Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
Living through a pandemic over this last year has been a strange and terrifying experience for many of us. Stuck inside for months on end without physical contact from anyone outside our household has been an immense strain on our lives and relationships. We’re mentally exhausted from watching death tolls climb higher and higher. Many of us have lost jobs and loved ones, while many more have attempted to achieve a work and home life balance that seems to always be just out of reach. We’ve collectively experienced a once-in-a-century trauma that has left an indelible mark on each of us, and it’s still going on.
Seeking comfort and answers has, at times, felt like an exercise in futility this past year. Like many people, I’ve felt lost and have found myself turning to the arts to cope; reading books and watching television has always been a form of solace, a distraction from the real world that is comforting in its solitude. But it wasn’t until I rewatched the brilliant but slow-moving Rectify, a Sundance TV drama from Ray McKinnon about a man released from prison after 19 years on death row, and the experience he goes through to find himself and meaning in his life in the months after his release, that I was able to understand much of what was happening to us. And more importantly, that we’ll eventually get through it.
Rectify was, among other things, concerned with the passage of time—how it moves, how it gets distorted, and how it can distort events itself. After a year separated from family and friends, we’re all a little bit like Daniel Holden (the extraordinary Aden Young) is at the beginning of the show, albeit to a lesser extent. The series chronicles the character’s reentrance into society after DNA evidence clears him of the rape but not the murder of his former girlfriend, Hanna Dean. Physically free but with the threat of another investigation and potential prison sentence hanging over his head, Daniel is locked up in almost every other way. He struggles to find clarity and an identity in a small Georgia town that is unwilling, or perhaps unable, to move on from what happened nearly two decades before.
While there’s no real comparison for the physical, emotional, and psychological experience of being in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 20 years, the truth remains that we’ve all been trapped in time, living in stasis, for the last year of our lives. Unable to grow or move forward, we’ve been existing without necessarily living. We’ve lost a year already and haven’t yet begun to comprehend what this lost time means for our relationships, our education, our careers, our mental health, our sense of self, our future. Many of us have anxieties we didn’t have before. Many more are angry and sad and confused and impulsive in ways they weren’t a year ago. Rectify’s quiet and thoughtful exploration of time and tragedy, of grief and acceptance, and of spirituality and identity as Daniel seeks answers after losing half his life to prison feels like a perfect, if admittedly extreme, encapsulation of the world we’re living in right now.
When Daniel is first released from prison, he’s seemingly mesmerized by the mundane things we’ve all taken for granted our entire lives: the feeling of the sun on our faces, being able to go wherever we want whenever we want, sitting in the grass and breathing fresh air. In an early episode of the first season, which covers Daniel’s first six days on the outside, he spends a full day listening to his old cassette tapes in the attic, remembering the person he was and the life he lived before he confessed under duress and went to prison for a crime he may or may not have committed (for most of the show’s run, it’s unclear what happened the night Hanna died).
Every one of us has likely considered the first thing we’ll do when the pandemic is over. Maybe we’ll go to a baseball game, maybe we’ll wander the aisles of Target without worry, maybe we’ll go to a bar and enjoy a margarita and a plate of nachos because they taste infinitely better when we aren’t responsible for making them ourselves. These are all examples of rather simple things we took for granted before the pandemic forced us inside, made us recalibrate our entire existence and weigh every action against our health and mortality. Like Daniel, none of us will forget what has been taken from us, how the pandemic forced us to change the way we live our lives. We’ve all been irrevocably changed by our experiences, both shared and personal.
Watching Rectify through this lens has made its central themes feel sharper and more familiar. Daniel doesn’t dare to have hope or expectations, can’t begin to be optimistic about the future. He seeks answers from many places during the show’s four seasons, including organized religion, but the weight of what has happened to him threatens to become overwhelming if he gives voice to his pain. It isn’t until he is forced to leave Georgia and is living in a halfway house in Tennessee during the show’s fourth and final season that he is able to confront what has happened to him. “When you are alone with yourself all the time, with no one but yourself,” Daniel tells a counselor, “you begin to go deeper and deeper into yourself until… you lose yourself.” With tears streaming down his face, Daniel is able to vocalize the depth of the pain caused by his isolation and despair, not to mention the repeated sexual assaults he experienced while in prison. Afterward, he is able to slowly begin to reshape his sense of self from the ruins of a man broken by violence. He even dares to dream of the future.
Rectify is methodical in its approach to storytelling, content to move quietly and at a pace that most people would describe as being slower than molasses. Even though it debuted in 2013, it seems unlikely that a show like it could be made today. Even with the abundance of streaming services producing original content, it’s unlikely that a studio would take a chance on a slow, meditative drama dedicated to deep contemplations on faith and doubt, on the exploration of one’s sense of self in the wake of brutal injustice and trauma. But the show’s slow pace invokes a sense of realism as it reinforces that healing takes time. It cannot be rushed.
This is a show that was meant to be savored rather than binged, so that we can sit with Daniel’s story, and the story of his family members, who each have to reframe their lives once the one thing they were all so focused on for so long—earning Daniel his freedom and clearing his name—is accomplished. Some of the show’s best moments are punctuated by silence and stillness. Some of the most beautiful and memorable scenes involve characters surrounded by nature, looking into the first or last rays of the day. But the quiet is not uncomfortable or overbearing; it is full of promise. Most of us are not there yet, and like Daniel, it might take time to find a cathartic release and begin to reshape ourselves in a post-pandemic existence, but if rewatching Rectify has taught me anything, it’s that this is possible. Whenever we’re ready, the future will be there.
Watch on Netflix
(Until March 4, 2021)
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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