A lot of you probably don't have the Sundance Channel. A lot of you probably do and don't even know it. Either way, that's no longer an excuse not to watch one of the most captivating and poignant TV series in recent memory. The entire six-episode first season of the network's first scripted series Rectify is available to stream on Netflix, and I can promise you it's worth your time.
A masterfully calibrated meditation on doubt, loss and change, Rectify is about Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a man who is unexpectedly released from prison after spending 19 years on death row. Holden was convicted as a teenager of the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend and his release reopens old wounds in the small Georgia town where his family still resides. While law enforcement works on building a new case, many of the residents lack the patience for modern justice to run its course.
"I will seriously need to reconsider my world view," Daniel announces upon his return to society. And more so than the mystery of whether or not Daniel is guilty of killing Hannah Dean, this is what Rectify's first season is about.
The series moves at an unapologetically slow pace, subtly and hypnotically mining the emotional depths of Daniel and his family members' attempts to adapt and connect in the wake of his return. But despite the lyrical pacing, Rectify is never boring nor self-indulgent. Daniel describes his years in prison as "the time in between the seconds," and that's exactly how Rectify feels. The show breathes in a way that makes Mad Men feel rushed, and its languid hero offers a welcome respite from the cocksure Don Drapers and Walter Whites that currently populate television. Of course, some viewers might complain about the amount of time Daniel devotes to merely staring at his surroundings, but it's truly a profound experience, seeing the world through Daniel's eyes, where the most mundane aspects of daily life suddenly become monumental.
However, even as Daniel finds solace in the simplicities of our world, the years he spent in solitary confinement have left him paralyzed in the face of an overwhelming number of variables. "Now that I'm here in this world, where everything's marked by hours or dates or events, I find myself in a state of constant anticipation. What it is I'm anticipating, I'm not always sure, nor is it necessarily a pleasant feeling," Daniel explains.
The world Daniel returns to is drastically different from the one he left behind. His mother has remarried, expanding his family to include a half-brother, step-father, step-brother and even a sister-in-law, and they're all as foreign to him as Wi-Fi, DVDs and the countless luxuries we take for granted each day. And while Daniel's social maturity stagnated within the confines of prison, his kid sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) flourished, growing into a fiercely protective and headstrong adult whose entire life, and even her romantic relationship, inordinately revolve around her brother. (And yes, I spelled that right. Amantha. It is a testament to Spencer's talents that the absurdity of the name is quickly forgotten.)
Young delivers a generous and soulful performance as an untethered man who vacillates between the young kid he was before his incarceration and the detached, contemplative man he became behind bars. Flashbacks to Daniel's time in prison provide insight into his transformation, while his friendship with his fellow convict Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill) shows that for as much as Daniel tried to resign himself to his windowless purgatory, he was never completely able to shut out the world and its beauty.
Despite Rectify's elegiac tone, there's an effortless humor to the show, much of which stemming from Daniel himself. His fish-out-of-water befuddlement with the world ("Does this work?" he earnestly asks a cashier, regarding a bottle of SmartWater) could easily devolve into a series of cheap clichés, yet series creator Ray McKinnon manages to turn even a wide-eyed trip to Walmart into a tender moment where Daniel reconnects with his mother.
And by the season finale (whose emotional pummeling rivals the devastation of Game of Thrones' Red Wedding), neither the audience nor any of the characters — Daniel included — seem to know who he really is. This ambiguity feels both inconsequential and incredibly profound. Daniel is not a character you know, he is a character you feel. And whoever he may be cannot be reduced to simple binaries, especially those of innocent and guilty.
Rectify is a show about trying to apply order to variables. When Daniel loses everything that he's accepted to be true about his life — that he would die in prison — and is forced back into the society that tried to shed him, Daniel must learn what it means to be human all over again. And this, he discovers, means embracing the unexpected. A life where miracles are as likely to happen as misfortune, and where nothing — from the person waiting behind a door to the beliefs he held as true — can be predicted or relied on.
Rectify's first season is currently available on Netflix. Season 2 premieres Thursday, June 19 at 9/8c on Sundance Channel.
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