Current summer television has diverse offerings from every genre of programming, and one of the best is nestled on a small cable channel, little-seen but well-loved. “Rectify” is this show, a character study on a small town shaken by a murder and all the people affected by it.
“Rectify,” currently airing on Sundance TV, tells the story of the Holden family in Paulie, Georgia, as they adapt to life with their son, Daniel. Daniel was convicted of murdering his girlfriend Hannah Dean as a teen, and spent the majority of his adult life in prison. The show began with Daniel getting out of prison for a re-trial as new DNA evidence was uncovered, and his journey to understand the freedoms and limitations of his new life.
The first two seasons of “Rectify” cycled through Daniel’s wide-eyed wonder at the world around him and the way his presence in the family’s life enriched and disrupted the established status quo. Daniel’s mother had remarried, and Daniel had gained a half-brother, a step-brother and a new father all in one swoop, who had adjusted to being a family without him. Daniel also tried to rekindle his relationship with his sister, Amantha, who built her whole life around the presumption of his innocence.
“Rectify” is a beautiful show, in all the ways that television can be beautiful. It’s this alchemic mixture of place and people and subject matter, where every week the episodes unravel slowly, like well-told stories. Creator Ray McKinnon imbues “Rectify” with some small-town magic, as the show continues to expand on the people of Paulie, Georgia and their complicated, broken lives.
Seasons 1 and 2 of “Rectify” reflected on family, on choice, on faith, on identity. While the show is built around a murder, it never feels like a simple police procedural. “Rectify” rarely gives a “yes” or “no” answer to the question of whether Daniel actually did kill Hannah, but presented shades of the character that make the answer to the question a whole lot less interesting than the person the question is talking about. Aden Young plays Daniel with deep compassion, and deep anger, seemingly at the same time. Young is a masterful actor, so present in the quiet moments of Daniel’s thoughts, so terrifying in his outbursts of violence.
Season 3 starts with the aftermath of the plea deal at the end of season 2: in exchange for Daniel’s confession to killing Hannah, he won’t have to return to jail, but will have to leave Paulie, Georgia for twenty years. Daniel’s decision to confess was tortured, and he spends most of Hoorah, the first episode of the season, neglecting to let anyone know he’s basically signed up for self-banishment.
Meanwhile, Teddy is dealing with his wife Tawney’s absence, and the jealousy and hatred he feels towards Daniel for his role in Tawney leaving. Amantha continues to search for an identity outside of Daniel, and contemplates permanently working in her grocery store job as a managerial candidate, possibly tying herself down to a place she never thought she would stay. Tawney tries to sort out what she feels about Teddy, their marriage and the miscarriage she had as she hides out with a friend. The Holden family in general is in pieces, trying to find and fix things, as the season begins.
The beauty of “Rectify” doesn’t come in summarizing plot points, or really in the narrative structure, but the way the show conveys meaning through the characters in small moments. Amantha letting Daniel move in with her temporarily at the end of Hoorah, even though she doesn’t understand why he pleaded guilty to the murder; Teddy telling Jared the story of how he maybe date-raped someone as a teenager, urging Jared to be an honorable young man towards women, all the while being parked in a car in the dark to spy on Tawney; Janet, Daniel’s mother, desperately searching for his social security card, living room overflowing with boxes, trying to hold on to hope…all these small moments build towards a deeper understanding of the characters and the world of “Rectify.” Rarely is the show over-the-top and noisy; this isn’t a show with cheap twists and long-lost twins and jittery camera frames. “Rectify” takes its time.
The first two episodes of “Rectify” are a reminder of what the show does best, which is create an expansive view of life in a small town. Watching the show is being immersed in Paulie, Georgia every week, immersed in the tire shop and local grocery store, immersed in gossipy neighbors and grieving families who are anchored in the past by their trauma. Small town life contains so many contradictions, too: Paulie is home for Daniel and so many others, but it’s also the location of a grisly murder that changed the town forever. It contains joy and comfort and fear and rage, all at once.
“Rectify” doesn’t give easy answers, or simplify the complexities of what a life, returned to motion after being put on pause, can look like. It simply tells honest stories about broken people living in a small town, and does so with creativity, thoughtfulness and heart.