THR Critics' Conversation: Sundance TV's 'Rectify' Kicks Off Final Season, Greatness Intact

Rectify - Aden Young - Season 4, Episode 1 - H 2016
Jackson Lee Davis/Sundance

The fourth and final season of Sundance TV's 'Rectify' kicks off Wednesday as THR's TV critics discuss the show's slow-burning, under-seen brilliance.

One of television's best and definitely most overlooked dramas, Rectify, will kick off its fourth and final season starting Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Sundance. THR television critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg discuss the importance of the show and what an ending might look like for a series that never seemed particularly interested in telling us whether protagonist Daniel Holden (Aden Young) did or did not kill his teenage girlfriend before spending nearly 20 years on Death Row — and then getting out (though not necessarily getting "free") after years of dedicated work by a legal justice team.

Tim Goodman: For me, Rectify will always be the poster series for the now mostly forgotten Slow TV genre. It's been dear to so many critics right from the start, so it's a little sad to see it wave (slowly) goodbye. I'll admit that going into this season everything felt right about bringing Ray McKinnon's drama to an end. But the very first episode of season four brought back all the reasons I've loved it and suddenly I didn't want to see it go. I mean, the final minutes of that first episode are some of the best ever, in a very short scene, as Daniel confronts the damning notion that he doesn't know how to live with himself or others because he can't remember what happened on that fateful day. It was such an interesting idea all those years ago: the show not directly getting at the "did he or didn't he?" question. And now, all this time and all these episodes have passed, and parsing out the ramifications of what happened to Daniel and how he can or can't move on is still, at least to me, really fascinating and executed just so sublimely well by everyone on this show.

We've only seen the first two of this last season but obviously we've seen enough, overall, to really dig into it. What are you thinking about season four?

Daniel Fienberg: Rectify is one of those shows that audiences will be gradually discovering for a decade and they'll wonder why they didn't know about the show before, and they'll especially wonder why it never got any Emmy attention. So all we can do as critics is continue to salute its esoteric and entirely singular vision and to reassure fans that McKinnon's steering into the end with real confidence.

Because Daniel moved to a Nashville halfway house at the end of last season, he's the only main character in the first episode, and it's an episode of rather stunning power, highlighted as always by Aden Young's magnificent stillness. The series has always been about Daniel trying to find his place in a world of freedom when he's still spiritually locked up, and putting the character in a new environment, one without his support network from the earlier seasons, gives him chances for new and differently uncomfortable interactions with people who don't know his story yet. As with nearly every beat of the show, it's humane, compassionate and oddly funny in a way you really can't explain to people who haven't watched before.

And then the second episode is Daniel-free, as our other characters reflect on a Daniel-shaped void. How did you feel about this fresh structure to start the season?

Goodman: I actually loved it precisely because it allowed Daniel to interact with someone like Avery (Scott Lawrence, who is wonderful as the group leader at the halfway house) and made way for what I expect will maybe be a longer visit with the local artist community. Not that Rectify ever felt too-confined in Paulie, but new people bring new responses and I'm particularly impressed with the Avery character and how he can draw emotions out of Daniel, and how the work of the artists brought tears to Daniel's face (for a variety of reasons — which always seems to be the key on this show, tapping into multi-leveled emotions). I'm trusting that McKinnon will somehow manage to get most of the important people connected to Daniel back to see him, especially Amantha, because that relationship is so exceptional and I love how Young and Abigail Spencer play off each other. And by creating this separation of characters I think McKinnon has proven that the stories of the rest of the cast and of the side players of Paulie are still intriguing as well. From the first episode, Daniel's life has had this enormous ripple effect on everybody and that clearly continues in season four. Are you looking for anything in particular this season in the way of forward momentum? Is there some conclusion you hope it reaches?

Fienberg: I want Rectify to reach the least conclusive conclusion it possibly can, because I've never thought that any of the answers the show was searching for were literal. I couldn't care less if Daniel committed the murder he spent all those years in jail for and the answer, either way, would probably disappoint me. Or maybe the show can reveal some whodunit details to us, but keep Daniel in the dark? Either way, it's a show about doubt and about faith and for four years Rectify has been the kind of show that religious advocacy groups claim TV doesn't make. I don't think any great show in TV history has ever been as invested in spirituality and in both the strengths and limitations of organized religion in providing those ephemeral answers that Daniel has been seeking.

I also loved how the absence of Daniel made that second episode into a worthy showcase for other cast regulars who often have existed only to be paired with him. The discovery of Abigail Spencer's sense of humor has been a real asset to Rectify in recent seasons and if Spencer didn't have Timeless on NBC, I'd be praying for an Amantha At Thrifty Town spinoff, with her character doing nothing but smoking weed and organizing work shifts. She's great, as are Clayne Crawford and Adelaide Clemens, who have done something remarkable in making me kinda root for Tawney and Teddy Junior as a couple, which I never would have believed in the first season.

How did you feel revisiting Spencer and Crawford on their home turf after reviewing their new network shows (Timeless, Lethal Weapon) this fall?

Goodman: Oh, that last one is tough. I think anyone on Rectify deserves a hit show and a payday for giving us such a deeply contemplative series that, let's face it, not a lot of people have seen (but as you have said and I mentioned myself to McKinnon directly — the beauty of it will live forever and nobody will care if the ratings were low, just that the art remains). That said, McKinnon deserves a hit and big money, too. I wouldn't want to leave him out. Maybe both Spencer, who I think has had more opportunities prior, and Crawford will indeed get a taste of that. Crawford did such superlative work and in the early going it was all about Young and Spencer; plus Teddy is just, well, tough to like (though I sense that changing more now).

And I totally agree with the notion about faith in this series being well considered. It's such a spectacularly impressive combination of philosophy, faith, and literature that McKinnon has woven through the seasons and Young has delivered so effectively. He's been a perfect conduit to share notions of redemption through reading, of hope through wisdom and, when needed, that leap of faith that spirituality provides. To me this has been the great achievement of Rectify. It's like a grand novel that understands the human condition, an existential treatise on self in the most complicated sense. By that I mean the series has been unafraid to tackle questions with no discernible answer — the biggest and hardest questions. Conceptually, the idea that a "thinking" series exists hasn't been new or unique in probably a decade, but few series try to tackle truly deep thinking in the way Rectify does. Maybe that limited its appeal immediately, but I'm damned happy that Sundance stuck with it and that McKinnon and these actors believed it was worth making. You can't take any of those for granted. I mean, the fact that there's a fourth and final season at all is almost impossible to fathom. Rectify defied the odds because a whole lot of people decided it was worth doing without any tangible evidence beyond loyalists and critics saying so out loud repeatedly. I guess that's another example of faith.

And I'm with you in not wanting a tangible answer. I might be disappointed to get it. I liked the snippet in the second episode of the lawyer Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) not wanting to quit on absolute justice for Daniel even when the pointlessness of it — Daniel is "free" and other cases need Jon's attention — is pointed out. He gets it. But it's not a happy or even "fair" resolution to the case he's lived with for years. Rectify is constantly looking at what it means to accept flaws and imperfections in life. I mean, hell, there's that remodeled-kitchen-as-metaphor on the show and in the second episode Janet/Mom (J. Smith-Cameron) is seen wiping up sticky spills on the bottles of condiments in the refrigerator. There is no such thing as perfection.

Rectify seems to revel in how messy life is in all kinds of ways. One question I do have for you is whether you've actually "enjoyed" watching the series, which I know is a loaded one.

Fienberg: Oh, absolutely I've enjoyed watching Rectify, with or without the quotation marks. I praised Spencer's sense of humor in specific, but I could just as easily have raved about Young's almost Buster Keaton-esque morose deadpan. Were the show just sad and contemplative and ethereal, I could have enjoyed it plenty, but it's suspenseful on a metaphysical level and just plain funny. It's really all McKinnon's dark, laconic sensibility; and as much as I agree with you that I'd love for him to have a hit, I don't know if his voice could come out as anything other than personal, off-beat and peculiar. The great thing about Rectify is that you really can give a description of it that sounds like it could be a hit — "After 18 years on Death Row for a crime he maybe didn't commit, Daniel Holden leaves prison, but the law isn't ready to let him go just yet" — and then Trojan Horse people into watching this unique little indie movie of a TV series. Wait. Sorry. I gave away the secret. Let me backtrack: It's a breathless thriller about a wrongfully accused man trying to get justice! It's like every Jack Reacher book! People will love it!

While I don't hesitate to say I enjoy Rectify, it's not paced for binge viewing. But with only 22 episodes in its first three seasons, you can start watching tonight — It's all on Netflix — and watch just a few episodes per day over the next week and be ready to watch this season's second episode. It's thoughtful and slow, but I don't think watching Rectify is like taking medicine.

Any closing thoughts, Tim, on what is truly one of the best dramas of the past decade and, therefore, a top tier drama of all-time?

Goodman: There are so many elements to Rectify succeeding as a work of art if not a commercial success. It shows that in the Platinum Age of television, you have to deliver and keep delivering, but that if you succeed at making an admirable show worth watching, there will be people there (critics, diehard fans, loyal executives) who will do whatever it takes to champion that effort. Your work will live on. It will matter. Shows like this are why the doors are open wide in television. And it proves that sticking with something, as Sundance has with Rectify, really matters. You can brand-build on sustained quality and Sundance has done just that. One of the ways to stand out in this insane environment is to be known as a destination for quality. FX is the poster channel for that, but other entities — like Sundance — are also staying relevant with quality. I think it also, conversely, sets the bar for others. Nothing makes me more annoyed in 2016 than coming across a series that is poorly conceived or tepidly executed — how are people making inferior product still even considered for jobs when television is the best its ever been? Mediocrity is aggravating because there is undoubtedly another series creator or writer out there, male or female, like Ray McKinnon — someone with a passion to make great television in this best but most challenging of times – and that person is passed over, blocked or undiscovered. Give them a chance. Don't reward a lack of ambition.

A brilliant show is being made here — a deeply complicated and nuanced story is being told. Eventually people will discover it and devour it, as you mentioned at the top, and they'll share in the wonder of its existence then as we are now. Rectify is a validation for television.