Time is not on your side. Unless you’re one of those lucky bastards who does what they love for a living, a second at work can stretch out longer than pi, while at play an hour seems to race past like it has somewhere more important to be. Most television viewers feel this time crunch, so it’s understandable if they’re hesitant to dive headfirst into a new show, especially one whose gratification is only instant for those who revel in subtlety.
When the Sundance Channel premiered Ray McKinnon’s Rectify, the network’s first original series, on April 22, 2013, nearly every critic devoted words to the southern Gothic drama’s pacing. The story of a convicted rapist and murderer who returns to his small Georgia hometown after 19 years on death row, it moves through his uncomfortable first week of freedom in six deliberately slow episodes. Aden Young, the show's Australian star, describes it as “almost symphonic, a slow adagio building to an extraordinary crescendo.” The New York Times’ Mike Hale found it less orchestral, declaring Rectify “nothing so much as a bad indie film,” a “slow and tepid bummer.” Salon’s Willa Paskin had a more positive view, praising Rectify for exploring the aftermath of violence instead of reveling in violent acts, but noted that “the going is methodical and slow and sometimes painful.” Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall recognized that it could feel like an interminable prison sentence to some, but concluded that time would fly by for anyone appreciative of outstanding performances, beautiful imagery, complicated questions about life and death, and the use of pace to capture the crawl of time in a prison cell and in the small-town South. I’m with Sepinwall on this.
Young, who plays former death row inmate Daniel Holden, is a revelation, juggling the soft-spoken but odd, unpredictable, and dangerous protagonist’s complicated emotions, both as he re-enters society (the cast describes him as a baby in season one and an adolescent in season two) and in flashbacks to his time on the row, anticipating death. Freedom is not a great weight off Daniel’s shoulders. The changed world is fascinating, overwhelming, and scary. He, too, is changed by 19 years of being treated like a criminal, potentially turned into a man who, despite his soft, curious, philosophical exterior, could snap and commit the crimes he was accused of. Neighbors and even some of his relatives suspect that, technicalities be damned, he may still be guilty of rape and murder. Some of them want to kill him.
Daniel, who was on drugs the night his teenage girlfriend died so horribly, is unsure of what his role was in the crimes. (Abuse suffered in prison may have conditioned him to believe he’s guilty, while a friendship struck up on death row may have conditioned him to believe he’s innocent.) Regardless, he feels guilt because he’s responsible for his girlfriend’s presence on the night of her violations, for delivering her to her end. Says Young: “He’s anchored to the reality that a girl is dead and he is free.”
Some of the show’s finest work takes place in Daniel’s prison flashbacks. Through the thick walls that confine them, the inmate interacts with his neighbors, one of whom he befriends and another of whom preys upon him for sexual gratification and torments him for kicks. The actors in these scenes never see each other. Separate cameras film them on opposite sides of a wall and they, like their characters, rely upon listening to engage with each other and make their choices. There’s a particularly brilliant one made early in season two, when Daniel needs to explode but cannot give voice to his anguish and animosity because to do so would give his tormentor the satisfaction of having emotionally destroyed him.
Young is the show's beating heart but every performance is like a vein carrying its lifeblood. And this has to be the case, because Rectify is not a procedural concerned with one man’s connect-the-dots hunt for the actual killer, but an exploration of how a violent act changes a man, his family, and his town. Daniel’s younger sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), has devoted her life to freeing a brother she believes to be innocent, and won’t rest until he’s not only free but the Holden name is completely cleared. In focusing on him (and developing a relationship with the lawyer who helped win his release, played by Luke Kirby), Amantha has her own identity crisis to deal with, and the tenderness, fierce protective rage, and doubt that Spencer brings to the role are perfect. J. Smith-Cameron shines as Daniel’s fragile mom, who realizes the threats posed to her son and who, according to the actor, is “fearful for him and a little bit of him and what he’ll do.” One of the best conflicts in the “free world” is between Daniel and his step-brother, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), who treats him as a curiosity, doubts his innocence, and mostly wants to avoid the financial and social ruin that associating with a suspected rapist and murderer can bring.
The question of who exactly is responsible for the murder (it may very well be Daniel) is explored further in season two without it becoming the procedural whodunit McKinnon wanted to avoid making. As Young puts it, “Daniel allows the audience a perspective on that night and what he believes may well have occurred, in a particular way that you wonder whether or not he’s doing it for absolution, or for legal reasons, or for selfish reasons, or for sinister reasons.” For fans of shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, who prefer questions to answers, Rectify is the debate they’ve been looking to get lost in. As noted in Complex’s Best TV Shows of 2013 countdown, it’s the opposite of escapism, an uncomfortable and claustrophobic experience that allows the viewer to enter into the rhythm of life in its settings, small environments where you can’t escape the sound of people talking about you, where the slow crawl of time can be interrupted at any moment by violence, the possibility of which is terribly unnerving.
Kirby, who grew up in Canada and has lived in New York for the last decade, was amazed, during filming in Georgia, by how recent the jarring, bloody events of the Civil War feel, that the remnants of that war between brothers remain generations later. That’s the nature of violence: It can be over in an instant and create a legacy that lasts for centuries. And so it's perfect that McKinnon takes his time with Rectify and lets his characters and viewers experience the long-lasting consequences of one person violating another. It takes time, yes, but it’s time well spent.
Justin Monroe is a Complex executive editor. He tweets here.
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