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‘Rectify’ Is the Rare “Prestige TV” Drama Characterized by Empathy

Imagine what it’s like to spend 20 years in a small brick room, with one window that looks into an empty hall, knowing that you are going to die. Denied anything approaching what we call life, you’re marooned in a brick-walled purgatory, with one twin bed, one toilet, and one sink. Your only friend: a bodiless voice through the vents. Some days people shuffle away, chained at their hands and their ankles, through the doors, towards certain death.

Imagine living with the weight and the burden of someone’s death inextricably entwined with your life, for 20 years, and then, all of a sudden: you’re released. No more purgatory. That’s the central premise behind the stunning TV show Rectify, the story of one man on death row, Daniel Holden (played by Aden Young), who is released from prison and exonerated due to a DNA test. It’s the story of what his return does to him, his family, and his community, a small town in Georgia that has been forever defined by his girlfriend’s brutal murder.

It’s a rich topic — it’s hard not to think about the West Memphis Three, for example — and what Rectify‘s creator, Ray McKinnon (probably best known to fans of prestige TV as Deadwood‘s Reverend Smith), does with this story is unlike anything else on TV. Like the end of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams essay, “Lost Boys,” on the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three, McKinnon revels in the specifics: “What does sunlight feel like to these guys? What about wine? Or hamburgers? The liberty of choosing how to to spend the ordinary moments of a day?”

Rectify‘s first season — now available on Netflix — was methodical and precise, nearly giving us a real-time recap of Daniel’s return from death row to the world. We saw how Daniel’s return affected his immediate, known family like his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), and his fiery, passionate sister, who devoted herself to his release, Amantha (the marvelous Abigail Spencer). We also meet his stepfamily, the product of a second marriage while Daniel was incarcerated. His new family includes a teenage half-brother, who Daniel connects with over a viewing of Dazed and Confused, and a married 30-ish stepbrother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford, disconcertingly Ray Liotta-esque), full of resentment and convinced of Daniel’s guilt. Then there’s Teddy’s ethereal, evangelical wife (Adelaide Clements), who wants to, in her purity, save Daniel’s soul and help his rebirth.

Daniel’s presence shook up his family’s delicate ecosystem in the six days (and six episodes) of the first season. We learned that Daniel was, at the least, a weird dude with a dry sense of humor, given to not speaking that much and slow pronouncements on the nature of existence, repeatedly citing time: “I can’t quite get a handle on time yet… mostly it seems like I was always there.” There were many scenes of Daniel doing nothing, marveling at the wall of socks in a Wal-Mart, or looking at afternoon light glinting off a pillow-feather.

Moment by moment, it felt like Rectify was showing you just what it’s like to be a person in this very strange world. It’s a show that’s unafraid to take pleasure in the glory of a sunrise, light streaming through windows — light denied to Daniel for 20 years — or the importance of figuring out how to use your sexuality in a way that’s healthy and productive in a world that often twists it into something cruel. It is also, above all, a show concerned with kindness, in a way that’s quite radical — to see strangers in the community treat Daniel with respect, amid so many people who think he’s a monster, will bring a tear to your eye.

Rectify‘s second season, of which I’ve seen the first three episodes, starts out in line with Season 1. While I’m most drawn to the humanity of the show, there is something lurking, darkly, underneath: the question of whether Daniel did it, whether he murdered his girlfriend. Frankly, it’s the show’s hook and probably the idea it was pitched on, although it feels like this world is rich enough to maybe keep the case at bay, mysterious with its implications.

But the case isn’t closed. Daniel’s behavior upon his release could be that of a gentle eccentric, or it could be the harbinger of a guy who has the potential to snap, and for the people in his community convinced of his guilt, his return is an affront to their grief.

Again, Daniel starts the season in purgatory, between two worlds. He’s in a coma at the hospital, having survived a brutal beating from locals. Janet and Amantha keep watch, and start to have conversations about what they’ll do with their lives after Daniel, whether he survives or not. Daniel, on the other hand, is somewhere else, deep inside his consciousness, having conversations with his one friend from death row, Kerwin (the extraordinary Johnny Ray Gill), learning how to live. The conversations between the two men, flawed and messed up as they are, are things of beauty to watch: their camaraderie and love is something rare on screen. It’s different from the dry, quiet way that Daniel deals with everyone else in his life.

Eventually, Daniel awakes, and once again, he’s back on the earth, having to navigate a world of decisions. Does he ID the people who beat him? Does he get a job, move out of his house, run away from his family? Can he see the hurt and the scars in their life? Has he survived the brutality and indignity of death row with his personhood intact? Could you?

So much prestige TV these days is devoted to the glories of a thrilling, A-to-Z plot or an antihero who can be a stand-in for masculinity and certain other aspects of American mythology — or, more rarely, the discovery that a woman’s prison can be the setting for a wonderful show; which is all very well and good and yields pleasurable results. Rectify is doing something subtler and very different, expanding your world like the best TV of the past, from The Sopranos to The Wire — it’s showing you all the details of Daniel’s return, reveling in the alien experience of the mundane, to the extent that your heart nearly swells as you watch it. It’s a character study, with beauty that’s reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s best work. Sure, the pace is slow, and it’s unconcerned with plot, per se. What the show is concerned with is something deeper — empathy — changing you slightly just by making “the choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves,” to quote Jamison in her book The Empathy Exams.

I worry about Daniel Holden. It’s not something I say lightly. His journey is sticking with me in a way that’s rare in television. Watching Daniel Holden’s return to the world, finding something maybe close to spirituality in the midst of soul-deep trauma, there’s something beautiful there — if not inspirational.

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