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Why 'Rectify' Mattered
December 17, 2016  | By Eric Gould  | 3 comments

[Editor’s note: SundanceTV aired the series finale of Rectify on Wednesday, December 14. Plot lines of the episode are discussed below.]

Small dramas usually mean even smaller audiences, but in the case of Rectify, which finished its final season this week on SundanceTV, the little show that could proved that there remains a market for stories where nothing explodes, a psychopath isn’t waiting around the next corner, and life moves at a pace that is credible — it mirrored our own.

Rectify’s farewell (entitled “All I’m Sayin’”) was upbeat for a show that made its hay in the everyday downbeat of melancholy.

With its trademark immersion in scenes that hold quietly on the stillness of ordinary life, we did get a glimpse of what might lay ahead for wrongly accused Daniel Holden (Aden Young, top) who had been released from 19 years on death row when new DNA evidence led to his death sentence being vacated.

Released back to his family as a grown man, but minus his personality and sense of self after almost two decades isolated in a cell for the murder of his high school girlfriend Hanna, Daniel saw that life finally dissolving away from him. And he began to see himself as a survivor, not an ex-con, wanting to make a new future ahead.

He had accepted the possibility of hope.

In a stirring final still shot, we saw the soft-spoken Daniel on his bed, his eyes open, daydreaming of his future (or was is it a jump cut forward?) in a field walking towards the bohemian artist Chloe (Caitlin FitzGerald) holding her newborn child, her pregnancy the result of a prior broken relationship.

Indeed, the message of Rectify, and its title, came from sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, right, now starring in NBC’s Timeless) thinking on 20 years of fighting for his release and the possibility of his conviction finally being legally overturned.  “It doesn’t matter what happens at this point. I mean, it matters. Of course, it matters. But nothing will rectify what’s happened. Or what would bring back Hanna, or my dad, or my eighteen-year-old brother.”

Amantha and the other characters of Rectify seemed steeped in that idea, too — carrying the wreckage of life after the damage has been done, carrying loss, not being defined by it.

Daniel's mother Janet (J.Cameron Smith) decided to sell the long-time family tire store and her marriage to step-father Ted Talbot, Sr. (Bruce McKinnon) survived a shaky patch resulting from Daniel's return. The Talbots, Daniel's step family, including Teddy, Jr. (Clayne Crawford) had had to adjust to Daniel, whom they had thought would never be freed. Daniel's epiphany seemed to likewise ripple through the family, helping them all move past the two decades that he had been incarcerated.

Perhaps more important, apart from Rectify’s tale of injustice, the exquisitely constructed series which regularly made critic’s top 10 lists since its premiere in 2013 (winning a Peabody in 2014), was memorable for its compelling tone.

Aided by an often moody, percussive score by Gabriel Mann that washed us along with the emotional tides of the series, Rectify regularly plunged us into small town life, free of the usual TV car wrecks and mayhem. It felt like a literary dive into a southern lyricism reminiscent of Carson McCullers or Harper Lee.

Creator and writer Ray McKinnon, who himself starred as the divinely touched Reverend Smith in HBO’s Deadwood, has mused recently in the press about how the series could have gone on because, like us, his small cast of characters had much of life ahead of them and there would have been much more to tell.

That’s maybe the significance of this little show, and others like it, such as HBO’s Enlightened (2011-2013) and FX’s Terriers (2010). While the plot of Hanna’s murder was wrapped (it was either Daniel’s high school pals Chris or Trey during a drugged party gone wrong down by the river that night, a new trial would reveal) it might not have affected the series.

With ratings that would horrify networks, but worked for niche cable Sundance, Rectify wasn’t about an endless trail of red herrings like The Killing (2011-12), AMC’s interminable and soul-bludgeoning murder mystery of a young girl. Its plot unpeeled slowly, credibly, and we left feeling satisfied, but also as if there was much more to learn.

The small, tightly knit Rectify ensemble was that interesting.

Of course, we’re not often able to render our thoughts as poetically as these homespun TV characters, easily tapping into their innermost nuanced feelings.

But we certainly were the better for having watched it.

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What a great series! I'm so glad Sundance stood behind it and let Ray McKinnon do it the way he wanted to. I have to confess that I had to really be in the mood to watch it--you really have to pay attention--but often I recorded it, and I found when I did watch it, I rarely watched just one episode. Which is why I just finished the final episode today, almost a week after it aired. And what a perfect ending it was. I also thought the music added a lot and was just right, and all the actors were great. I agree with Dennis: the review was "nicely well-written and insightful." I hope Sundance, or someone, will encourage such low-key series. There certainly aren't enough of them.
Dec 20, 2016   |  Reply
Dennis Robles
Thanks Eric, for this nicely well-written and insightful review.
Dec 19, 2016   |  Reply
Vance Hiner
Rectify belongs right alongside some of the very best existentialist literature I've ever read. It's easily as deep as anything written by Kafka, Cormac McCarthy or Flannery O'Connor. Friends I have from a variety of ages, sexual orientations and political persuasions have all been emotionally moved and inspired by what Ray McKinnon has created here. I truly believe that the more people who watch this work of art, the better off our culture would be. Justice, forgiveness and reconciliation are themes we don't get enough of and Rectify manages to present them compellingly. The final chapter is also as perfect as they come.
Dec 18, 2016   |  Reply
I so agree with your and Eric's Gould's review.I usually read the weekly reviews for each episode on another TV critic's site but I couldn't always comment at that time because I found Rectify to be quite intimate so that I wanted to keep how it made me feel and what it made me think to myself for at least a little while before commenting.
I do hope more people see Rectify. It's not for everybody because the pace is slow. But people will know if they watch 2 episodes whether it's for them or not. I didn't have any problem concentrating on it as someone else wrote but I hear many people multi-task, (perhaps due to too many commercials) while they watch TV and I don't. Either way, it's worth the time investment to find out if it's for you.
Dec 22, 2016
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