The first two seasons are available on Netflix. They’re not long seasons either, which is one of the things that makes the show so good. There are no filler episodes. McKinnon and his cast get in, say what they have to say, and get out. I appreciate a series that doesn’t waste my time. But more that that, I appreciate a series that cares about people above all else, one that celebrates life while never forgetting how terrifying and harrowing it can be, one that creates real human characters we could easily meet on the street, and one that is able to feel so hopeful without ever coming off as sappy. It’s a miracle of a TV series.