Rectify is a drama series created by Ray McKinnon and was actually the first original series from Sundance TV. The Southern Gothic show is a heartbreaking story, exploring the life of Daniel Holden (a powerful Aden Young), who returns to his hometown after he spent 20 years on death row for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend, a crime he claimed he did not commit. Viewers could only imagine the pain and simultaneous relief he must have felt when new DNA evidence proves his innocence after years of preparing himself for death.
In the first episode, we are shown Daniel as he gives a speech in front of journalists outside the prison. Daniel could have easily expressed his anger and his sadness or even tried to convince everybody of his innocence, yet instead, he stands and gives a beautifully poetic speech: “I had convinced myself that kind of optimism served no useful purpose in the world where I existed. Obviously, this radical belief system was flawed and was, ironically, a kind of fantasy itself.” While protesters and journalists surround him with confused expressions, he finishes by saying, “I will seriously need to reconsider my world view.”
This calm and collected speech is quite shocking and peaceful, considering the tragedy he has just experienced, and it might even be quite inspirational to viewers who can see the pain he is holding back. As the show continues, we follow Daniel on his journey of creating a new life and a future in front of him, one where he doesn’t have to expect a brutal ending. Although, as he struggles to adapt, the people around him, including his small Southern family, struggle as well, and it’s both sad and beautiful how the show depicts this.
Rectify and the Loss of Innocence
Rectify perfectly captures the mystery of small-town secrets in a distinctly Southern way, using passive-aggression, whispers, and polite silence to illustrate the many proverbial elephants in the room. Throughout the series, Daniel’s innocence actually hangs on a thin thread, in the hands of the viewers. The night of the crime involved psychedelic drugs, a foggy memory, and two boys who testified against him. When he barely recalls the night, he is practically forced to confess by the police. When he is released, he is consumed by whispers between locals, leaving him in a conflict with his town, his family, his memory, and his own beliefs.
The show captures an awful theme about loss and grief; while Daniel may or may not be innocent of his crime, he is a victim to rape himself from prison, his father died, and his mother remarried while he was on death row, so he returns home to a stepbrother and half brother. Essentially, one could argue that Daniel has lost the innocence of growing up and becoming an adult, of finishing education; he might be grieving his ‘innocent’ life, his childhood, his father, and his potential. His only real lifeline in this world is his helpful sister, the only person who seems to believe in him (played by the beautiful and vastly underrated Abigail Spencer).
Having spent the majority of his adulthood completely isolated from the outside world, now living in a small town where everyone gossips, he is socially awkward and incredibly intellectual from the books he read in prison to keep his imagination open, often speaking quite poetically, which makes his neighbors uncomfortable. Yet, for the viewers, it indicates his own growth and beauty, but his dialogue (and pregnant silence) also reveals his pain, his longing for a normal life, and his deep and quite dark feelings about his situation. Not to mention, he mediates regularly, which make those town whispers seem a little louder.
A Poetic Representation of Life
Loss can be referred to as the loss of someone, loss of a memory, loss of yourself, or loss of time. Daniel’s story is told in a beautiful and emotional way that is very natural and yet gorgeously filmed (almost reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s films), which symbolizes his deep sadness and loss of many things.
The narrative is raw and often quite hard to watch; from him listening to an old Walkman in the attic, all the way to watching him paint a pool in the middle of the night, it shows the great amount of life that he has missed and the feeling of exile he has from the world. For the average folk, painting a pool would probably be considered something tedious and boring, but for Daniel from death row, there doesn’t seem to be anything more exciting than the freedom of this proletariat art.
Rectify is a sad and realistic portrayal of a man in his thirties who is placed in a world that he doesn’t understand, and where no one understands him. He is forced to confront his past, his feelings, and his dark emotions, as well as the intense judgment from his town. His sad, poetic view of the world, and his burgeoning relationship with his stepbrother’s fiancée (an equally quiet woman who hides the same poetry and sadness Daniel expresses), has viewers feeling incredibly deep empathy, despite us not knowing whether he is truly innocent, as we watch the pain he is riddled with grow, only to explode in the final season.
After a struggling four seasons, some dramas would be full of plot twists and shocking discoveries, yet Rectify decided to barely even wrap it up. We were not given much closure, or many answers, which is actually a very real and honest representation of life. Life doesn’t always bring closure, or answers; we are often left unsatisfied and sad.
To heal from such trauma sometimes might even take a lifetime, and that is exactly what this show was doing, showing the slow and extremely painful process of healing through a distinctly Southern lens. Through healing, there is hope — that is the real closure we were given by the end of Rectify. In a beautiful show about loss, pain, and the simple beauty and ugliness of life, we experience true poetry.