The Dark Truths of Being Out: Examining RECTIFY
By Daniel Schindel (@DanSchindel)
At the height of an emotional confrontation with his sister towards the end of the episode “Until You’re Blue,” Rectify’s protagonist Daniel Holden bluntly lays out his opinion of his place in the world. “Name one person, Amantha, just one, whose life is better since I been out,” he challenges her. After a pause, all she can offer is, “We are happier because you’re out,” referring to their family. But that’s not true. And this moment crystallizes a depressing, tragic realization: though he could be innocent of the crime that landed him on death row for 19 years, Daniel’s recent release from prison has caused his loved ones nothing but misery.
The relationship between his mother Janet and her husband Ted Talbot has been set on the rocks because what Daniel’s done since his release. His stepbrother Teddy and his wife Tawney have separated because of her feelings for him and events set in motion by him. Amantha has derailed her plans to leave their tiny hometown for bigger and better things because of him. Daniel’s words are not borne on self-pity — he just sees reality clearly, and is resigned to it.
Daniel is not a protagonist in the mold of the many antiheroes who have characterized much of the acclaimed and popular television series of recent memory. Unlike Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, or any other leading man who’s torn apart their worlds through their pride, ruthlessness, deception, or assorted quests for power, Daniel has no desire other than to simply be allowed to be. But Paulie, Georgia can’t accommodate him in this, since most of its residents still believe him guilty of the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, Hannah Dean. To them, he is a villain (in their minds, probably in the Dexter mold), and they read malice into every action he takes. But Rectify isn’t a show of heroes and villains. There are only people — people who do good things and bad things and strange things and stupid things.
The misfortunes that befall Daniel and his family are due to a confluence of these factors. The biggest is Daniel’s weirdness, stemming from the near two decades he’s spent in isolation. He still walks around in a daze, though he’s more out of it by the end of this season than he was in the first. He lacks social acclimation and has a strong philosophical bent, which aren’t terrific qualities for setting strangers at ease. And as his mother Janet flatly tells him, much of his actions this season have been incredibly juvenile. In some ways, Daniel is mentally stuck at 18, the age he was when he went to prison. He tears apart his family’s kitchen on an impulse, because his mother mentioned wanting to remodel it. A recurrent image is of him riding a bicycle with a teenager’s poise despite being 37, an odd figure that perfectly sums up his offbeat personality. His intense stare, his ponderous manner of speaking, and his silent manner are all walls to anyone who wants to understand him. And this is a problem, since no one outside his family wants to understand him.
While the first season of Rectify was focused squarely on Daniel and paid only sporadic attention to those around him, this season turned it into more of an ensemble show, with Daniel only at the center of a wider scope. This is kicked off with the first two episode, which have him lying in a coma while his family must react to his situation, and their own stories only branch out as the show goes on. Daniel’s separation from them is enforced by multiple trips he ventures on his own. He goes on anonymous adventures in the city, attends parties, and even has a random hookup, and in his absence Amantha, Tawney, Teddy, and everyone else deal with their own lives. But they’re all still haunted by Daniel, the biggest way being his attack on Teddy in the penultimate episode of the previous season.
Another thing that separates Rectify from the programs of the antihero age is that it takes no pleasure in violence, and is willing to explore how even the briefest violent act can have major emotional repercussions. In most other shows, Daniel strangling and humiliating Teddy would be forgotten within a few episodes. But this event looms over almost everything Teddy does this season. He’s been knocked off his center and had his masculinity upended in a traumatizing way. Daniel pantsing an unconcious Teddy and depositing coffee grounds into his rear may seem harmless, but it’s an act of sexual assault nonetheless, and the humiliation haunts Teddy. Daniel even admits that he was using the same tactics as those who raped him in prison. Teddy’s drive to reclaim control of his life leads him into a precarious business venture and further sours his already tenuous marriage. And as the season ends, it looks like Daniel’s act may even be used as more ammunition by the prosecutors seeking to put him back in jail.
That law and order subplot took on a greater significance this season, and empathized how Daniel’s idiosyncrasies are not just interpersonally but also legally dangerous to him. As just one example among many, his naivete leads to him leaving a note of apology at the house of his old acquaintance George which looks horribly suspicious to the eyes of the sheriff looking for George, who has gone missing (and who has been dead since the first episode, though the community will only learn of this now, since his body is found at the end of the season finale). One of the subtle ways that Rectify touches on real world social issues is how it shows the horrible effect that bias and prejudice have on everyone when it comes to the way society and the courts handle their judgment. It’s what damned Daniel in the first place, as the police extracted a false confession from him because they believed he committed the crime. The name “Daniel” means “God is my judge,” but everyone else is only too eager to muscle in on God’s territory when it comes to Daniel Holden.
God is also present in Rectify, in that faith is a constant element of the series. Tawney is its most consistent manifestation, and she remains the best depiction of a Christian on television. She’s sheltered and innocent in all the ways one might typically expect a deeply religious woman of the American South to be, but the show never condescends to her. Her faith is not under any dogmatic thumb, nor is it simple. We see her constantly questioning and grappling through tragedies inflicted on others (like Daniel’s beating) and herself (a miscarriage, and the disintegration of her marriage). She never quite settles on a satisfactory answer to suffering, but faith isn’t about getting all the answers, so she accepts it.
Rectify isn’t a show about answers, either. Creator Ray McKinnon has even stated (http://www.avclub.com/article/rectify-creator-ray-mckinnon-wants-leave-some-seas-208361) that the second season finale is purposefully unsatisfying in how it leaves so much up in the air, reflecting the dissatisfaction all of its characters feel. Just as it refuses to condemn or glorify any of its characters, it has no wish to wrap everything up in a tidy bow. We’re not much closer to knowing who killed Hannah Dean than we are at the start.
But one thing that the finale did offer was one small but significant step forward for Daniel. After spending two seasons in relentless reflection and rumination over what really happened the night of Hannah’s death (he had no memory of it for some time), he changes tack and makes his first strong suggestion that he is not the culprit. The first season ended with a flashback to Daniel’s friend Kerwin declaring his total belief in Daniel’s innocence, and now Daniel is entertaining the idea, even though he has serious doubts about whether he’s a good person or not. But he does it in a typically Daniel way, by offering up two stories to the DA, who want to hear a confession as part of a plea deal for him. In the first story, he asserts his innocence. He cannot offer a satisfactory explanation for all of his behavior that night (he was, after all, high on shrooms), but he makes a stand for himself, and goes on to angrily recall the ways the police manipulated him into confessing to the murder. But then there’s the second story, in which he simply repeats what the police wrung out of him that night. In the end, he takes the cowardly way out, against Amantha’s impassioned pleas, because he’s through with fighting. He just wants it to be over.
With this, Daniel reasserts what he told Amantha earlier, that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, mainly because he doesn’t believe himself to be worth the effort of combatting false assertions. This is Daniel giving in to the world, to the harsh judgment of Paulie, to the voice in his head that says he’s a bad person, even if he didn’t kill Hannah. His confession is an extraordinarily heartbreaking scene, all the more so because we see in Daniel’s first story a hint that he doesn’t believe that voice, but that he’s being a coward anyway.
One thing that struck me about the ending of Rectify season 2 is its parallels with the ending of Life of Pi. Both ask the audience to question the nature of truth, but I much prefer the way Rectify goes about it. Life of Pi makes an argument for delusion, posing two stories and then suggesting that its better to go with the one you like more. Rectify interrogates the nature of truth itself. Daniel’s memory of the night of Hannah’s death is a wreck because of his drug use and the influence exerted on him by his interrogators. The other two witnesses to the events we’ve met have proven unreliable, one of them killing themselves and the other demonstrating some extreme deceptions. No one can offer a clear picture of what actually happened, but what the DA is after isn’t even the truth — they just want him to say what they need in order to close the case. So Daniel offers two stories: one in which he is innocent, and one in which he is not, and let’s them choose which one to listen to, in a twisted parody of the choice offered in Life of Pi. It’s a bitter middle finger towards the justice system that has spent so long yanking him around. The truth doesn’t matter, because people are after what they want to hear.
And through it all is the viewer, who gets a better approximation of “the truth” than anyone within the show. We get to see the unlikely causes and effects, as circumstances already set against Daniel as an ex-con continue to work against him. We see how these machinations snag his family members, both due to his choices and to their own. And through it all, we are asked whether this man is worth it. The show takes pains to make clear that Daniel, whether he is a good man or a bad one, is a human being. That should carry with it a basic level of dignity and decency, but decency is hard to find in this world. Tawney maintains that anyone can be saved, that everyone has value. Rectify may not have any interest in proving either her or Daniel “right,” but we’ll see what they do going forward in their radically upended lives.
With Rectify and True Detective, Southern Gothic has suddenly emerged on television. While True Detective is more of the antihero / dark crime stock of other prestige TV, Rectify belongs more to the new trend towards empathy in character and story work. The strange, often absurd situations that Daniel Holden finds himself in, combined with the subdued, naturalistic tone of the filmmaking, make this a show unlike any other currently on the air, or any that’s ever aired, really. Banishment from the state of Georgia hangs over Daniel’s head in this season, a fate that seems archaic, contributing to the heavy atmosphere. In a strange way, the “dissatisfying” nature of the season 2 finale would feel perfectly appropriate for the series, even if it were actually its end. It would be perfectly in keeping with Rectify’s love of ambiguity. Still, though, I’m ecstatic that it’s coming back for another season, and that we get more of Daniel Holden and his world.
Daniel Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic. He watched and reviewed a documentary every day for a year, so now he thinks he knows everything. His work has appeared in Film School Rejects, Movie Mezzanine, Paste, Los Angeles Magazine, ScreenPicks, Nonfics, and numerous other outlets. You can find links to all his work at his blog, http://danschindel.com/, and follow him on Twitter at @DanSchindel.
For even more on Rectify, visit John Bucher’s father’s blog at: https://thesundanceexperience.wordpress.com