Sundance is furthering its exploration into scripted dramas with Rectify, premiering 22 April. The drama revolves around Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a prisoner released from death row after spending almost 20 years in solitary confinement. He’s exonerated after irregularities in his case force the judge to vacate his sentence, suddenly dropping him into the chaotic reality of the outside world.
Produced by, among others, Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad), Rectify is a dark, surreal and sometimes deceptively sleepy (but not dreamy) look at crime in a small town and the aftereffects of years in prison, and nothing about this series is simple, ordinary, or easy to define. The people in it, furthermore, are never who they seem to be, and new twists are always lying around the corner of the storyline, waiting for characters and viewers alike to trip up on them.
Holden was imprisoned at a young age, meaning that the only places in the world he’s known are his childhood home and the walls of his prison cell. This in itself gives his character a fascinating perspective on life, as his very lack of experience informs everything he does and his understanding of the world.
Upon release, he’s returning home, and what he finds there isn’t entirely safe or comfortable. His mother has remarried after the death of his father, the town is angry to see him returning since many thought he was guilty of the rape and murder of his alleged victim all those years ago, and everything about the world is radically different. We see Holden in a series of stark, emotional scenes as he confronts the things that have changed, from the closure of old businesses to the emergence of new technologies.
On its surface, this drama is about a man’s return to his hometown after 20 years and his confrontation with it as he tries to find a sense of place in an environment that very much detests him. The sheriff and many of the townspeople are against him, and we learn, in bits and pieces, about the murder he was prosecuted for all those years ago, and how he happened to be so neatly and efficiently convicted. We also learn about the local and regional politics coming into play as his exoneration becomes tremendously inconvenient for those who are relying on his guilt to preserve their political expectations.
It’s also an intimate look at Holden’s life, with scenes so personal that at times you want to turn away from the screen. Whether we’re watching flashbacks to prison and Holden’s isolation, along with the strange bonds he had with those on either side of him, or his adjustment at home: his frantic masturbation over a lad magazine, his sense of unease as he tries to adjust to the new people in his life and at his table, there is a sense with Rectify that we are violating his privacy while at the same time we’re being invited to witness something important.
Holden’s relationship with his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) is particularly interesting as we see how she’s consumed herself with fighting for his cause over the years and he’s not quite sure how to adjust to his sister all grown up, and dealing with her own complexity. Another fascinating character is his step-brother Ted Talbot, Jr. (Clayne Crawford), who feels threatened by Holden’s return, worried that Holden will take over the family business and upset the balance he’s carved out for himself. He’ll go to great lengths to ensure that Holden doesn’t do that, while at the same time he’s mesmerised, confused, and fascinated by Holden and his life behind bars.
One thing Rectify doesn’t do is wrap things up neatly for the viewer over the course of the six episode season. If you are expecting something conclusive with definitive answers, prepare to be disappointed, because that’s not what this drama is about. Instead, it unfolds more and more questions over time, and leaves you with more than you started out with by the closing frames of the final episode. In a hallmark of great television, the drama is graceful, elegant, concise, and beautiful, but it’s not intended to be tied up in a beautiful bow, instead presenting challenges to the viewer throughout.
How does your perception of a character change, for example if you think he’s guilty or not guilty of a terrible crime?
Like Top of the Lake, Sundance’s other original drama this year, Rectify has a somewhat fantastical, murky narrative filled with questions and mystery. Both are also set in small-town environments, which may have been totally accidental, but makes for some fascinating contrasts. The politics and complexities of small-town life are always intriguing, as are their depictions on screen, and both series have done a fantastic job of probing into them and highlighting the strange networks of people at work behind the events of small-town existence.
Paulie, Georgia is hiding some deep, dark, fascinating secrets, and it’s not going to give them up without a fight. We’d better be seeing more of this drama so we get a chance to find out what they are, who is hiding them, and why.