THE NEW YORKER – In the first episode of “Rectify,” Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from death row, and he gives a speech to journalists and protesters gathered outside the prison. Rather than assert his innocence or talk about justice, he offers a zigzagging meditation on the nature of fatalism. “I had convinced myself that kind of optimism served no useful purpose in the world where I existed,” he explains, in an underwater monotone, as the protesters look on, baffled. “Obviously, this radical belief system was flawed and was, ironically, a kind of fantasy itself.” Humbly, as if ending a philosophy seminar, he concludes, “I will seriously need to reconsider my world view.”
For three years, “Rectify” has been a small marvel, an eccentric independent drama, filmed in Griffin, Georgia, and airing off the beaten track as well, on Sundance. With its skewed insights into carceral cruelty, “Rectify” took the slot that “The Wire” used to occupy: it’s the smart crime drama whose fans have trouble persuading others to watch, because it sounds too grim—or maybe too good for you. It’s a frustrating dynamic that has haunted other dramas without cowboys or zombies—“The Leftovers” and “The Americans” come to mind—but “Rectify” ’s reputation for difficulty is misleading. The show’s dreamy pace makes it a satisfying high, like a bourbon-soaked bob down a river on a humid day. It’s a show about the way that time gets distorted; it’s one that distorts time, too. As with many structurally daring series, it’s joyful, because its insides match its outsides.
It’s also, more straightforwardly, a gothic mystery about small-town secrets. When Daniel was in his late teens, he was convicted of the rape and murder of his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Hanna. He served nineteen years, most of them in solitary confinement. The crime itself was a foggy, ambiguous incident that involved psychedelic drugs; two boys testified against him, and, under pressure, Daniel confessed. DNA cleared him of the rape but not of the murder, so plenty of locals—and, at times, Daniel himself—suspect that he did it, because he was found cradling Hanna’s naked corpse, which he’d decorated with flowers. But Daniel’s younger sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), never lost faith in his innocence, and she’s been sleeping with the liberal Jewish lawyer she lobbied to work on his behalf—the big-city Reuben to her Norma Rae. Everyone involved wants clarity, now that Amantha’s faith has paid off.
No one gets it. The murder case is reopened and leads down alarming paths. Few people want to face the uglier facts, including the knowledge that Daniel was raped in prison, multiple times. While he was on death row, his father died and his mother remarried, so he has two new stepbrothers, Ted, Jr., and Jared, who is still in his teens. In some ways, Daniel is himself an adolescent, prone to self-indulgent, self-destructive whims. In isolated Paulie, Georgia, he’s a distinctly odd figure, a socially awkward autodidact who meditated and read obsessively in his cell. He speaks in an off-kilter, whispery style, making even sympathetic neighbors uncomfortable. His mannered intellectualism marks him as an outsider, queer in several senses, as much as any suspicions of criminal guilt do.
The one person who truly gets him is Ted, Jr.,’s wife, Tawney, a sweet born-again Christian who is desperate to save Daniel, and with whom he develops a dangerous chemistry. Their flirtation takes place, however, largely through elevated conversation about Thomas Aquinas and Buddha, forgiveness and humility. And, in fact, a lot of the pleasure of the show is in the dialogue, which favors the stuff that Daniel jokes is not “gallows humor” but “lethal-injection humor—it’s more humane but less funny.” “It felt good to use the telephone that wasn’t smarter than me,” Daniel tells his sister, about a pay phone. His companion on a road trip tells him, “Everything that happens between men and women is written in mud. And butter. And barbecue sauce. Paula Deen said that to me in a dream I had one time.” Ted, Jr.,’s boozy koan: “First you hate it. Then you like it. It’s called beer.”
While the talk takes its time, the plot moves fast. The first season covers six days in six episodes, and climaxes in two crimes, one committed by Daniel, one against him; by the fourth and final season, currently airing, only a few months have passed. Several of the best episodes are one-offs, featuring characters we never meet again. In one, Daniel drifts into the orbit of an antique dealer named Lezlie, a Pan-like anarchist, who invites anyone who is not a gentrifying yuppie—the class he regards as ruining Paulie—to party at his ramshackle house. In another, Daniel gets a ride from a stranger and steals some goats. There’s a strong sense in “Rectify” that, when your memory has been rendered spongy and your safety shattered, each event might last forever or be gone in a flash.
Perhaps the standout episode is “Donald the Normal,” from Season 2. In it, Daniel finally leaves town. He takes a bus to Atlanta, then puts on nice clothes and goes to a museum to see a beautiful painting that he knows only from a book. Throughout “Rectify,” the claustrophobically close-knit Paulie—where the local waitress sleeps with both Daniel and the politician who framed him, and where Hanna’s brother glares at Daniel’s family in the supermarket—is portrayed as near-enchanted in its isolation. Any mention of a larger Southern city (even from the former Atlantan Amantha, who has a liberal hipster’s condescension for her home town) makes it sound as distant as Mars.
At the museum, Daniel is approached by an attractive older woman, played by Frances Fisher. “What do you think?” she asks. “I think I’ve looked at this painting in a book for so long that somehow my brain has trivialized it,” he says. “And as I stand here in front of the real thing I feel, if anything . . . disappointed.” She’s charmed by the alien quality that others find so creepy—his formal speech, his lack of boundaries. She invites him to lunch with her book-club friends. These are sleek, rich city women. He tells them that his name is Donald and that he owns a bookstore in Alabama.
This experiment in reinvention falls apart fast. Daniel has cuts on his forehead and cheeks, the remnants of a beating that put him in a coma. And, bright as he is, he can’t improvise a life he never had. He finds himself faking a conversation about a book he hasn’t read, something with a “pitiful” protagonist. “This bread, um, is excellent,” he says, trying to change the subject. “The panini bread?” one of the women asks. “Yes, um, the pallini bread,” he responds. “It’s . . . unusually fresh.” It’s a heartbreaking slip, a class error that locks him out of a whole world.
The book-club women get into a conversation about a story that Daniel has read, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” and which he’s memorized. His lunch companion can’t believe it: “It would be torture to memorize.” No, he explains: it was a calming task, back during “a period in my life when I was having some difficulty dealing with the passing of time in a traditional sense.” Because Wolff’s story deals “with the bending of time,” memorizing it helped him bend time as well.
References like this get at the show’s fearlessness in taking art seriously, not merely as a distraction but as a bridge between strangers, a way of reframing the world. Still, it would be an exercise in solipsism without the larger, more grounded ensemble, particularly Daniel’s opposite number, Ted, Jr., who becomes both his bully and his victim. As played by Clayne Crawford, Ted is a strutting, insecure shit-kicker, a high-school tough kid gone to seed. A salesman at the family car dealership, he’s the yuppie type Lezlie disdains, or, at least, he aspires to be: he and Tawney share a McMansion decorated in pastels. When the bank won’t give him a loan for a sketchy scheme involving leasing auto rims to black customers, he mortgages the house, despite Tawney’s resistance. When things fall apart, he gets scary.
In another story, Ted might be a cartoon villain: the abusive husband who, at one point, confesses to something so close to date rape that it’s a distinction without a difference. (Crimes on “Rectify” are like that: violence so ordinary that no one reports it—and, when someone does, the justice system makes it worse.) But the show sees Ted’s side, too. Like Daniel, he is a man humiliated by loss of control, with few coping skills when he’s been abandoned. In “Rectify,” anyone who feels something for others, however painful, must be redeemable.
In the final season, Tawney and Ted, Jr., go to therapy, heading toward divorce. Daniel, who has been legally “banished” to Nashville, lives at a halfway house and gets an artist girlfriend. The crime is on the verge of being solved. If “Rectify” has a flaw, it’s one that so many humane shows develop in their final stretch—a Tawney-like desire to save everyone, simply because these are characters we’ve loved for years. In one scene, Amantha, recognizing that an old enemy is helping solve the mystery of Hanna’s murder, asks, “Is there anyone left to hate?”
Daniel wryly refers to himself as Humpty-Dumpty, but he’s often more like Kimmy Schmidt: he’s strange not because his capacity for wonder has been shut down but because it’s almost too open. As the finale approaches, it’s not the show’s problem that I’ve found myself wanting some ugly to stay ugly. Perhaps I will seriously need to reconsider my world view.