Rectify Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2
Directed by Keith Gordon (‘Always There’) and Billy Gierhart (‘Sexual Peeling’)
Written by Ray McKinnon
Airs Monday nights at 9pm ET on Sundance
Midway through the second episode of Sundance’s new drama Rectify, Daniel Holden sits down in the outfield of a local baseball field. He takes a drink from a bottle of water, and lies back on the worn grass in shallow center field, looking up at the sun. Living on death row for 19 years will make a man enjoy the simple things, be it the heat of the sun or the taste of the air. But there’s more to the moment than Daniel rediscovering the beauty of nature; the scene is symbolic of where he is in his life, a poignant visual metaphor that establishes what Rectify – a terrific, contemplative show from character actor and Oscar winner Ray McKinnon – is all about.
We all understand the basics of baseball: three bases and a plate, people throw balls and swing bats. In the philosophical sense, home plate is exactly what it sounds like; home. The journey of baseball is the journey of life: we start at home, and circle the bases, touching the common points in life at the “bases” along the way. Only is our journey complete when we return home, having discovered ourselves in moments of truth (deciding when to take chances or run, or play it safe) along the way.
When Daniel’s sister Amantha pulls up to the baseball field, she sees Daniel lying there, and attributes it to him finally getting in touch with nature, possibly starting to reconnect with the world that rejected him two decades ago, after being convicted in the rape and murder of a young girl. There’s more to the moment, however: although Daniel is back home in the physical sense, he’s nowhere near ‘home’ in the spiritual sense of the word, wandering lost beyond second base (the halfway point on the journey), unable to be at peace with himself, or those around him.
There are a lot of underlying themes at play in the first two hours of Rectify, but redemption and spirituality are definitely at its core. It’s not a show for everyone; those looking for distinct narrative arcs and plot movement are going to find the show lacking in that department. That’s not to say there is nothing going on – there are a few political overtures in the background, that serves both expository and dramatic purposes – but there’s an overwhelming focus on character on Rectify I quite enjoy, whether it’s on Daniel or the members of his family around him.
The most interesting of these – at least in the first two episodes – are the women in his family: his mother Janet, his sister Amantha, and his step-brother Ted’s wife, Tawney. Of everyone in the family, Amantha appears to be the only one who never lost faith in him, tossing snide remarks to reporters and politicians parading around his release from the prison for press conferences. Janet’s clearly a mother dealing with the conflicted feelings of possibly having a murderer for a son (but also happy to have him home, crying and hugging him tightly when she first sees him after his release), dealing with it all by cooking a lot and generally avoiding the situation.
Of the three, Tawney is far and away the most fascinating (although it does take until the second half of the episode for it to come to light). She’s a classic Christian Southern girl, nervous but intrigued by the stranger who doubles as the biggest skeleton in her in-law’s closet of secrets, a man only released from prison because DNA samples suggested he couldn’t have killed her alone (the prosecution’s backbone, which got a man elected to the state senate). Initially shy towards Daniel, she shares a moment with him at a family barbecue, as Daniel talks about the constant “anticipation” he feels since leaving prison, like he has to make up for a whole life of experiences just to be able to fit in with the people around him.
We see small glimpses into Daniel’s prison life, sharing conversation with a neighboring prisoner, or though the prism of his own memory, detailing the prison abuse he endured during his time in prison to his uncomfortable step-brother. ‘Sexual Peeling’ has a very creepy undercurrent to it, presenting us with a man whose only sexual encounters came from prison rape, who then shares a tender moment with his sister-in-law (he’s later seen pleasuring himself to a dirty magazine Ted Jr. gave him, the page opened to a woman with blonde hair, a subtle connection to Tawney).
If there’s one element to the two episodes I could’ve done without, it was the sexual unrest between Ted Jr. and Tawney. Their marriage certainly could be an interesting one, considering her religious devotion and his clear lack of caring for it, although there would need to be something more to it than that. Is Tawney’s timid sexuality (she can’t even stand naked in front of Ted without getting uncomfortable) really that interesting? I’m not sure, but setting it up with Ted complaining they “haven’t made love since Daniel got out” suggests a romantic triangle to follow I’m not sure that fits with the show.
While Rectify is very, very light on plot, there is some mystery as to the horrible crime that put Daniel in prison. I’m not going to recite all the details, but it’s clear there were other circumstances at hand that have some people reconsidering their own morality in the light of his return after 19 years of their dirty secret locked away. We haven’t met Daniel’s former lawyer (who *spoiler* will be played by Hal Holbrook), but we do hear he has some regrets, as does the former D.A., whose now retired himself and preparing himself to get back in the mindset of investigating what sounds to be a complicated crime. There’s also a moment at the end of the first episode that certainly suggests there’s a lot more to follow with Daniel’s case, which is far from being closed.
In a television landscape too often concerned with dramatic twists and overarching plots to keep viewers engaged, Rectify takes a very subtle approach to a character piece, a fresh take on the ‘anti-hero’ story (that doesn’t really need much story at all to remain interesting). Thanks to Aden Young’s wonderfully layered performance as Daniel, scenes of him sitting in fields as golden rays of sun shine on him are endlessly entertaining to watch. Daniel was a man resigned, conditioning himself for years to prepare for his own death – and suddenly, he was given a second chance at life, trading in the sanitary lights and restrictions of prison for a freedom he never thought he’d have again. But with the colors and textures of the real world come with the shadows missing from the stark, emotionless world of prison – and watching Daniel deal with that (along with his family) is mesmerizing to watch. Rectify is of the best, most original new shows I’ve seen in years, an exercise in creative freedom we don’t often get to see on television anymore.
– Daniel survived 5 stays of execution while on death row. As Amantha says on their way to the prison, “We thought he’d be dead by now.”
– Amantha likes to smoke a lot.
– As they drive away, Daniel looks in the rearview mirror, seeing nothing but green grass and road. He wants to believe his past is behind him, but we can see the red pickup behind him, a visual reminder that trouble and death will always follow him, no matter what he does.
– Amantha tells Daniel “I’ll keep both hands on the wheel.” She’s talking about driving, of course, but she’s also speaking to her perceived duty to keep him safe and guide him back into the world.
– There are some people having sex with each other (senator with a waitress, Amantha with Daniel’s new lawyer), but it largely feels inconsequential to what’s going on, despite characters being wary of being quiet (and actually being caught, in some cases).
– when Daniel says he looks forward to it raining, Tawney smiles and says “It’s going to be glorious, Daniel.” There are times when the spiritual imagery gets a little heavy (although I do love the use of light entering dark places in the pilot itself), but it all creates this very dream-like atmosphere, where rebirth and redemption feel like their only an arm’s length away.