Stop Everything and Go Watch ‘Rectify'

There are no cathartic ‘gotcha’ moments, no easy answers, and no rapid-fire dialogue. ‘Rectify’ is to drama what ‘Louie’ is to comedy—an emotional marathon unlike anything on TV.

Blake Tyers/Sundance Channel

In our ever-expanding TV universe, it always seems like something of a fluke when a truly unique program manages to make it onto the airwaves. That’s exactly what happened last year with SundanceTV’s revelatory drama Rectify. Its astounding first season, just six episodes long, covered one week in the life of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who had spent 19 years on Death Row for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend Hannah, until DNA evidence vacated his sentence. His return home to Paulie, Georgia, leads to an uneasy, fraught reunion with his family and the townspeople, many of whom remain convinced of Daniel’s guilt. During one sequence early on in Rectify’s new season, Daniel refers to it as “the wildest week. Every day felt like a lifetime. It was pretty overwhelming.”

It’s a near-perfect summation of Rectify’s debut season, which was an unexpected, potent concoction of unpredictability, serenity, and staggering emotion. (If you missed it—and given its meager ratings, you probably did—go to Netflix immediately and remedy that.) And the show’s confident, compelling Season 2, which premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on SundanceTV, offers much more of the same: an emotional marathon unmatched by anything else on television.

Season 2 picks up shortly after the brutal events from last year’s finale, in which Daniel, who was set to leave town, was ambushed at Hannah’s gravesite and savagely beaten by five masked men (one of whom was revealed to be Hannah’s brother, Bobby). He’s in a medically induced coma, but remains front and center via flashbacks to and hallucinations about his time on Death Row, while his family tries to pick up the pieces. Younger sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer)—and no, that ridiculous name isn’t any easier to swallow this time around—long his most fervent defender, wonders if he would be better off giving up the fight. Daniel’s wary stepbrother Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), looking for a cash infusion to save the family’s flagging tire business, worries that Daniel will end up with brain damage, leaving them buried under a sea of medical bills. Ted Jr.’s wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), who regrets her swift emotional bond with Daniel last season, is trying to repair her fraying marriage.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff (J.D. Evermore), shaking off last season’s lethargy, pursues Daniel’s assailants, despite the bitter wounds his investigation will undoubtedly reopen in town. And the State Senator (Michael O’Neill), whose initial prosecution of Daniel made his career and who therefore spent much of Season 1 strong-arming a retrial, frets that Daniel’s injuries will make juries sympathetic and derail his efforts.

It might sound clichéd to say that Rectify is unlike anything else on television, but it’s also entirely accurate. The show’s languid, deliberate pace is almost hypnotic. Time moves differently in creator Ray McKinnon’s world, and not just because every episode lasts roughly a day (although that pace somewhat quickens in Season 2, which will cover six weeks over 10 episodes). The entire plot of Season 1 could fit into the cold opening of a typical Scandal episode, with one or two twists to spare. The show offers no cathartic “gotcha” moments, no easy answers, and no rapid-fire dialogue.

If that sounds mind-numbing, think again. Rectify’s greatest pleasure is in its masterful ability to fully envelop the audience in its singular world. This isn’t a show meant to be casually watched with one eye glued to a cellphone or tablet, glancing up in between texts and tweets. While almost any other show would be preoccupied with the search for Hannah’s “real” killer, building up to a dramatic finale reveal, Daniel’s ultimate guilt or innocence (not even he seems to know for sure) is beside the point in Rectify.

That’s largely thanks to the understated brilliance of Australian actor Aden Young, who is so introverted as Daniel that he makes other TV minimalist actors, like Noah Emmerich on The Americans, seem like melodramatic scenery-munchers in comparison. Yet every gesture, tic, and word packs a hefty wallop. It’s the type of performance that’s far too muted to ever be singled out for critical awards, yet is every bit as breathtaking as the work that Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm are routinely lauded for on their respective shows.

Young is given even more to play with this year as Daniel’s emotional palette has broadened. This season’s prison flashbacks find him increasingly unhinged after the execution of his fellow inmate Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill). For the first time, he flashes the kind of spine-chilling fury and mania that reveal he actually might have had the capacity to commit such a horrific murder. In another episode, he unexpectedly unleashes a hilarious joke in a moment of darkness. Through it all, Young effortlessly expands his range (and rage) without ever betraying the character.

The supporting characters, meanwhile, are equally as layered and enthralling. I’m particularly intrigued with the ill-fated path taken by Ted Jr., who has become emotionally unmoored and more like his stepbrother than he’d care to admit. Every character pairing—mom Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and Amantha, Ted Jr. and Tawney, the Sheriff and a character I won’t reveal—crackles with intensity. Even Daniel’s lawyer Jon (Luke Kirby), who seems more removed from the proceedings at first, ends up engaged in a riveting tete-a-tete with another Death Row inmate.

Much like with Louie, we’re in uncharted territory with Rectify. Each episode offers up wondrous new surprises, whether it’s a dream sequence, a stunning revelation from a new character, or a sly moment of levity from an unexpected source. Even the premiere’s opening shot, which I won’t spoil here, is a startling stunner.

We may never find out if Daniel is guilty before Rectify concludes, and I couldn’t care less. Rectify is about the journey, not the destination. And no matter what your travel plans might be in the coming months, this will likely be the most rewarding trip you take all summer.