Since 2013 an original drama has been and (almost) gone with three seasons airing on AMC’s sister channel: SundanceTV. Chances are, you weren’t even aware that there was a Sundance TV channel, meaning you almost certainly wouldn’t have heard of their first ever scripted drama, the impossibly brilliant Rectify.
Starring a mostly unknown cast (the ostensible ‘A-lister’ being Room and Deadwood‘s Sean Bridgers), Rectify concerns Aden Young’s monosyllabic Daniel Holden as a death-row inmate who – after a 19-year stint in a confined, achromatic penitentiary – is acquitted of the rape and murder of his then 16-year-old girlfriend. Daniel is a tender giant whose appearance contradicts his aloofness; hulking and strong, the capacity for monstrous actions exists, but his inner nature belies this. This simplistic set-up is explained in the most humble way, an approach exhibitive of Ray McKinnon’s calculated writing and avoidance of condescension. Holden’s story doesn’t dwell on the question of whether or not he was guilty, but rather serves as a gradually beautiful character-study of a man adjusting to his extended family, burgeoning technology, and the reactions of those whose sympathy for him has been coloured by the intense media circus surrounding his judicial absolution.
In these three years since Season 1 aired, I’ve placed Rectify to the forefront of my recommendations: it’s a show that respectfully takes take its time, and has been treated in a fairly unheard of way by the network. Season 1 was a shortened 6-episode pilot season, 2 went for the more common 10-episodes arc, the third season narrowed itself back to a succinct 6, and its forthcoming final season has been written to conclude after just 8. This purposeful framework from McKinnon allows him to illustrate his stories at a pace that befits his characters; there are absolutely no wasted scenes throughout its twenty-two episodes and the imminent resolution will have been reached on its own with minimal interference. Despite universal acclaim for each season and an already glowing reception for Season 4, Rectify never set the ratings alight, so for it to get this far without cancellation or network tampering is impressive (just look what happened to Enlightened and – to a lesser extent – Hannibal) I don’t know how I would have maintained composure had it been taken to the block before Holden’s story could be fully told.
Holden’s return to his hometown of Paulie, Georgia isn’t to the contentment of everyone: on the side of his innocence is his younger sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), his doting mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), and his deeply religious sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), and on the opposite, Sean Bridger’s Trey – a witness to the original crime for which Daniel was sent away, or prosecutor-come-senator Foulkes’ dangerously determined naysayer who thinks he’s wholly guilty. Smartly, McKinnon’s script avoids categorical answers, leaning on an ambiguity that lends the film which it’s never once clear whether Daniel is innocent or guilty. There’s an action here, or an exchange of words there that hint towards one resolute answer, but these are just credible, reactionary emotions from a man who has lost two decades to the justice system, or an acquaintance whose lives are thrown into turmoil by his release.
The ensemble cast all have their fully formed reasons for dismay or happiness; from Amantha’s relationship with Daniel’s lawyer Jon (Luke Kirby) suffering from the pressure of secrecy to Teddy’s (Clayne Crawford) displeasure at suppressing his feelings for a family he never chose (his father married Daniel’s mother), everyone’s motivations are explicit , yet cryptic enough to add subtle mystery to the deceit and lies of the cross-decadal crime that was formerly settled. In other shows, this puzzle would be disingenuously wrought for melodrama, but here it’s another layer of intrigue that adds to the richness of the delicate story. It’s hard to pinpoint any specific moment where the narrative works best, but perhaps its in the truly elegant flashbacks to Daniel’s time within his cell as he converses through the walls with another felon, Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill), perhaps his only companion in his solitary life.
Rectify has also been proven as an incredibly authentic dramatisation by someone whose life echoed that of Holden’s. Damien Echols – convicted as one of ‘The West Memphis Three’¹ – was condemned to death row for close to twenty years for the murder of three young boys in a supposed satanic ritual. Released in 2011 after assuming an unusual Alford Plea, Echols (as well as Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) had to start a new life after his youth was ripped from him by accusations and the coercion to admit to the hideous crimes². Eighteen years later there has been a definitive answer in their trial thanks to advancements in DNA testing and analysis, but in the case of Rectify there’s yet to be a conclusion, with many paths the show can take to reach its end point: will it find Daniel Holden guilty of the crimes he was convicted, or will he be found innocent of all charges? In full respect of McKinnon’s story, the conclusion of the narrative – if indeed it comes – doesn’t wholly interest me. The journey has thus far been a soft-spoken, introspective look into the lives of not only its main character, but those that are drawn into the gravity of consequence, and it couldn’t have been a more finely balanced, consistently heartwrenching and gorgeously written show because of it. (Seriously, in twenty-two episodes I must’ve wept on some level in 90% of them).
Rectify is now airing its fourth and final season in America, with a UK air date to be confirmed soon. However you watch it, be sure to talk about it and recommend it to everyone you can. For me, I’ll be mourning its loss when its final episode airs this December, but will always have it on a rewatch when I’m seeking to be wowed by McKinnon’s beautiful restraint and appropriate ambiguity, as well as career-defining characters from the impressive cast. Just be sure to prepare yourself for heartache.
² It’d definitely recommend the maddening documentary trilogy Paradise Lost, it’s a must-see for fans of true crime stories, as is a follow-up, condensed recap The West Memphis Three.