In the wake of its fourth and final season, the Sundance Channel’s Rectify is still generating surprisingly little buzz. Despite being warmly embraced by critics (its last two seasons have garnered 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), the show remains largely overlooked, its appeal decidedly more understated than that of its more colorful competitors (HBO’s Game of Thrones or AMC’s The Walking Dead both come to mind)—enough so that the quietly majestic finale snuck past most viewers on December 14 as the series wrapped.
This neglect is a shame, because Rectify is one of the finest television dramas of the last several years, worthy of standing alongside such acknowledged masterpieces as David Simon’s The Wire and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. This is a bold claim, I know, but I’m not alone in my high estimation—and for Christians, in particular, the show’s careful balance of light and darkness comes as a welcome relief from the lurid tunnel vision of so much popular entertainment.
Admittedly, Rectify has a bit of a marketing problem: it’s hard to categorize. On the surface, it resembles a simple whodunit. In the fictional town of Paulie, Georgia, 18-year-old Daniel Holden, high on magic mushrooms, is convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Hannah, and is subsequently sentenced to death. Then after nearly two decades, a previously overlooked piece of DNA evidence surfaces that calls the verdict into question.
The show begins with Daniel’s release from prison. It’s been 19 years. Though we suspect he’s not the hardened criminal he’s been painted out to be by the town’s ruthless prosecutor-senator, Roland Foulkes, the details of Daniel’s involvement in the murder are far from clear.
Naturally, momentous events take place during Daniel’s imprisonment: His father dies; his mother remarries; he gains a stepfather, two stepbrothers, and one stepsister-in-law. More subtly, the world undergoes the kind of gradual changes that are invisible to free citizens and seismic to former inmates.
The episode “Modern Times” masterfully chronicles Daniel’s unique experience of time. We find the former prisoner marooned in the empty Holden household. Everyone is at the places free people go: schools, jobs, stores, apartment hunting. When Daniel finally manages to leave his room, he begins to explore the once-familiar house like a displaced time traveler, gingerly testing the foreign technologies he comes across, and finally retreating to the attic in search of something he understands. In this dusty space, Daniel is more like an archeologist, excavating relics of a former age. He fishes out old clothing, a Sega Genesis, a mixtape, and a Walkman. Soon, he loses himself in the music that carried him through his troubled high school years—until, that is, he hears his deceased girlfriend’s voice dedicating a song to him. He freezes, a rapt expression on his face.
Though Daniel’s forlorn demeanor is initially charming, however, his behavior soon betrays the fact that he’s a relative latecomer to the complex network of social norms that most adults navigate effortlessly. When Tawney—the spiritually perceptive stepsister who senses Daniel’s rich inward life—embraces him after he expresses interest in baptism, he holds on for just a little too long, breathing deeply. The camera lingers as Tawney’s eyes widen. Sensing her discomfort, Daniel loosens his hold, and offers an embarrassed apology: “It does something to you not to be touched in any positive way for so long,” he confesses. “You begin to vacillate between being repelled by touch and seeking it out in any form, even the most negative.”