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Still Unforgiven: ‘Rectify’'s Freed Felon Returns for Season Two
June 19, 2014  | By Eric Gould

When the terms “literary” or “novel-like” are used for a television series, that usually means it’s a drama where nothing explodes and no one is shot. That wasn’t strictly true for the debut season of Sundance Channel’s Rectify last year – one shot was fired – but most of the story was embedded inside one tight family, indeed, inside their house. And instead of a fiery blast, lead character Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was beaten within an inch of his life in the season finale, and we find him in a medically induced coma to start season two.

Sundance, part of the AMC network family along with IFC, has hit the mark in 2013 with the miniseries Top of the Lake and the wonderful oddball horror import, The Returned. (This year’s series about an unwilling rogue cop, The Red Road, was less impressive). With Rectify, Sundance has enjoyed a winner with a somewhat Southern Gothic tale, in the style of William Faulkner or Carson McCullers, that follows the aftershock in a small Georgia town when Holden returns after being released from prison, after 19 years, for the murder of his then-girlfriend. New DNA evidence has vacated his conviction, and some of the back-story last season revealed that two high school buddies of Holden’s were there, with one of them committing suicide after his release. It’s still unclear, however, whether Holden is completely innocent, since he originally confessed – although his motivation for that is still unclear, too.

The upside of Rectify has been lead actor Young (top, right), who in the first season has ably embodied a character essentially erased by incarceration, who has returned to a world where everything – technology, culture, his family – has changed in his absence. He was literally a walking blank slate last season, surprised by everything. This year, within his dream state of his coma and in episodes to come, we see a more definitive side, perhaps the until-now unseen aggressive Daniel who may have been capable of murder. The new season of Rectify begins tonight (Thursday) at 9 ET on Sundance.

In addition, writer and creator Ray McKinnon (Reverend H.W. Smith in Deadwood) has fashioned the claustrophobic and treacherous fictional town of Paulie, Georgia, where he can morally excavate Holden’s possible innocence and its effect on the locals who may or may not believe in him, and why.

The downside this year, in the first three episodes sent for review, is that Rectify -- zeroed in as it is on Holden’s small, blended family (his father died shortly after he went to prison and he has a new step-father, a step-brother and a half-brother whom he has never known) -- is so tightly wound, it sometimes feels like it has nowhere to go. The B-story of Holden’s scheming red-necky step-brother Ted (Clayne Crawford) and Ted’s angelic wife (Adelaide Clemens), who’s expressed affection for Daniel, grows tedious.

So does spiteful sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, right) who is Daniel’s most ardent defender to the indifferent, or disbelieving town folk. (Spencer has appeared in Mad Men, Season 3, as Susanne Farrell, one of Sally Draper’s school teachers, and one of Don Draper’s conquests. She’s gotten wide acclaim for her work on Rectify, and should soon go on to bigger roles.)

Rectify’s first season was six episodes, and followed the first week of Daniel’s release. The pace contributed to the series’ novel-like sensibility as it tracked Daniel’s re-entry into society day by day. This season, the timeline stretches out and we get more of the backstory of the murder and who was behind the assault on Daniel that almost took his life. Most interesting is when hangdog Sheriff Carl Daggett (JD Evermore) has to investigate the attack on Daniel, and he can’t get cooperation from witnesses, or even his own officers.

We also get sobering flashbacks to Daniel's time on death row where the most basic need is human contact, even if all it can be is talking to a cellmate on the other side of a painted concrete block wall.

McKinnon and the writers can be forgiven for having to navigate the usual problems of a sophomore year while trying to fill the time. Rectify gets more of it right than wrong, including cinematography that celebrates the quirky quietude of a small town and its conflicted characters.

Consider it a summer literary escape to a small town away from the usual cops and robbers.

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