<Mild Spoilers. DO NOT watch the embed links if you haven’t seen the show.>
The Emmys got concluded today. A lot of great shows and people won (including my personal favorites such as Courtney B Vance and Sarah Paulson from ACS: People Vs OJ Simpson and Rami Malek for Mr. Robot) And now is the time, like every year, when the less informed TV fans will sit up and start making a list of all the new shows, nominated and winners, to binge. But amidst all this Emmy noise, there are a few shows which don’t get nominated and lose out the wide audience that they so richly deserve. One such show is Rectify, which, not surprisingly, is Sundance Channel’s first wholly owned scripted series. The fact that none of its cast or crew members were nominated (especially Aden Young and Abigail Spencer) for anything proves that the world is not a fair place.
Rectify’s 4th and final season starts 26th October. I have been watching this show from the year it premiered (2013) and every time I have thought about writing about it, I have fallen short of words and ways to describe the overwhelming beauty contained in this show’s every single frame. I re-watched all three seasons recently and it made me realize that it would be a tragedy, perhaps even bigger than the one this show deals with, if this show is not seen by people who appreciate great television.
The show is set in Paulie, a small town in the southern state of Georgia. The show starts with the release of one Daniel Holden who was incarcerated 19 years ago for the rape and murder of his girlfriend Hannah Dean. He is on death row and about to be hanged in a few days when, miraculously, new DNA evidence comes to light and introduce enough reasonable doubt about his involvement in the crime. Sounds a lot like Netflix documentary series ‘Making a Murderer’ and the famous podcast ‘Serial’ (remember Adnan?) but rest assured, its unique treatment sets it miles apart from these two.
His younger sister Amantha Holden (played by an absolutely feisty and incredible Abigail Spencer) was 12 when he went in, and has since made it her life’s mission to get her brother out. No surprises that she is the happiest when he walks out.
His mother Janet, who Daniel fondly calls ‘Mother’ is played by J Smith Cameron. She married again after her first husband’s death and Daniel now has a step dad, Ted Sr (a very intelligent and smart man whose wife walked out on him years ago leaving him with his typical southern alpha male son Teddy Jr.) Together, the father-son duo run the tire shop which belonged to Daniel’s father.
Teddy Jr (a brilliant & standout Clayne Crawford), has a wife named Tawney, a typical southerner church going housewife who after meeting Daniel starts developing feelings for him and in turn starts questioning her faith and morality.
Then there is Jon, Daniel’s empathetic lawyer who (a very restrained Luke Kirby), over the years of fighting his case, has gotten romantically involved with Amantha. Their beautiful & very mature love story arc deserves its own spinoff TV show.
All these nuanced and complex characters make up Daniel’s world who is having a hard time adjusting to his new reality. He is damaged goods. He spent 19 years inside an 8×6 cell reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and memorizing Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” (coz he found it ‘calming’ and it helped him ‘bend time in a way’) & now he is out and lost.
The first season (6 episodes only) shows you the first 6 days of this man’s post prison life who went into solitary confinement at a time when teenagers were making mix-tapes for their loved ones and is released in the era of iTunes & EDM. To borrow a thought from S02E04 “Donald The Normal,” we’re watching this man at a point when the paint is still drying on his canvas.
When Daniel is not busy listening to his old Walkman or remodelling the kitchen for his mother or riding his brother’s BMX bike or lying naked plucking the feathers out of a pillow, he roams around & bumps into people. Some nice, some nasty. Some invite him to parties to smoke up with them, some want to click selfies with him, some even have sex with him out of pity/sense of adventure, while some beat the shit out of him, and some are just happy discussing art with him in an art gallery mistaking him to be a ‘normal guy’. “I believe we should reinstate wonder and banish expectations.” one fine lady tells him in Atlanta while he is on his way to meet the mother of his prison cell neighbour and the closest thing he’s had to a friend, Kerwin, who wasn’t as lucky as him. The lady from the gallery invites him to have lunch with her and her girlfriends, which Daniel reluctantly accepts and, in one of the show’s countless poignant moments, wonders out loud how good Panini bread tastes, much to the ladies’ surprise who have gotten over Panini by now. They, of course, aren’t aware that Panini didn’t even exist in America when he went in.
Much of the flashbacks focus on Daniel and Kerwin’s time together in the cells. Kerwin’s presence helps Daniel remain sane and once he is gone for the gallows, he loses it badly. So badly that a priest has to be brought in to intervene to get him out of the darkness. So when he gets out, he goes to see Kerwin’s mother which becomes a beautiful meeting between perfect strangers who all loved a man who had an irreplaceable place in their lives. Daniel’s meeting with Kerwin’s mother and his younger brother gives you a sense of the amount and strength of will it takes for people to go on after such tragedies fuck their lives up so irreversibly.
None of the characters are more mysterious or unpredictable than Daniel himself who, in the 19 years that he was inside has amassed a wealth of knowledge and clarity by reading literary giants and he often uses that knowledge in his encounters with imaginary and real people. This knowledge has also enabled him to be really funny and sarcastic when the situation or the character demands him to be (and at times when it doesn’t). It is no exaggeration when I say that it is an absolute fucking treat to see this man talking to someone, anyone in this show. One scene in which he is eulogizing his ex-lawyer who used to send him books (three on French revolution alone!) is an exceptionally profound piece of writing.
While maintaining a fine balance between being a profound spiritual drama and a murder mystery, the show never loses sight of the fact that Daniel is free but not exonerated. Everyone around him, including his step-brother Teddy Jr, has an opinion on whether or not he really did commit those crimes. Daniel’s own memory of the ‘incident’, however, is hazy. There were other people there when all that happened but he was the one who was found with Hannah’s body, sitting there with flowers, crying. But even after 3 seasons, we don’t really get to know the “truth” as to what exactly happened that night. We gather information from the police investigation, old testimonies, confessions and Daniel’s meeting with old acquaintances. After all these years, even Daniel is not sure if he did it or not. The show makes it amply clear that he is well capable of doing it and Daniel knows this too. The 19 years of isolation and solitary confinement have familiarized him with his own darkness but they have also blurred his memories. It’s all unclear, but the show never really tries to become a whodunit. In a lesser show, it would have been the central theme.
But Rectify is not worried about the mystery. It is worried about Daniel. A man who is best described by the title of Second Season’s finale, Unhinged. It’s more concerned with what Daniel’s time in prison did to him and how his and the people’s lives around him have been forever changed because of it. Would he ever be able to recover from this and be able to have new beginnings?
It is also worried about Amantha, a bright young woman, with a peculiar name which is neither Amanda nor Samantha, who could have been living a normal life having a career in a big city instead of working at Thrifty Town, a local grocery store because she can’t move away while her brother is still on trial.
It is worried about Tawney, who is not sure if she wants to be with Teddy Jr anymore given that she now has feelings for Daniel which are in direct conflict with what her church has taught her. Adelaide Clemens is frustratingly great in this part.
It is worried about Daniel’s mother who on one hand is extremely happy to see her son out of prison, but on the other hand is extremely distressed about his survival options in the free world.
Heck it is even worried about Teddy Jr who isn’t really that likable a person to start with but the show doesn’t shortchange him and shows us what insecurities lies beneath that made him so. (Pete Campbell from Mad Men comes to mind when I see Teddy’s character in this show.)
The writing on this show is extraordinary. It deals with themes which, among many, include the nature of truth, God, spirituality, religion, existentialism, capital punishment, the biases of the judicial system or rather people who are a part of that flawed system, and depression, and it does it so humanely that it leaves you feeling like a tangled ball of emotions. It is one of the most intelligent show on TV and you can gauge that from some of the episode titles like Plato’s Cave (from the allegory), The Great Destroyer (from the Tome of Rubicon), and Sown with Salt (from the ancient practice of Salting the conquered earth to leave it unusable), each one hinting at the superior literary knowledge of its writers and their vast understanding of the complex human emotions.
For me, Rectify is the closest that any show has ever come to the experience of reading a fine book. It is not a show to binge watch. Every episode stirs something inside you and you have to give it time to sink in. It is the most human show on TV and its poignancy will break your heart into a million pieces. For Daniel, for Amantha, for the lives lost, for what could have been had he not gotten entangled in this mess.
I hope that this show gets its due. It deserves to be talked about with the all-time greats such as Breaking Bad & Mad Men. I, being a huge fan of Walter White and Don Draper, proudly admit that Daniel Holden has surpassed them and has become my most favorite TV protagonist of all time. Daniel Holden doesn’t exist in the real world, but if he did, I would have loved to meet him and give him a tight hug.
Don’t get scared though. This show is not all tears and emotions. It has its moment of joy and sometimes, absolute hilarity – most of which involve Daniel and Amantha in various situations dealing with weirdos. Their stinging sense of humor proves that they are cut from the same cloth.
There is still more than a month to go before the final season premiere. Enough time to soak up 22 episodes (6+10+6).
In perhaps one of the most surreal sequences of the show, an unknown man tells Daniel – “It’s the beauty, not the ugly, that hurts you the most son.” And then goes on to wrestle with him like a pig.
Go for it, let this show hurt you.
– Avinash Verma