Creator Ray McKinnon’s series achieves an austere command of the varieties of religious experience to which few recent works of American art have even aspired. It’s devotional television.
As former death row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young) addresses the press in the pilot episode of “Rectify” (Sundance TV), the camera moves like a supplicant shifting from one foot to the other. His conviction in the rape and murder of 16-year-old Hanna Dean two decades earlier vacated due to new DNA evidence, Daniel speaks with the soft assurance of a philosopher, or a priest, explaining the ordeal as a “strict routine” of despair suddenly disrupted by new hope.
“I had convinced myself that kind of optimism served no useful purpose in the world where I existed,” he says. “Obviously, this radical belief system was flawed and was, ironically, a kind of fantasy itself. At the least, I feel that those specific coping skills were best suited to the life there behind me. I doubt they will serve me so well for the life in front of me.”
Faith, broadly defined, is rarely taken seriously on American television, for all the supposed influence it has in our society. By comparison with greed, or fame, or power, religion as an animating force in the lives of fictional characters seems almost quaint, a relic of bygone days and retrograde opinions, or otherwise the scrim behind which corruption hides. “Rectify,” by contrast, registers as a “radical belief system” of its own, not because it evangelizes on behalf of a particular creed but because it explores the terrain on which faith and doubt meet in such crisp, painstaking detail. Among its many other merits, creator Ray McKinnon’s series achieves an austere command of the varieties of religious experience to which few recent works of American art have even aspired. It’s devotional television.
In the sight of small crosses around women’s necks and the distant sound of “glorious” thunder, in allusions to Thomas Aquinas and the Bhagavad-Gita, “Rectify” is a potent reminder that the devout scarcely swallow catechism whole, but rather reinterpret religion’s constellation of texts, teachings, and rituals as circumstances change. The history of American Christianity, for instance, is capacious enough to hold both slaveholders and the enslaved, reactionaries and revolutionaries; to ask after the ranks of the saved and the damned at any one moment is to ask, in essence, after the social conventions by which the community in question operates.
In “Rectify,” that community is the small town of Paulie, Georgia, testily navigating between tradition and the passage of time. As Daniel re-enters the world, his sharp-tongued sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), presses against the confines of village life; his stepfather, Ted, Sr. (Bruce McKinnon), and stepbrother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford), confront the possible demise of their business; his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), prepares dinner to paper over the gaping wounds in the family’s past. Though the series never shies away from the sort of blinkered, vengeful Southern “heritage” dredged up in the recent debate over the uses of the Confederate flag, it also admirably resists the temptation to reduce “the South” to symbolic shorthand. In nearly every creative choice, “Rectify” exhibits a homespun, lived-in attention to the richness of the region’s social life, warts and wonder alike.
Over the course of the first two seasons, faith comes in for especially complex treatment, primarily in the form of an ongoing conversation between Daniel and Teddy’s wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), a true believer buffeted by the dual tragedies of Daniel’s damaged psyche and her own failing marriage.
“I can see and feel God in all things,” she says in the first season’s magnificent “Plato’s Cave,” as she urges him to discuss the prison chaplain, the afterlife, and the writing of Flannery O’Connor. Their exchanges, an encounter between two innocents worn down by the fear that faith and its absence can both assume, as Daniel avers, the quality of “fantasy,” form the moral core of “Rectify.” As erudite as a Socratic dialogue, the discussion is nevertheless rooted in the raw emotion of hymns and psalms, as if to extend the hand of fellowship to the viewer.
By the conclusion of the second season, which witnesses Tawney suffer a miscarriage and Daniel contemplate accepting a plea deal in lieu of a retrial, their relationship is almost prayerful in its combination of intense, intimate connection and philosophical investigation. The season finale, “Unhinged,” opens with Daniel and Tawney laying in a motel bed together, still chaste, running their fingers through the morning sunlight in an emblem of the series’ defining aesthetic. Almost alone among series that treat such serious subjects, the action of “Rectify” takes place mostly between dawn and dusk, its clean, simple realism suffused with an otherworldly glow. Even here, as the characters face a dark, uncertain future, the image suggests the work of grace.
In this sense, “Rectify” more closely resembles the unadorned naturalism of “You Can Count on Me” (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000), or the divine clarity of Marilynne Robinson’s novels “Gilead” (2004) and “Home” (2008), than it does the vast majority of episodic television. This isn’t to say that faith never comes in for adequate treatment on cable’s far reaches. Paige (Holly Taylor), the daughter of two Soviet spies, finds succor in “The Americans” (FX) through her progressive church; in “The Leftovers” (HBO), the ardor of the ascetic faction known as the Guilty Remnant, like the desperation of an Episcopal priest (Christopher Eccelston) trying to hang on to his flock, illuminates the ferocious power of belief in the face of unbelievable circumstances. But “Rectify” is by some margin the medium’s most delicate sustained examination of religion as it might appear to the faithful.
Always the slowest of slow burns, “Rectify” returns for its third season Thursday without signaling much more than the outlines of the narrative, and yet it remains surprising, stricken, beautiful. Daniel accepted the plea bargain, confessing to Hanna’s murder in return for a judgment of time served and banishment from Paulie, and now has 30 days to get his affairs in order; simultaneously, local sheriff Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore) and district attorney Sondra Person (Sharon Conley) embark on an investigation that may exonerate him. If this suggests a race against time, “Rectify” is in no rush. Its power resides in the crumpling figure of the dancing man outside Ted and Teddy’s tire store, or a pool of cloudy, fetid water at the bottom of a drained pool, the rests in a symphony of regrets.
Indeed, though the two season-three episodes provided to critics largely treat faith and doubt in implicit terms, the possibility of redemption, as the series’ title suggests, remains the animating force of “Rectify.” It is the most radical—the most fundamental—of its beliefs. Tawney expresses shame at wanting to “run like the devil” from her marriage, Janet apologizes for neglecting Teddy, and Amantha worries that she’s spent the better part of her life trying to save a man who doesn’t want to be saved, but the penance shadowing the season’s arc is ultimately Daniel’s own.
To inhabit the world of “Rectify” even briefly is to know, after a fashion, that our protagonist is no rapist, no murderer, and yet the events of that long-ago night remain hazy, as blurry as the edges of a sunspot. The second season concludes with Daniel’s confession—neither earned nor coerced, it is built from his desperation to move forward at any cost—but the primary effect of his decision is to throw the series’ main article of faith into even sharper relief. Daniel may not be guilty of the crime in question, but we are all of us guilty of something, and it turns out that accounting for and redeeming these sins also goes by a more common name: living.