Early on in season one of the Sundance Channel’s emotionally pummeling new series Rectify, Amantha Holden and her family’s attorney, Jon Stern, watch from a car as her brother Daniel sits cross-legged and alone in the grass of an unoccupied baseball outfield, eating a candy bar. “What’s that like?” Amantha wonders out loud to Jon, slouching low in the seat so as not to be spotted. “I can’t imagine,” he replies.
Normally, the seemingly mundane act of sitting on the grass and enjoying a candy bar wouldn’t elicit such bewilderment from spectators. But Daniel Holden has not seen, much less felt, grass for 19 years. As a teenager, Daniel confessed to the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Hanna Dean, and was sentenced to death row. Now, new DNA evidence attained by Stern and the Holden family – most notably Amantha – suggests that Daniel may have been coerced into confession.
Of course, that doesn’t stop the majority of the small Georgia town to which he returns from seeing him as a cold-blooded killer. Hence Amantha’s worry: “There are people around here, Mom, who want Daniel dead,” she tells her mother just before she and Jon go looking for him, “people who would do it themselves if they thought they could get away with it.” Daniel may be free, but he is far from exonerated, and it is this dichotomy that lends Rectify both its brilliance and its unique sense of tension.
At its core, Rectify shares a lot of “whodunit” sensibilities with a prototypical cop show. There is a mystery to be solved, and while the facts of Daniel’s case are ambiguous and sparsely peppered over the course of only six episodes, it’s a powerful testament to the talent both on- and off-screen that whether or not he is guilty or innocent doesn’t ever seem to matter as much to us as it does to the characters. Instead, it is what the people who surround Daniel decide to do – or not do – with their feelings and prejudices about him that makes the show relentlessly watchable.
And everyone seems to have a feeling about him, from the Deans, to Senator Ronald Foulkes (the former prosecutor clamoring for a retrial), to his new step-brother, to the kids who sneak up behind him at the gas station so they can take stealthy pictures with the local “celebrity”. One woman, a former high school friend now happily married with children, tells him that she promised herself that if Daniel was ever released, she would “offer herself” to him, which just about takes the cake for strangest reaction to a released alleged murderer.
Then there are the complicated dynamics of the Holden family. During his sentence, Daniel’s father died and his mother re-married a man who now owns the tire store that was once his inheritance. Amantha was just 12 when Daniel was first convicted; and is now a grown woman herself. She’s spent most of her adult life fighting to release him, a fact which Daniel doesn’t seem to appreciate as much as she had hoped. Putting Daniel’s freedom at the center of their collective universe, she and Jon have embarked on a desperation-tinged love affair that both think is no longer a good idea but that neither can seem to quite break free of. And on top of all of this, Teddy’s wife, Tawney, is a born-again Christian who spurns her husband’s sexual advances but takes a peculiar interest in Daniel’s spiritual well-being, which the ex-con misconstrues as something more.
For a show about the death penalty, Rectify is mercifully silent on the political debate of capital punishment, wisely choosing instead to focus on character and relationships rather than preaching a message (Life of David Gale, take note). What the show does instead – and does really, really well – is considers the relativity of time. To someone who spent half of his life alone in a six by nine white-walled room with only a bed and a toilet, being thrust back into the frantic pace of our hyper-connected culture is more than a little jarring. “I can’t quite get a handle on the concept of time yet,” Daniel remarks to his mother on his first day back. “There have been moments here today where I feel like I’ve only been gone a few weeks, and I’m still in high school. But mostly it seems like I was always there.” Later, to Tawney, he admits that “Now that I’m here in this world where everything’s marked by hours or dates or events, I find myself in a state of constant anticipation. What it is I’m anticipating, I’m not always sure, nor is it necessarily a pleasant feeling.”
Polemical neutrality aside, the show nevertheless stirs in viewers a humane empathy for death row inmates. Shown in flashback, Daniel’s time on death row is filled with horrors that would break the most durable of men. But it’s his unlikely and extremely moving friendship with Kerwin Whitman (Johnny Ray Gill) that emerges as the real reason behind Daniel’s resilience. Kerwin occupies the cell adjacent to Daniel’s, and a small grate between the walls allows the men to speak to one another. Not much is known of Kerwin’s crime, but his friendship with Daniel proves possibly more important than anything else in Daniel’s life.
Rectify is one of those truly great shows that deals with both the ugly and the beautiful side of humanity. It’s a series about time and prejudice, contrition and innocence, and – quite literally – life and death. It’s the kind of show that crawls inside of you and refuses to let go long after the screen has darkened, no matter how hard you try to shake it loose.
The DVD comes with six short special features originally aired on the Sundance Channel. Although nothing game-changing, of particular interest are the “Meet the Cast” bits that show the actors sharing their thoughts on the motivations behind their characters, and creator Ray McKinnon discussing his inspiration for the show. There are some perceptive things said in these interviews that warrant a second viewing of the show with a new lens.