Season 2 | Episode 1 | “Running with the Bulls” | Aired June 19, 2014
Rectify is a beautiful series that moved me in a spectacular way during its first season on SundanceTV. Creator/writer/director Ray McKinnon (Sons of Anarchy) is offering up Southern Gothic in a way that is about as earnest and rich as anything that is airing on television right now. The season 2 premiere is as riveting and voyeuristic as the six episodes of the first season, and makes me feel like I have my face pressed against the glass of this family’s living room.
Rectify is about Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who has been on death row for 19 years for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend. The verdict is overturned when new DNA evidence surfaces, yet he is not fully exonerated. Yet even after all six episodes of the first season, I still can’t decide if Daniel is innocent or not. Season 1 doled out exposition in tidbits that offered fragmented and distorted versions of the actions of the past, mixing up the picture of anything that happened before the first episode. While this got frustrating at times, I suffered this teasing because I am so intrigued by these characters and the magic that happens in the stillness, when they exchange glances, sigh, gesture, touch.
The first episode picks up just hours after the finale ended, and we find Daniel beaten beyond recognition and his mother Janet (J. Smith Cameron) and his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) by his bedside. While Daniel lies unconscious, he dreams (or remembers?) moments from his days in solitary confinement from before his friend and neighbor Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill) was put to death. Kerwin is the only instance of humanity Daniel encounters in prison, and Daniel’s dream reflects a longing to reconnect with that. This is abruptly interrupted when Daniel begins to wake up violently, fighting and pulling at his tubes.
It’s a disturbing scene, one that make you want to look way but forces you to stare at the screen. Young has mastered the ambiguous subtlety that makes me want to weep for Daniel’s loss. It plays out so incrementally on Daniel’s face that his sincerity goes straight through you. The melancholy in Rectify is so well crafted that it becomes part of the fundamental makeup of the show; when Amantha yells, “You don’t have to fight anymore, Daniel,” it breaks your heart, but in a beautiful way. Once they finally sedate him back into unconsciousness, his mother utters, “We’ll be here when you come back.” It’s almost too much.
Even though this is Daniel’s story, it is just as much about the people in his life who are affected by his imprisonment, and subsequently, his release. At the site of Daniel’s attack, Sheriff Carl Daggett and his deputy try to solve the crime against Daniel, but the deputy is not motivated to help figure it out and communicates the general sentiment of the town when he suggests they stop wasting their time trying to help someone “who should already be dead.” This speaks to the growing tensions that are mounting among their neighbors in Paulie County, but also to the threads of doubt and disharmony that exist within the family.
In last season’s finale, Daniel attacked Teddy Jr. (Clayne Crawford) and humiliated him in a way that makes you doubt what you know about Daniel. The brutality of that act is hard to reconcile with the contemplative, fragile loner that Daniel seems to be. In tonight’s episode, Teddy tries to shake off the encounter, and hides his bruises from Tawnie, ashamed that he could become Daniel’s victim and probably scared about what the attack means for his family.
Tawnie (Adelaide Clemens) is Teddy Jr.’s sweet young wife, who befriended Daniel in the first season. She spends most of the episode worried and fretting over Daniel in his hospital bed, praying for his recovery. Tawnie, as we learn from Daniel’s coma-dreams, is what makes the world seem livable since his release, and their relationship is worrisome to Janet because of the inevitable problems it will cause between Teddy Jr. and Daniel.
Daniel’s flashbacks are vicious and rip us away from the quiet sadness of sitting bedside, waiting for him to wake up. In one terrible memory, Daniel is mourning the loss of Kerwin and refuses to cooperate with the guard’s directives. His room is smeared with his own feces as the guards force their way in, wearing riot gear, and violently force him prostrate on the ground. At that moment, Daniel looks like the animal that the system considers him, and his loss of humanity is a stark contrast to the broken-bodied victim we see lying in the hospital bed.
Amantha is his fierce advocate, and has put herself at odds with Teddy Jr. and anyone else who may doubt Daniel’s goodness. At this point in the show, however, that is everyone, including me and the rest of the audience It speaks to Spencer’s talent that she can make Amantha both completely exasperating and devastatingly sympathetic. When Daniel’s childhood friend comes to visit, Amantha greets him stoically at first, but then her resolve deteriorates when she talks about the possibility of Daniel waking up. You want to shake her, then hug her.
The episode ends with a long dream sequence, in which Daniel and Kerwin, still in their prison jumpsuits, have a lengthy talk about the horrors of this world and the brutality of this life. Kerwin reminds Daniel that “this is your world now,” but Daniel is too damaged to know what to do with it. He is afraid and confesses to Kerwin with tears in his eyes, “I may be too broken,” but Kerwin reminds him of the hope they shared while in prison, and that he has to fight to be a part of this world. Kerwin is the only friend that Daniel has, and this scene serves to remind us that Daniel is not just the sum of his decisions or actions; that he is, indeed, human.
I am hopelessly smitten with this show for only a million reasons. What do you think? Tweet me all the feelings.
Rectify, rated TV-14, airs Thursdays at 9/8 C on SundanceTV.