NY TIMES – For decades, television has been cop, judge, jury and jailer. Police and courtroom dramas are a mainstay; a few series, like “Orange Is the New Black,” have explored prison life. But “Rectify,” a drama entering its final season on SundanceTV on Wednesday, is exceptional in being concerned with what comes after prison, for ex-convicts, for their families, for an entire community.
In the first episode of the new season, Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who has been released from prison after 19 years, describes what the incarceration did to him. “When you are alone with yourself all the time,” he says, “you begin to go deeper and deeper into yourself until you lose yourself.”
“Rectify,” created by Ray McKinnon, is a small series; it has shown a mere 22 episodes in three seasons and will have eight in its final run. But by focusing on a small world and pacing itself deliberately, it manages to be both intimate and expansive.
Slowing down time — the first season takes place over about a week — “Rectify” is a meditative work of reconstruction, with a visual sense of wonder, as if the camera, too, had been released into the world after two decades staring at four walls.
The series begins with Daniel’s return home to the fictional Paulie, Ga., after DNA evidence vacates his conviction for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, Hanna Dean. He’s free but not exonerated, and he finds himself unequipped for freedom. Having spent his entire adult life under a regime, he’s paralyzed by simple things like a visit to a big-box store.
The show traces his transition, and that of his family: his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), who resents the years lost with her son; his sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who fiercely defends Daniel’s innocence; his stepbrother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford), who doubts him; and Teddy’s wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), a deeply religious woman whose sympathy for Daniel draws her close to him and drives a wedge between herself and her husband.
There is, in the meantime, a new investigation into Hanna Dean’s murder. At the end of Season 3, another man confesses that he and his friends, not Daniel, raped Hanna. But as the final season begins, we still don’t know whether Daniel killed her, and he, to his anguish, can’t remember.
This forces us to consider Daniel without knowing if we might be sympathizing with a guilty man, or judging an innocent one — just as his family and neighbors must. (We know that he has a violent streak that he works mightily to control, whether he developed it in prison or always had it in him.)
But Daniel’s faulty memory is more than a dramatic convenience. It’s a product, “Rectify” tells us, of how the pressure to confess and then life on death row has killed his sense of what he’s done and what he’s capable of.
He faces this in the first episode of the final season, which ranks among the best the series has ever done. Under the terms of a plea agreement to avoid a new trial, Daniel has left Paulie and moved in at the New Canaan Project, a halfway house in Nashville.
Job One for Daniel and his housemates is unlearning the lessons of incarceration. As brutal as prison is, the rules are plain and confrontations are direct. “In prison, you knew when someone was disrespecting you,” one of the New Canaan residents says. Outside, you have to relearn how to read “connotations and whatever.”
Daniel has coped with this transition by becoming guarded. To those who know him, he’s thoughtful and sensitive, but to others, he reads as aloof or creepy. Mr. Young plays Daniel’s caution as if he’s a man-shaped balloon, equally terrified of being punctured and of the possibility that he carries something explosive within.
The quiet “Rectify,” like Daniel, feels out of step with its time. Its broad empathy separates it from the law-and-order crime show tradition; its deep Christian themes — grace, redemption, being one’s brother’s keeper — go against pop culture’s secularist individualism. It doesn’t even fit the cable TV antihero mold. Daniel, looking to step as gently in the world as possible, is the opposite of a man-who-knocks like Walter White — he’s an anti-antihero.
Mr. McKinnon instead conducts the series like a progressive church ministry, light on the brimstone, heavy on sympathy for the fallen. It finds epiphanies in grocery store aisles and drama in conversations, like a remarkable one in which Avery (Scott Lawrence), the New Canaan group leader, urges Daniel to give himself permission to begin again: “You have to decide whether you deserve a life or not.”
This is not the sort of story that gets much attention in real life, nor in fiction; “Rectify” regularly draws audiences in the low six figures. All the more reason to be grateful that it will have a full if brief run to tell its small congregation that where there is life, there is the chance to be reborn.