This Rectify review contains spoilers.
Daniel Holden didn’t kill Hanna. Over the last two seasons Rectify’s writers have seemed ambivalent about how important this fact really was. At times it seemed as if Rectify was a show that didn’t traffic in intrigue, that the question of Daniel’s innocence or guilt was of so little concern that the writers themselves hadn’t quite thought it through. But truth is, the meditative, transcendental aesthetic that distinguished the series throughout its first season — with its philosophical ruminations on spirituality, freedom and justice — was never enough to sustain a scripted series over the course of several seasons.
Echoes of Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols– a frequent collaborator of series creator Ray McKinnon–were writ large in season one’s long, patient takes, impressionistic atmospheres and subdued drama, but for better or for worse, television is a writer’s medium: it is about story, plot and character development. These are the elements that make series viable within this extended, serialized format, and poetic sensations are, at best, a welcome plus.
That’s not to say of course, that there’s no room for experimentation. In fact, it was precisely Rectify’s unconventional approach to the medium that seemed to win the show so many advocates in its first season — and equally as many detractors. Season one’s artistic conceit was as rich as it was simple: a man’s first encounter with the world after 19 years under confinement. And over six episodes it kind of worked. Rather than going the procedural route and focusing on Daniel’s innocence or guilt, or honing in on the latent family melodrama, McKinnon and his writing staff chose to leave things ambiguous and emphasize the human, experiential implications of this radical change in Daniel’s life. The writers emphasized the profound strangeness of a world that was at once distant and intimately familiar to Daniel.
Then came season two. After kicking things off with an emotive goodbye to Kerwin, Daniel’s beloved death-row neighbor whom we got to know through a steady flow of flashbacks and dreams, the season floundered its way through an extended prologue as the writers tried to change the course of the series toward a more ensemble-like structure. It wasn’t easy.
Daniel’s coma allowed the team behind Rectify to shift focus and delve deeper into the complex web of relationships that is the Holden-Talbot family, while timidly planting the seeds of a procedural police drama. When Daniel finally regained consciousness in episode three, it was clear he had woken up in a different show, but it wasn’t until episode five, “Act As If”, that Rectify truly began weaving together a coherent dramatic tapestry. The new Rectify was aesthetically and conceptually a far cry from the show’s early aspirations, but it began to feel more and more like a proper television series — and a good one at that.
In the process, there were losses and gains. Angsty adolescent half-brother Jared was perhaps the most conspicuous casualty of Rectify’s new direction. While in season one he seemed to be the only member of the family that could even remotely connect with the catatonic Daniel — who was still an adolescent himself in many ways — by season two he had been effectively written out of the plot.
Perhaps the writers rightfully feared another subplot would be an unnecessary burden on their already tangled storyline, but in truth, Jared felt like an uncomfortable hangnail that would never quite go away; and each fleeting appearance or half-hearted attempt to bestow him with substance has been an awkward reminder of this lack of foresight.
But Rectify giveth and Rectify taketh away, and the clearest reward reaped from season two’s fits and starts is actor Clayne Crawford’s Ted Jr. Indeed, looking back over Crawford’s performances in season one, it’s truly astounding to see how the Rectify team has been able to take a character that only a year ago was a disagreeable Southern frat boy and find a depth of feeling and emotional complexity that places it on par with the greatest dramatic performances of its time.
Perhaps McKinnon realized that he was in fact working with an actor of staggering brilliance and was intelligent enough to adjust the script in order to let him play. Or maybe it was planned all along. Either way, playing across from the formidable Adelaide Clemens as Tawny, Crawford has shown us depths of human emotion that truly elevate Rectify into the sphere of great art.
And now, in the last episode of this ambitious but uneven second season, we’re given a window into the soul of Daniel Holden. I’ve never hidden the fact that I don’t sympathize with the man. I find him incapable of showing tenderness or vulnerability and my concern for his fate over the past two seasons has been driven more by morbid curiosity than genuine sympathy. Unsurprisingly, as the episode opens on Daniel and Tawny sharing an intimate moment in the enveloping dawn light, something feels off. They laugh and play as lovers would, but somehow it all feels forced an unnatural. And so is the case with Momma Holden, Ted Sr. and even Amantha. There is a coldness, a distance, an insincerity in his smile that betrays a man sunk so deeply within himself that he is almost incapable of feeling anything at all.
Yet as the episode pushes on, Young plays to his strengths, breaking out all of his acting chops in a gripping courtroom scene that shows Daniel Holden as the deeply traumatized individual he truly is. Bringing us back to season two’s central themes of the instability of truth and memory and the fragility of justice, we are treated to a final showdown between Daniel and the figures that have ceaselessly conspired against his freedom. It is a tense, tightly written and expertly filmed sequence and shows what has come of a series that finally accepted its more traditional genre elements.
And it is here that we finally, if rather ambiguously, learn of Daniel’s innocence. But it is too late to care. “Unhinged” lays bare the extent to which Daniel’s case still weighs upon his family, and the irreparable damage that he has done since his return. More than justice, we now understand that Daniel must set his family free.
But Ray McKinnon and co aren’t going to let us off that easily. A dead body, a security tape and a last minute call from Ted Jr. converge just in time to annul any certainty we felt we had in “Unhinged’s” closing minutes and set the stage for a six-episode third season that will doubtless be Rectify’s best yet.