The ‘Rectify’ Finale and the Sad, Slow-Burn Pleasures of Sundance’s Answer to ‘The Leftovers’

“I don’t see why we have to tell sad stories,” one character said to another midway through the elegiac second season of Rectify. “Life’s too short.” After a pause to consider the statement — Rectify uses pauses the way Monet used water lilies — another replied: “That’s exactly why we have to tell them.”

It’s as good a mission statement as any for the unique SundanceTV series, which aired its season finale last night. (The show was renewed for a third season on Tuesday.) There’s a quiet, deliberative quality to Rectify that sets it apart from nearly everything else on television. On Rectify, “due process” is more than a legal term. It’s a design for life. Creator Ray McKinnon has no interest in the noisy thunderstorms that rumble through most contemporary cable dramas. Instead, he focuses — lovingly, agonizingly — on the fragile flapping of a butterfly’s wings.

For those still unaware — and judging by the show’s humble ratings, that’s a good many of you — Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden, an iceberg of a man played with feral grace by Australian actor Aden Young. And it began a year ago right where most entertainments would end: After two decades spent in cruel isolation on Georgia’s death row for murdering his high school girlfriend, Daniel is suddenly freed when DNA evidence vacates his original conviction. The world he returns to is profoundly changed, filled with cell phones and precious few Walkmen. But so too is Daniel. His body has aged but his mind and heart are still dreamy and adolescent. He makes terrible decisions at parties, drinks everything put in front of him, and runs his hand through the morning sunlight like he’s auditioning for a fabric softener commercial.

Instead of celebrating the justice of Daniel’s release, Rectify fixates on the cracks that form and spread in its wake. The family that formed in his long absence — after Daniel’s father died, his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), married Ted Talbot (Bruce McKinnon), a decent tire salesman who brought along his eager good ol’ boy of a son, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) — is suddenly upended. Daniel’s crusading sister, a volcano in a sundress named Amantha (Abigail Spencer), is forced to reckon with the emptiness of her own life after spending 20 years advocating for his. Ted Jr.’s religious wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), has her foundation rocked by her attraction to to her newly released stepbrother-in-law. And while politicians and lawmen conspire to put Daniel back in prison, the unhealed wound of fictional Paulie, Georgia, is once again brought out to fester in the sticky, Southern heat. “Guilt” and “innocence” matter in the public record, but they don’t offer much relief. A girl still died. No amount of morning sunlight can ever change that.

The first season of Rectify was a quiet wonder but not the sort of thing that suggested a long future. The show was otherworldly and easily distracted: McKinnon and his stable of talented directors (Stephen Gyllenhaal, Jim McKay) didn’t just lose sight of the forest for the trees, they zoomed in on individual branches and blossoms as if they held the secret of the universe. And maybe they did. In its deliberate, unsettling way, Rectify tussled with the same weighty issues of loss and responsibility as HBO’s far more heavily hyped The Leftovers — and with a lot more success. Instead of yelling and throwing punches, Rectify put its feet up on the porch with a glass of sweet tea. Its power comes from its dignified reserve. A lone act of violence in in the first season haunted the next 10 hours like a vengeful spirit. A gunshot in the pilot echoed just as loudly in last night’s finale. This unhurried pace isn’t for everyone — a second-season story line is giving patient viewers a chance to watch a kitchen renovation happen in essentially real time. But I find it unique and compelling. Rectify’s best moments are the ones that would be easily yada yada’d on a busier series: Ted Sr. and Ted Jr. struggling with a microwave dinner; Amantha and a work pal, stoned out of their gourds, ransacking a vending machine. To call Rectify slow is like calling breathing repetitive. It’s factually true but also kind of the point.

Still, there were times during this second season when the show, like its protagonist, visibly struggled to acclimate to its new reality. McKinnon had originally imagined Rectify as a feature film. Then it became a six-episode series. Now its future is open-ended, which made for some growing pains. After a gangbusters premiere that picked up moments after the previous finale had ended, it meandered into some narrative dead ends. Daniel’s field trips into the larger world were discordant and often clunky. A visit to an Atlanta art museum offered up, in the form of Frances Fisher, the sort of Magical Society Liberal that The Sopranos often struggled to portray. (Remember Dr. Melfi’s dreadful dinner parties? I still think that, to save time, David Chase scripted those scenes with repurposed NPR transcripts.) And Leon Rippy, as Lezley, a thrift store owner who doubles as the coke-snorting, ’shroom-gifting Timothy Leary of the Peach State, had plenty of good lines but precious little plausibility. These bumps were unwelcome but not unexpected. The first year had focused so tightly on Daniel’s family — and the actors involved had been so ridiculously compelling — that any attention paid to new characters or the larger community felt like a waste. The expanded episode order for Season 2 revealed the cost of that choice.

But this seems like a paltry complaint to make when the show’s true engine, the combined Holden-Talbot household, is so strong. Abigail Spencer’s performance as Amantha remains one of my very favorites on TV. Plenty of actors are dynamic, but Spencer seems to vibrate at an exquisite frequency of frustration and resentment. (Amantha’s surprise employment at the local discount store also provided Rectify with its first real chance to expand its cast of characters. Here’s hoping Kimberley Drummond’s giggly Alesha will be back.) Smith-Cameron and Bruce McKinnon (no relation to Ray) don’t seem to act as much as they inhabit. And Season 2 provided a showcase for the subtle work of Crawford and Clemens. In broad strokes, their roles could easily fall into caricature — closed-minded, hubristic husband and sheltered, devout housewife — but the two actors work only in calligraphy. Though Teddy and Tawney’s confrontations grew increasingly rough (their opposite, car crash–slow reactions to Tawney’s miscarriage were particularly brutal), the dominant emotion on display was empathy. “Am I a good person?” Tawney asked Daniel last week. “Is there a God?” “Sure,” he replied. Rectify doesn’t insult viewers with easy answers. It surprises us with compassion.

“Unhinged,” last night’s finale, tossed numerous balls in the air and left them hanging there. Daniel both confessed to his girlfriend’s murder and didn’t — once again, it’s left unclear whether his choice of words represents his needs or those of the machine he’s trapped within. Just as Sheriff Daggett (the dogged J.D. Evermore) appeared close to uncovering the truth — or what really happened that night in 1994  Ted Jr. marched in to press charges of his own against Daniel. And then there are all of those unanswered questions: Did Amantha and Jon truly break up? Why is Senator Foulkes (Michael O’Neill) so fixated on one 20-year-old case? And will Janet’s kitchen really switch from electric power to gas? In a postseason interview with Alan Sepinwall, McKinnon seemed as unsure as the audience as to where he’ll go next. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rectify moves at its own pace and to its own inimitable music.1 Why get flustered about where it’s heading when the time it takes to get there is so sweet?

Filed Under: TV, Rectify, SundanceTV, Ray McKinnon, Abigail Spencer, Kimberly Drummond

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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