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.