The Sundance TV series Rectify takes the difficulties of faith, forgiveness and family seriously
by Philip Matthews
Of all the great pairings of song and image during this golden age of American television we are currently enjoying – and there have been many – few have worked as powerfully and seamlessly as a moment that closed episode nine of Rectify’s second season last year. Rectify has flown under the radar, relatively speaking, which is a pity, but this moment pushed the emotional level of an already emotional series nearly as far as it can go. A quick recap: Daniel Holden has been released from prison after 19 years on Death Row, back to his hometown in Georgia, and has developed a close, platonic relationship with Tawney, the devoutly Christian wife of his less welcoming step-brother Teddy. The Daniel-Tawney friendship is part-head, part-heart but it threatens to have an erotic component as well. The attraction seems obvious – they both seem lost. The close of episode nine finds them in a hotel room. She has left her husband. She has drunk a lot of wine when Daniel arrives and she wants to dance with him. The song is “Silver Rider” by Low.
It’s a perfect match. Low’s music has been almost consistently slow and minimal – it has deep yearning in it, and sadness as well. There is a religious element that usually goes undiscussed and is never really overt in the lyrics (except maybe on their Christmas album), and that is that co-founders, singers, songwriters and husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are practising Mormons. (The Low-Rectify connection goes further: an earlier episode was titled “The Great Destroyer”, which is both a Low album title and a lyric in “Silver Rider”.) If Christianity in America usually expresses itself – to those outside the country, at least – as intolerant, brash, hypocritical, money-obsessed and judgmental, there here is an example of a less heralded but no less important strain of it. It’s the kind of faith – sustaining, ordinary, culturally-embedded – that atheist loudmouths like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris don’t try to understand.
If, like Harris and Dawkins, you don’t have much interest in wondering how Christian ideas might operate in other people’s lives and in their communities, how those ideas might even be progressive and helpful at times rather than just stereotypically oppressive or archaic, you should probably stop reading. Like listening to Low, watching Rectify does require a kind of open-mindedness – you have to get past the clichés about how religious people live and think. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in an excellent review of Rectify published at Vulture last year, “This is a world that a lot of Americans live in, and yet you rarely see it depicted on TV. Here it’s portrayed without hype, and with zero condescension.” The American South is a bit like the West Coast of the South Island: interesting to the media only when something terrible happens ¬ – usually a colourful murder. Season two of Rectify was unusually intense, in that the ramifications of this subject, Daniel’s possible past, were finally faced up to and explored.
Season three of Rectify, comprised of just six episodes that aired this year, was quieter again and calmer, and the attention shifted from Daniel’s soul-searching to the deep effect he has had on those around him. Daniel has been seriously damaged by all those years inside – the stark prison flashbacks in the second season were tough viewing – but Tawney and others have been damaged by everyday life in the world. “We’re all damaged. Tawney’s just got an extra dose,” as a therapist says in season three. The tone is almost constantly grave: when a rare moment of levity was attempted in the last episode of the third season, it didn’t quite come off.
This intense sincerity is a rare quality. Rectify is a chamber piece with a small cast, set almost entirely in the small fictional community of Paulie, Georgia – it was filmed in Griffin, north of Atlanta – and created by Ray McKinnon, a former actor (he was Reverend Smith on Deadwood) who grew up in such a community. The tempo is slow. The dialogue is sparse. No news ever comes in from the world outside. Paulie is hermetically sealed; it’s partly a landscape of memory for Daniel (what happened on that night by the river 20 years ago?) and partly a melancholic reflection of his state of mind. As Variety critic Brian Lowry put it, “At a time when more TV dramas feel like the great American novel, Rectify is something of a marvel, playing like a little haiku.” Sometimes the morality can seem powerfully Biblical – a senator who has clearly done wrong suffers a stroke as an obvious punishment. (Matt Zoller Seitz dug deeper into the religious symbolism and pointed out that the first season of Rectify was made up of six episodes that unfolded over six days.) Even Daniel’s parole officer talks like she is casually quoting lines from the Gospel: “You have to bend to this life, Daniel. It does not bend to you.”
As Daniel, Aden Young is a big, silent, brooding presence. Sometimes he is borderline catatonic. You are never sure what he is capable of, and you know that he isn’t either. There is something old-fashioned and courtly about him – he wanders through Paulie, and through his memory, like a stunned Gregory Peck, a figure out of time, blinking in the sunlight like Lazarus stepping out of the grave. At times he seems nakedly open, completely naïve, like a new-born with no defences, no guile. What does it mean to lose 20 years and to still not be sure if you were guilty or innocent? To go to prison in your teens and re-emerge in middle age? Rectify gets that sense of grief for all the lost time, and the regret as well.
Despite fairly low numbers (about 280,000 viewers per episode, according to Variety) and an inexplicable lack of attention from the Emmys, Rectify has been renewed by Sundance for a fourth season. You can thank the “ever-splintering nature of television in the 21st century” – or as McKinnon put it in an interview with the Christian Post, “television allows there to be niche stories”. As season three rolled on, it became clear that the crime might finally be solved, perhaps in season four, which would be a tidy place to end this very economical series. But Daniel has already taken a plea deal, which sounded not dissimilar to the plea deal taken by the West Memphis Three (for me, there are a few parallels between the stories, not least in the pale, black-haired Daniel’s physical resemblance to Damien Echols and his strange air of otherworldliness). This deal means Daniel must leave Georgia and resettle in Nashville at a rehabilitation centre called, aptly enough, the New Canaan Project, based on an organisation called Project Return.
Do we all deserve second chances? Do we all deserve forgiveness? That’s one of the questions Rectify looks into. Mackinnon knows that even murderers and rapists deserve a second chance; that is (or should be) central to Christianity. But he also knows that the route is far from easy – and even when you try to do good, you will often do further damage. By the end of the third season, three relationships that seemed happy and intact when Daniel got out of prison are in pieces: his mother and her second husband, Ted; Tawney and Teddy; Daniel’s sister, Amantha, and her boyfriend John, the out-of-town lawyer who got Daniel out of prison. Daniel is not just damaged, he is damaging as well – unknowingly and unintentionally, which only makes it sadder. The weight of expectations and the emotional burden of simply having him around put everything else out of balance. In Rectify, everyone struggles with doing the right thing.
It is probably Tawney (Australian actress Adelaide Clemens) who feels that most acutely. Nothing in the series is sweeter or sadder than the innocent and hopeless relationship between her and Daniel. There was a religious episode in season one, when he was new to the world. It was titled “Plato’s Cave”. In season two, there was the moment set to Low. In season three, McKinnon has allowed the Tawney and Teddy storylines to breathe a little – they do couples therapy, which is an efficient way of setting out their back stories, and Tawney tells the sheriff (JD Evermore, always alert on the side lines) what she and Daniel talked about after she drove to Florida to pick him up at a crucial moment in the second season. They talked about “sin, redemption, forgiveness and God’s grace”, she said. He was “sad, troubled and burdened”. She felt that “God’s testing him”. Even the most unimaginative atheist would find it hard to resist the sad power of those words and ideas.
But the religious mood is never pious or preachy, or even necessarily optimistic. This is also television that truly deserves to be called “cinematic”: with its slowness and stillness, its religious or mystical aspirations, it might even be television as devised by the slow cinema movement (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bela Tarr, Theo Angelopoulous, Andrei Tarkovsky) although I suspect that McKinnon prefers Tarkovsky’s rain to Tarr’s mud. Doubt is faith’s constant companion, even for Tawney. There is a marvellous moment addressing this in the last episode in season three. Daniel and his mother are on a road trip, heading to Nashville, but going via the coast – Daniel hasn’t seen the ocean in so many years. He dives into the water (“I must now go to the source”) and while he’s under, he imagines himself back in prison, dressed in prison whites, being visited by Tawney, which never really happened.
“You’re not here are you?”
“You’re not here either, Daniel.”
She tells him how lonely she is, how lost. He says that he’ll come and find her. No, she says, “I need to find me”.
But what about God?
“Where’s your God?”
In season one, it was Tawney who had confidently given Daniel religious direction. Now they have swapped places and it is she who feels she lacks direction or meaning. It’s a heart-breaking scene, and a perfect sequel to the Low moment. But was it her daydream or was it his? Or was it both?