Rectify doesn’t feel like anything else on television – ‘you have to do work to watch the show, like reading a book or doing a puzzle.’ But it is worth it
True crime has never been as popular: the podcast Serial broke all records, drawing more than 5 million listeners into re-examining the case of Adnan Syed, and listening to the journey presenter Sarah Koenig took with the case and her mission to find the shadow of a doubt.
Quick on Serial’s heels, HBO premiered The Jinx, an interview series with New York real estate scion Robert Durst, which became a must-watch as documentarian Andrew Jarecki found new evidence in murders long linked to Durst. The inevitable confrontation was riveting television, Durst’s body burping in response to the possible validation of his crimes, and then topping that moment, The Jinx team got his possible confession on audio.
“As a culture, we’re very interested in whodunnits,” actress Abigail Spencer said over the phone. She’s familiar with the allure, between her role on True Detective season two, currently airing on HBO, and her performance as Amantha Holden in Sundance Channel’s Rectify, whose third season premieres on 9 July. Both dramas are rooted in horrible crimes, the price of masculinity and how violence ripples out into a community. Yet, despite True Detective’s mix of spiritualism hoodoo, Rectify may be the show more concerned with the human condition and how the spirit can survive impossible odds. “What’s very special about Rectify,” she says, “is that the whodunnit doesn’t matter any more. You’re met with the absolute worst being on death row. And what would happen if you get another shot?”
If true crime entertainments capture a certain vein of obsession these days, that’s because they present a miscarriage of justice like Syed’s life sentence, and the intellectual allure comes from trying to figure out the mystery. But what happens after the true story’s done? What would freedom feel like? That’s the starting point for Rectify, an empathetic, soulful look at the life of Daniel Holden, an exonerated man freed after 19 years on death row for the murder of his high school girlfriend. Rectify’s creator, Ray McKinnon, an actor and Oscar-winning director who is probably best known for his role as Deadwood’s Reverend HW Smith, talked about the characters as if they’re real people: “Daniel …” he said, and paused. “I hope he can make it.” As played by Aden Young, Daniel is a man out of time, a gentleman poet and intellectual, liable to say something strange and philosophical out of the blue. He’s a foreigner frozen at 19 in the body of a 38-year-old man, in a world that’s sped along past him.
Critically acclaimed (a 2014 Peabody Award honoree along with Inside Amy Schumer and Last Week Tonight), with the minuscule ratings to match that status, Rectify doesn’t feel like anything else on television. It unspools at a languid southern pace, marvelling in the glimpse of sunlight through venetian blinds and exploring the nature of faith and human existence as it applies to death row and the cage of our minds, resulting in moments that have touches of Terrence Malick or laced with David Lynch’s small-town surrealism. It’s a character study, and for actress J Smith Cameron (Janet Holden, Daniel’s mother), “It’s crammed with dialogue, but it’s unspoken. There’s so much subtext that’s really part of the writing. The show has to do less with half-said things but more the moments where the nickel drops for the character and then two seconds later for the audience. You have to do work to watch the show, like reading a book or doing a puzzle.”
Following Daniel in the immediate moments after he’s given his freedom, Rectify shows how his return affects his family and his tiny hometown of Paulie, Georgia, with the familiar – his mother (Cameron), his sister (Spencer, marvellous as the hotheaded, passionate Amantha) – and the new stepfamily – stepfather Ted Sr (Bruce McKinnon), stepbrother Ted Jr (Clayne Crawford, giving a nuanced portrayal of a “bro” on screen), his wife Tawny (Adelaide Clemens), a Christian woman of great faith, and teenage half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker). Daniel’s return brings with it family tension and old ghosts: Teds Sr and Jr are worried about the family’s failing tire business, whereas Tawny wants to save Daniel’s soul, and Amantha, after spearheading her brother’s appeal and spending the last 10 years on that impossible task, is working at Thrifty Town, trying to find the next path in her life. Meanwhile, the question of “who killed Hanna Dean?” hangs over the show: a night of subjective memory, fraught with human error and coerced eyewitness testimony, spiralling out into Paulie’s community.
For McKinnon, Rectify may have real-life antecedents, but it’s a story rooted in the characters’ emotional journey of grace and humanity. “Even a dungeon can be a monastery of a sort,” he said. “The world gets caught up with [Daniel], and he gets caught up in the world, and part of the journey of this story is will he become more like us, and will that ultimately prove satisfying for him. That’s a very real challenge for long-time incarcerates, whether they were guilty or not, after living this very restricted life – suddenly there’s all these choices. It can be paralyzing in some ways.” But over and over, we see these tiny moments of grace for Daniel, and, to an extent, his family; whether it’s the kindness of a local hairdresser or his mother’s ability to protect him during a trip to Walmart, the show is concerned with “the gentle and subtle, less sensational aspects” of the human condition.
“Somebody can do something that, in its own way, in a very small way, it’s heroic. Real human beings do that every day. I’m interested in seeing it in real life and seeing if we can portray that in our story.”