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Ray McKinnon, the creator, writer and director of the acclaimed drama Rectify, which begins its second season Thursday on Sundance TV, made a particularly telling comment about his series: “Rectify is about being alive.”
He’s right, of course, but some may read into the meaning of “being alive” a sense of exuberance and passion, both tamped-down traits of Rectify, which is the current poster series in the Slow TV movement.
The first season revolved around main character Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who spent 19 years on death row, convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend. Freed on DNA evidence, Daniel is let out of the tiny white cell where he’s spent half his life and returns to the fictional small Southern town of Paulie, where his family tries to ease him back into a community where most people still thinks he’s guilty.
His release was secured through the efforts of his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) and lawyer Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) from the nonprofit legal organization Justice Row. Amantha is a no-bullshit firecracker (and Spencer is wonderful in that role) whose life’s work so far, almost by accident, has been helping to free Daniel. In season two she will have to face up to what that means for her now that he’s out.
Daniel’s father is dead and his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), has married a good man in Ted Talbot Sr. (Bruce McKinnon). But Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) believes Daniel’s highly controversial release will doom sales at the tire store that he and his father took over from Daniel’s father. Prickly, selfish and skeptical, Ted Jr. also doesn’t fully believe Daniel is innocent. As much as the audience hates Ted Jr. (which means that Crawford truly nailed that part), there are episodes in season one where viewers might start to side with him.
But Ted Jr.’s ultra-religious young wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), sees a fragile lost soul in Daniel and believes that God has put him in her path to be saved.
Ray McKinnon was able to generate a lot of sparks out of a smoldering coal of a story, getting all of the supporting characters involved even when Young’s performance as Daniel was so riveting you didn’t want the camera to cut away from him. In many ways, however, six episodes wasn’t enough. In the second season, Rectify is up to 10 episodes, which seems more fitting and should allow for an expansion of its small world.
What McKinnon did so masterfully in that first season was track those six episodes over a span of six days, slowing down and expanding upon exactly what it must have been like for someone like Daniel — introspective, partially broken, book-smart, wary, quiet and confused — to be dropped back into a life he barely started living before going to jail.
It was a superb, nuanced and delicate six hours that at times felt like watching a flower open slowly. In the case of Daniel, the pressures and prejudice of the small town he lives in, the changes in his family over time and upon his release, and his sense of almost overwhelming wonderment at the smallest of things were too much to absorb in six days. He went from an unexpected, quiet guest to a man unmoored, choking out Ted Jr. (and embarrassing him in a way you just have to see to appreciate) and finally suffering the pent-up hostility of the small town when the brother of the dead girl and a group of friends beat Daniel nearly to death.
Season two opens mere hours after that season-ending, viscerally disturbing beat-down. Daniel is in a coma and no one knows how much damage he’s suffered to his brain. But the real challenge for McKinnon and Rectify is bringing Daniel a step further into the world, to the point where he needs to pick up and move on with his life, even if there’s a chance a looming appeal will send him back to jail.
What the early season-two episodes of Rectify establish is that the series hasn’t lost its sense of the granular; they may move slightly more quickly than the episodes in the freshman season, but Rectify will never be confused for 24 — or anything else, for that matter. Daniel is still dumbstruck by his newfound lot in life and, in his coma, is having dreams about his past and even his present. What Rectify did so well visually in the first season was create a rich, cinematic language of saturation in the moment — close-ups of Daniel held many beats longer than the norm; shots that captured the simplicity of small moments, such as when Daniel takes his shoes off and sits in the outfield grass of the local baseball field and basks in the sensations of touch, freedom and sunlight.
That same attention to detail and visual style continue in season two, and the flashbacks/dreams have the same unsettling sense of those that came before. However, Rectify is now rightly upping the ante for all the characters. Yes, the first season covered a span of six days and the first episode back is the seventh day, but there’s a broader (if not more brisk) look at the world around Daniel. Until the law puts him back in jail, he needs to live his life.
What Rectify has in its back pocket, beyond this strangely engrossing, slowly unfolding tale of one man’s journey, is that McKinnon hasn’t declared one way or the other if Daniel is completely innocent. Clearly he’s mentally out of sorts about his girlfriend’s death (to which he confessed), and viewers have been keyed into a cover-up among some of the people still living in Paulie, but there is no absolute here about Daniel’s innocence. And some of the events of season one made viewers think twice about not only what Daniel might have done but what he’s capable of. That’s the clever conceit of Rectify, and it doesn’t matter how slowly it takes to tell this story — it remains as riveting and unique as ever.
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