Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was sentenced to death row in the state of Georgia at the age of 18 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Hanna Dean. So begins the Sundance TV series Rectify.
Daniel has served 19 years of his sentence in excruciating isolation, while his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), merely 12 when he went away, commissions a lawyer from Atlanta to plead for his release.
We meet Daniel as he emerges from the prison as if newly born into the world. Family members shyly, tentatively approach him, but the press greedily records his first halting words.
Series creator Ray McKinnon, an actor best known for his work on Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy, intended the premiere season to portray the first seven days of Daniel’s life outside of “the box.” McKinnon likens Daniel’s return to the town of Paulie to a pebble being tossed into a pond. Ripples on the water affect all who live there.
The second season of this surpassingly beautiful, meditative small town family drama concludes next week. It’s not too late to catch on and catch up, if you happen to have a taste for gut-tightening… an uncomfortable feeling if your preferred avenue of escape on TV is, let’s say, sitcoms.
But if you share this writer’s fascination with the inner lives and relationships of people and families in circumstances you may never experience, tune in.
First, you surrender to the given circumstances of the story. There are wrenching flashbacks to Daniel’s “life” on death row, deprived of the privacy to contemplate his life sentence by a sadistic inmate in the adjacent cell.
Another occupant of that cell becomes a friend beyond death, whom Daniel sees in fever dreams. When he is freed, Daniel visits the executed man’s mother. As in all the scenes in Rectify, the conversation is halting, strained, pregnant with unspoken thoughts and feelings of pain and of love.
There are unbearable beatings. There are small, intimate, restorative hugs. There is clearly a great distance to be crossed among all the characters to reach a place of trust and a measure of self-confidence.
This mixed family is groping toward one another, across the malignant agenda of the politician who argued the case against Daniel so many years ago.
Daniel doesn’t remember what happened that fateful night–the kids had taken mushrooms–but things are slowly, painstakingly, like shadows in a flash of light, coming back to him.
So we watch, reserving judgment. We watch this man’s journey. Our sympathy for him is unequivocal. And we die a little death until the third season, hopefully, begins.