‘Rectify’ Ends a Beautiful Series Finale on a Note of Cautious Optimism

How do you end a series that’s content to shrug its shoulders and say, “Who knows?”

The opening scene of last night’s series finale of Rectify takes place in the past, on the day of the show’s very first episode. Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) stands in her backyard, dressed in a neat blue suit, thinking about the son she lost to death row at age 18 and whom she’s finally bringing home, 19 years later. “Today we’re gonna be a family again, mama,” Janet’s grown daughter, Amantha (Abigail Spencer) says. Her mother forces a smile.

Despite the blunt promise of its title, Rectify has always been a bit allergic to finality. How do you end a series that’s content to shrug its shoulders and say, “Who knows?” But last night’s finale, written and directed by series creator Ray McKinnon, beautifully concludes the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and his family without sacrificing the show’s signature ambiguity. The characters have spent four seasons trying to find closure and move on, but in an ironically satisfying ending, Rectify suggests that closure is a mirage, always on the horizon but never at your feet.

The penultimate episode points toward the uphill climb that faces Daniel, who endured 19 years in solitary confinement for the alleged rape and murder of his high-school girlfriend, Hanna, and who’s spent the fourth and final season in a group home for ex-offenders in Nashville, after he signs a plea deal that effectively banishes him from his home state of Georgia. In Nashville, he finds a job in a warehouse and meets Chloe (Caitlin FitzGerald) a free-spirited artist who’s pregnant and plans to move back to her family in Ohio to have her baby. She also urges Daniel to seek therapy; the second-to-last episode opens with a remarkable scene in which Daniel describes being raped in prison, focusing on the water dripping out of a faucet in the showers: “Nothing else is real.”

That episode also shut down any hope for a one-big-happy-family ending between Chloe and Daniel. When she briefly entertains the thought of them being together, he reminds her of the reality of his post-prison life: He’s restricted in where he can and cannot go, has barely begun to deal with his PTSD, and makes $7.85 an hour hauling boxes. “It’s not romantic,” he tells her. “It’s stark. It’s real.”

In last night’s finale, “All I’m Sayin,’” change — and hope — begins to slowly seep in. The episode, which takes place over the course of a single day, is languid, unhurried. There’s a sense of dust settling, of long-suffering characters reaching a tentative peace. Daniel’s boss raises his pay a whopping 15 cents an hour. His lawyer, Jon (Luke Kirby), tells Amantha and Janet that the state has agreed to reopen his case. The family gathers together to pack up the tire store they’ve agreed to close. “I’m looking forward to my life, maybe for the first time in my life,” Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) tells Daniel over the phone. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he replies.

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The finale emphasizes healing even as it recognizes its limits. “It doesn’t matter what happens at this point,” Amantha tells Jon. “I mean, it matters. Of course it matters. But nothing will rectify what’s happened. It won’t bring back Hanna, or my dad, or my 18-year-old brother.” Later in the episode, Hanna’s mother, Judy (Robin Mullins), echoes Amantha’s speech when Janet visits her. While Janet sits on the edge of Hanna’s bed — Hanna’s childhood room untouched since her death two decades earlier — Judy admits she doesn’t think Daniel killed her daughter anymore. “I thought if they killed your son, it would help me move on,” she says. “Now I just thank the lord they didn’t.” She adds that even if they find the person who really killed Hanna, it wouldn’t make a difference. “Not to me. Not anymore.”

In the end, Rectify understands that people want justice and resolution and a righteous ending to vindicate the suffering of innocent people. But the show wisely refuses to let these final revelations, or the reopening of Daniel’s case, feel like a triumph of the justice system, because the damage to the people involved has already been done.

At the beginning of the episode, Amantha admits to her mother that all those years she fought to get Daniel out of prison, she looked at him as “part brother, part ideal. Part fantasy, really.” In a way, she says, she was motivated by the fantasy. If she could only get her brother back, her father might return, and her family might be whole again.

Of course, as the finale suggests, some things can’t ever be made whole again. And yet the episode speaks to the power of fantasy as a tool to push us forward when we feel hopeless. “All I’m Sayin’” sees the return of Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill), Daniel’s death-row neighbor who wasn’t able to escape his fate. In a final prison flashback scene, Kerwin asks Daniel how they can be sure that their prison cells are real and their dreams are not. “Because who would dream up something like this?” Daniel replies. Then, for Kerwin’s sake, Daniel takes his friend for an imaginary spin, describing the pair cruising through New York City in a Cadillac. “He’s the one who’s strong, for me,” Daniel tells his therapist. “He wanted me to believe in myself.”

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After Daniel goes to say goodbye to Chloe and discovers she’s already left, he wonders aloud if he and his housemates are keeping their expectations so low, they can never be disappointed. But his roommate, Pickle (John Marshall Jones), tells him his negative feelings are actually a positive — it’s a beautiful thing that Daniel has expectations at all, that he can still hope for something enough to be disappointed when he doesn’t get it.

Despite an appropriately nuanced conclusion, in the end, Rectify gives us the satisfaction of hearing people admit they were wrong, which so seldom happens in real life. This is another kind of fantasy. It’s fitting that the episode ends on a dream: Daniel lying on his single bed in his shared room at the group home, picturing a utopian future in which he’ll walk through a golden field at dusk. Chloe will be there, with her baby; they’ll embrace as the sun goes down, and he’ll be whole again.