Stillness in the Noise: A Farewell to SundanceTV’s Truly Essential RectifyJackson Lee Davis/Sundance TV Features Rectify
Midway through the third season of SundanceTV’s Rectify, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) gets his first job since being released from prison. At the beginning of the series, his conviction in the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, Hanna Dean, is vacated after the introduction of new DNA evidence, and yet this is not the equivalent of an acquittal; some gaps in what happened that night still need to be filled in.
Season Three sees Daniel sacrifice himself for his family, admitting to charges that bar him from ever coming back to Paulie, Georgia, the only town he’s ever called home. Before he leaves, though—before he joins the New Canaan Project, a group that looks to help ex-convicts find a foothold in a world unfamiliar to them, his old pal Melvin (John Boyd West) gives him a job painting the pool at the apartment complex he manages. Daniel finds solace and even gratification in the work, a sense of normalcy and order in a world that’s set him adrift. Still, the demons lurk. He sabotages the job in a moment of frustration—understandable frustration, considering the circumstance—before coming back the next day and making everything right. He paints the pool, and then shares a beer with Melvin and his sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), a moment of assuredness before being sent off into the unknown. Rectify may not have always had the most subtle metaphors—painting the pool comes after the failed remodeling of a kitchen, as reclamation projects abound—but they did serve to underscore a more subtle story. Digging into those details reveals what makes Rectify unique, and why it will be sorely missed.
There’s little doubt that when you examine how we consume TV in today’s environment, there’s a focus on immediacy, at least among those avid fans and critics that populate our Twitter timelines with live-tweets and a constant churn of essays musing on whatever new show has captured our attention. Everything feels urgent: It’s inherent in Netflix’s marketing model, which hypes up a release date—say, for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life—to creating a sense of needing to be “in the know” by said date, only for that show’s hype to disappear until, if they’re lucky, the end-of-year listicle rush begins. More than ever, viewers are being pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, there’s the pressure of keeping up with the cultural zeitgeist and the accompanying FOMO (fear of missing out, for the uninitiated), and on the other hand there’s simply too much out there for a single person to keep up with.
In that environment of immediate consumption, of a continuous cycle of feverish hype followed by deadly silence, Rectify was an anomaly, a meditation room tucked away in a busy airport. The series’ elevator pitch—What really happened the night Hanna Dean was raped and murdered?—seems ripe for the procedural crime drama. But Rectify was never all that interested in getting to the bottom of the case that sent its main character to prison. Instead, the show treated its inciting incident as a catalyst for more introspective storytelling, using the murkiness of that night to expound upon the unpredictability of the human condition. So, while the question of who killed Hanna Dean is certainly important to Daniel and his aching family, it’s hardly important to the show’s larger purpose. Rectify is the very definition of a show where the journey is its own reward.
Even if Rectify never really fit into the TV consumption model of our times, by the end of its run its thematic material and character insights felt more relevant than ever. Let’s face it: The political and cultural dialogue in 2016 was nasty and divisive, and the final climax, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, immeasurably changed the way many people view the world. Art doesn’t operate in a vacuum, making it nearly impossible to consume TV shows, movies and albums without tying them back to some larger cultural and political context. Be it a small and whiny uprising against Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for being too politically charged, or evaluating American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson in the context of increasing evidence of racially motivated police shootings and a justice system failing to dole out significant punishment, any art with a political bent finds itself brimming with perhaps unexpected relevance.
Rectify, despite it’s relatively apolitical nature—there really isn’t much musing on the justice system, the death penalty, or race—often boasted a universal relatability; most of us can relate to a story of seemingly good people just trying to make the most of the hand they were dealt. More than that, though, the show’s fourth season felt particularly attuned to our times. With Daniel attempting to get settled in his new life in Nashville, navigating everything from making new friends to dealing with masturbating roommates, his family back home attempted to move on. The crisis had happened, and now the question remained: How do they pick up the pieces and move on with their lives?
Something tells me that this is a question that a lot of people are asking themselves right now. A lot of people woke up on November 9 bleary-eyed and in shock, wondering what to do next. Everything had shifted. An inexplicable, though not totally unpredictable, moment had led to the election of a known liar and abuser. It’s the kind of event that sends ripples across the country, through homes and workplaces. How does a family work through the fear of what’s to come, and how do they reconcile the need to move forward with positivity and drive, with the paralyzing feeling that so often comes with helplessness?
Rectify doesn’t have all the answers; fiction rarely does, because even our made-up worlds are flawed and complicated and littered with struggle. But in its own way, the show presents a model for dealing with trauma through patience, support and family. In fact, the show’s greatest strength was always its portrayal of the family unit, and how complicated that unit can be. In its final season, much of the Holden family struggles to figure out who they are. Teddy (Clayne Crawford) and Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) come up against the potential dissolution of their marriage, which shakes them to their core. It changes how they see themselves, their adamant faith, and the lives of those around them.
Both Amantha and Daniel’s mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), are facing a similar identity crisis. If Teddy and Tawney were defined by their marriage, then Janet and Abigail found their identities intertwined with Daniel’s. Most of their lives have been spent defending him, working to free him, or, in the worst possible case, reckoning with life after he’s executed. The latter never comes to pass, but the emotional toll is already taken. Janet and Abigail have spent much of their lives in dedication to Daniel and his fight for freedom, and now he has it in Nashville. Without the all-consuming goal of freeing Daniel, it’s hard for them to imagine what their lives might be like, what their personal wants and needs might be, and how they might move forward.
That doesn’t stop them from trying, though, and if there’s a broader lesson to be gleaned from Rectify as it takes its final bow, it’s perhaps that even in the face of unfathomable trauma and tragedy, there are ways to keep fighting. Rectify tells us that when our institutions fail us, when the very systems put in place to protect us end up doing us immeasurable harm, we can’t just accept defeat. There’s no room for cowering, no room for retreating inwards. Instead, we have to reach out. We have to find comfort in our families, in the day-to-day minutia of our lives, in the healing power of work, religion, art, takeout food and family game night. Rectify was never going to leave a huge mark on the TV landscape; it’s too quiet a show in a medium where nearly everything is loud. But in that stillness is a profundity that, with any luck, we can learn from. Never stop listening, fighting and finding joy wherever you can.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle