"If Not Hope, Hope for Hope": Thoughts on Rectify
Spoilers for the whole series.
No show has ever filmed sunlight this well.
Rectify is the story of Daniel Holden (Alden Young), convicted at eighteen of the rape and murder of his sixteen year-old girlfriend Hanna Dean and sentenced to death. DNA evidence nineteen years later vacates the judgment in his case without actually exonerating him, and he returns as a stranger in a strange land.
Years of isolation shaped Daniel into a man effectively not of this world--his sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) describes him as "above things... pure," and there is often a heartbreaking innocence to him. He's a man who has had to learn ordinary life from books, who needs glasses because his world has been so tightly circumscribed that his long-distance vision is shot, and who has a kind of tempered awe towards a bottle of Smart Water ("Does this work?" he asks the cashier, his voice quiet, assuming nothing). And Rectify certainly, especially in its first and most cinematic season, gets a lot of contemplative and slightly melancholy humor out of Daniel as a man unstuck in time, bewildered as to why Wal-Mart has so many flip-flops and being told about a video rental place that both opened and closed while he was inside.
But neither the show nor Young loses track of the fact that Daniel's slightly alien quality is its own kind of wound and not, in fact, his nature. His estrangement from the world gives Rectify some of its most uncannily beautiful visuals, but the show returns repeatedly to his time on death row where the only available landscape is white on white and rectangle on rectangle, "icily regular, splendidly null," but where Daniel managed for years to live a life that genuinely does feel like a life, and a meaningful one. Young's performance is never more "normal" than when Daniel is talking with Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill), his friend in the neighboring cell. Their easy, warm, lived-in chemistry--"Hey, will I be glad when you get past your dead white men writing about lily-white Europe phase," Kerwin says over Daniel's Somerset Maugham recommendation for their ersatz book club, and Daniel concedes, "I am on kind of a jag"--is the only available sample of what Daniel is "really" like. When Kerwin is taken away for his own execution and, stopping in front of Daniel's door, tells him--with infinite love--that he knows Daniel didn't kill Hanna--
Daniel: How do you know?
Kerwin: Because I know you. Because I know you. Because I know you.
--the transcendence of that particular tearjerker is earned and then immediately magnified, because Kerwin is gone and there is no one else who knows Daniel in the same way and with the same completeness. And that includes Daniel himself.
At eighteen, he confessed, but his memory was blurred by psychedelics and his thinking further confused by a prolonged interrogation interested primarily in producing an immediate and politically-friendly conviction. Twenty years later, he's uncertain. At the end of the second season, he's asked to confess again as part of his Alford plea, and he both does and doesn't, first telling a story of how he came down the hill to find Hanna already dead and only then telling how he strangled her, and even he's unsure whether that second confession is the truth or just a convenient lie. The show gestures towards resolving that confusion by bringing in other suspects and other narratives, but the ambiguity, however slight, remains. If we believe in Daniel's innocence, it's less because of facts and more because we, like Kerwin, know and love him. Daniel, not knowing and not loving himself, isn't so sure.
Rectify deals with a fair amount of therapy, and some of its overarching questions are therapeutic questions--can these characters know themselves enough to change and love themselves enough to want to?--and those questions can be, God knows, unbelievably boring to watch someone else answer, which is one of the reasons you have to pay people to listen to you try to answer them for yourself. But Rectify excels at both the strange and the universal, and so handles these subjects with very few missteps. Partly that's due to the unfailingly nuanced acting, but even more than that, it's due to the show's lush Southernness. Daniel may be a man out of time, but Paulie is a town never entirely at home in modernity. (The way Hanna's murder is transformed into local folklore feels hauntingly older than its real timeline, like something out of a ballad: "he said they would get married now, and he consummated it by strangling her to death and covering her body with wildflowers.") As the show progresses, the contemporary outside world creeps in--the new black female DA proves to be a power in her own right, and one entirely at odds with the town's history of good old boy handshake deals; a woman casually recommends a marriage counselor by saying she's "Christian, but, you know, certified." But its an incomplete transformation, and the older and more primitive bedrock gives the show automatic stakes and automatic pathos.
Daniel's sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) spent her life trying to free him from prison and, as the show opens, has become a crusader without a crusade: Spencer lends her character such fragility and such darkly radiant glory that talking about codependence would miss the point, when the point is her learning how she can live in the absence of her cause, and what about her is real enough to survive both victory and a kind of defeat. When she pins her hair up with chip-clips and starts managing the local Thrifty Town, it doesn't feel like a small town swallowing up her ambitions but like a realistic and not unhappy look at how to redefine and make a life: she's had to be an archetype and then she has to be a person, and she succeeds in that. Similarly, if in the opposite direction, you could say that the meek Tawney Talbot learns to express her desires and self-actualize, or you could say that she grows into her archetype as Daniel's "Girl Jesus," a young woman whose faith in God feels almost medieval in its plainness and in the glow of prophecy about her.
Lawyer Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) isn't a Paulie native, and he, like Daniel, always carries a slight trace of foreignness, with his rumpled suits and sad bloodhound eyes and succession of cheap motel rooms. (When he kisses Daniel on the cheek as Daniel prepares to go into exile--you see what I mean about the ancient roots of everything here--it's a culturally Jewish gesture in a Gentile town, a touch of affection that has all the more power because there's nothing else around like it.) But if he cannot belong in Paulie, he still fundamentally belongs on Rectify as a man increasingly bowing under the self-applied pressure to be justice, mercy, and vengeance all at once but a man who, nonetheless, understands the old world he lives in. Watch him confront the post-stroke Senator Foulkes, whose reputation was made on his fundamentally flawed case against Daniel:
Jon: The one thing I'm sure of is you are dirty here, Senator. And I'm going to find out how dirty, and I'm going to expose that dirt, and I'm going to make it your legacy. And then I'm going to get my client once and for all exonerated for the killing of Hanna Dean.
Foulkes: Over my dead body.
Jon (matter-of-factly): Whether you're alive or dead as this moves forward doesn't really concern me. I would say, at this point, it's not even relevant.
That's a Boyd Crowder speech with the morality reversed--I will destroy your name, I will destroy your legacy, even death will not save you from the consequences of your sin.
But the longest and most profound arc of change belongs to Daniel's stepbrother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford). Seemingly the ordinary counterpart to Daniel's strangeness, Teddy begins the show as the good son chafing at prodigal Daniel's return--he's unconvinced of Daniel's innocence but, then again, he wants to be. He's not entirely wrong that his position in the family is being usurped. He's called Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) "Mom" for years, and has been asked to revert to calling her "Janet" so Daniel won't feel uncomfortable, and the hurt he feels about that is as clear as the family loyalty that keeps him obedient to it. He thinks that bringing Daniel into the tire store will hurt their already-struggling business--whatever inheritance they owe him is made moot by how quickly the store will fail with him attached to it, but his father (Bruce McKinnon), pure decency, asks him to ignore that in favor of doing the right thing. (Teddy doesn't want to, and doesn't.) He believes that Daniel is harboring feelings for Tawney, and he's not wrong about that, either, and again, the impulse of love rather than purely the impulse of possession is clear there: away at a conference, he turns down a chance to cheat to instead call a wife who seems increasingly distant from him. But just as Amantha's directness isolates her in a family prone to allusively speaking around things, so does Teddy's ordinariness. What finally brings him into collision with Daniel and the show's own heightened realism is, fittingly, a series of mundane events, at least on his part. Tawney's orchestration of Daniel's baptism is a reminder of her interest and belief in a man Teddy feels has made him permanently out-of-place in his own family and even in his own marriage. A day spent placing fliers under windshield wipers is a day spent on an activity he knows is pointless, and it's worsened when he sees people throwing them away just as casually as he'd suspected they would. He's drinking heavily. When he returns to the tire store to shut it down at the end of the day and finds Daniel there--Daniel coming off more extraordinary events--it's fated to go badly. And it does.
"Drip, Drip, Drip" ends with Teddy suggesting that Daniel didn't try hard enough to fight off the men who gang-raped him in prison--maybe, he says, Daniel really wanted it--and Daniel proving, quickly, brutally, and strangely just how wrong that suggestion is. He puts Teddy in a choke-hold and leaves him unconscious on the floor of the (glass-fronted) store, naked from the waist down and with coffee grounds poured in a heap on his bare ass. The weirdness gives it a certain dark Lynchian humor--one of the things the show touches lightly on is how difficult it is for Teddy to convey a trauma that is going to make other people laugh--but it's also an assault, one that makes it almost impossible for Teddy to express physical intimacy at a time when doing so might save his marriage, one that leaves him with a shaky and well-conveyed PTSD, and one that temporarily changes Daniel from his rival to his enemy.
But eventually his pain opens him up instead of just closing him down, and he learns--partly from therapy and partly from his family, taking on Amantha's directness and his father's goodness. (It's a beautifully-handled character arc that's all the more powerful because it isn't seamless--after tearfully and movingly sparing Tawney the pain of having to be the one to end their marriage, he breaks into his old house to grill a steak and steal back his fishing rods, guns, and liquor.) That the goodness is learned, and has to be practiced, saves him from any late-in-the-game hubris--in a powerful scene, he sits in a dark car across the street from where Tawney is staying during their separation and tells his younger brother the story of how he lost his virginity by endlessly pressuring and lying to a girl with an "easy" reputation. It feels like he's processing it for the first time, understanding now who he has been, and who he sometimes still is. "Don't ever do that," he says. It was a victory then, but not now.
It's that understanding that makes his last-episode reconciliation with Daniel so powerful. As he takes on the knowledge of how badly Daniel's case was handled and how strong the possibility of Daniel's innocence is, he has a choice, and on the show leaves unspoken. He can continue believing in Daniel's guilt and therefore in his own innocence--that Daniel hurt him because Daniel is a bad person--or he can allow for the possibility that there is no fundamental violence there, that what happened between them was a tragedy as much as a crime, and one that they both contributed to. He's asked to give up his anger, and he does, and his last conversation with Daniel is a heartfelt and subtle combination of forgiveness and apology: the time when he most treats Daniel like family and the time when, saying very little clearly and obviously understanding each other perfectly, they most feel like family.
The show has its occasional faults. A narrative about healing, no matter how deftly handled, can hardly avoid the faint awkwardness that sometimes comes from characters self-consciously processing their own motivations, which adds a faint overly-explanatory lumpiness to the earlier episodes of the final season. The youngest Holden-Talbot, Jared (Jake Austin Walker), drifts around in search of a role. Plotlines occasionally lack payoff (Teddy putting up his house to cover the rim rental business that we see failing and then later hear in passing turned out to be a success; an attempt to file charges provides cliffhanger drama that dissipates in the next premiere), and the realism of that doesn't entirely compensate for the loss of drama. And the show to some extent has an antagonist problem, with Senator Foulkes being barely more textured than your run-of-the-mill good-old-boy network politician and Trey Willis (Sean Bridgers) vacillating between "intriguing but slipshod sociopath" and "curiously verbose Satan."
But that last is ameliorated later on as Trey gains some additional coloring--his bizarre decision to road-trip with Daniel to Florida just to kinda-sorta substantiate his frame-up is... ill-considered, but as he expresses betrayal over the police station's lack of kettle corn and exclaims, "I compounded my errors!" in recounting a crime, he becomes fun. If he's still not fully-developed, his lack of complexity begins to seem more and more deliberate. He excels at creating mazes and thickets, constantly offering solutions that may be true or may simply be designed to conceal his own involvement ("Something's gotta be the truth"), constantly creating unnecessary cover-ups, as if he complicates his surface because there's nothing underneath, or at least nothing as real as his final, raw reaction to the coming of consequences. It's only as it all comes back to him, the only person he really cares about, that he accesses the same primitive emotion as the rest of the cast: "All you sons-of-bitches playing God." His emptiness is its own kind of punishment, and hence its own invitation to pity. In a show shot full of wonderment and love, the idea of not being able to access that is a profound one.
So it's a show about ideas, and the ideas are both immense and old--for all the procedural frills, and the well-done characterizations of both Jon and Sheriff Carl Daggett (J. D. Evermore, perfectly conveying a kind of weary integrity), Rectify is less concerned with the law and more with the beliefs that lie beneath it--but it's to Rectify's credit that I watched it emotionally as well as contemplatively, and indeed often emotionally rather than contemplatively. There is no iciness here, and very little distance.
The biggest risk is that we will feel, in the end, that the show cheats its characters' way towards happiness, that it loves them too much to follow them to any bad ends. And that may be true, as it's the natural consequence, after all, to telling a story that is really the postscript to a story, some fictional television show that ended with Daniel walking out of prison rather than beginning with him being offered a Coke by a guard who can suddenly see him as a person. But if Rectify does not fully risk tragedy, it makes good use of certain unfulfilled aches. Daniel's finest expression of what love interest Chloe brought him is "if not hope, hope for hope," and the show can only end with his hope for reunion with her and her child, and his hope that the child might become his. When Teddy's separation brings home to Janet how much distance has grown between them, she says--her voice roughed by tears--"God, I wish I hadn't asked you to call me Janet," but he in fact never can go back to calling her Mom. Daniel isn't wrong when he points out that none of the kind, patient men in his halfway house in Nashville will ever be offered opportunities that actually fit their talents. Amantha is happy with local boy Billy, but Jon walks away to a life that gives him purpose but not connection. Daniel can recognize that "more people have tried to help [him] than harm him" but can also recognize that "the harm just seems to leave the deeper mark." There is an honesty in the way not everything that's lost gets recovered, a necessary counterpoint to the overall kindness. But it seems undeniable that Rectify is more crafted than naturalistic, and it's crafted specifically to point towards the light--and it succeeds in that, movingly and meaningfully, because it does so not by forcing outcomes but by providing opportunities. Its grace is primarily a sense of space.
What the show reminds me of the most is Jack Gilbert's poem "A Brief for the Defense":
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
In the end, it's not Kerwin's "because I know you" that closes out his presence on the show, but his opening up of a window of imagined pleasure in the midst of his and Daniel's shared and seemingly fixed suffering. Love is what fixes the ambiguity of all the things we never fully know.