In ‘Rectify,’ Gritty Realism Meets Its Match: Grace

The masterful four-season drama takes a surprisingly biblical view of human nature.
In ‘Rectify,’ Gritty Realism Meets Its Match: Grace
Image: Courtesy Gran Via Productions

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.”

Tawney’s coarse-natured husband, Ted Jr., doesn’t fare so well. His insensitive queries into the nature of prison assault are answered with a stunt that’s as ruthless as it is cunning, and it serves as a timely reminder of the deeply troubled company Daniel kept during his lengthy incarceration on death row.

For all its finesse, though, Rectify still contains moments of unsparing darkness, whether we’re seeing a group of guards forcibly extract a hysterical Daniel from his cell, the walls of which are speckled with excrement, or simply overhearing the demented murmurs of fellow inmates. If his eccentric nature is by turns charming and menacing, Daniel’s 19-year stint in this stark world sheds some light on his enigmatic behavior.

The one person who never doubts Daniel’s innocence is Amantha Holden, his long-suffering sister whose steadfast loyalty to her brother is matched only by her obsession with seeing him exonerated. What Amantha actually wants is nothing less than total rectification, vindication, and redemption. She’s the emotional center of the show, and she’s the one who will act as the viewer’s surrogate, asking our questions, demanding resolution.

As you’ve probably already gathered, Rectify isn’t really about whether Daniel killed Hannah. Ray McKinnon, the show’s creator, has said that his main subject is the “complexity of the human condition.” As he goes on to say, “Within that complexity is a great capacity for violence, for prejudice and greed, but also for love and compassion and understanding. When we look at people, we can’t really be sure that they’re not capable of the good parts of us. Because they usually are.” Though his description isn’t framed in theological language, Christians will recognize that what McKinnon is describing sounds awfully close to the operations of sin and grace in human nature—the astonishing fact that God works through fallen men and women in spite of their brokenness.

In fact, both sin and grace are both on full display in the best episode of season 1 (“Drip, Drip”), in which Danny finds himself stealing goats with a ragged country bumpkin who might have crawled out of a Flannery O’Connor story. Dubbed the “Goat Man,” it’s hard not to see this character as a kind of satanic figure—and while the exact purpose of their operation remains unclear, the dirty wad of cash that Danny walks away with is all too real. The Goat Man promises to show Daniel “somethin’ different” and leads him to a piece of pagan statuary in an isolated woodland clearing. In a thick Southern drawl, he intones, “It’s the beauty that hurts you most, son. Not the ugly.”

In many ways, this dreamlike sequence provides a fitting encapsulation of the show’s genius, which inheres in its honest balance of darkness with light. The biblical account of human nature, after all, is far from simple. On one hand, the astonishingly intimate language of Psalm 139 proclaims that the Lord of all creation knit us together in our mother’s womb, conferring infinite worth upon us. On the other, Psalm 51 offers a sobering reminder of our fallen state: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Together, these perspectives help us to make sense of the central conflict of our nature, our dual propensity toward degradation and exaltation, sin and righteousness—a conflict that only the cross of Christ can resolve.

Our typical understanding of “realism” often boils down to little more than a principled elevation of vice-over-virtue: Skeletons are yanked from closets, ulterior motives uncovered, scandals exposed, and soon we wait for the story to go about the familiar business of sniffing out corruption in every character and human institution.

Rectify represents a stark departure from such cynical thinking. From the stygian recesses of a prison cell to the luminous beauty of a baptism at a small-town jubilee, this show offers one of the most holistic pictures of the human condition you’re likely to encounter on television. It’s one of the few stories that prove that an unflinching depiction of beauty can be just as compelling as an unflinching depiction of ugliness.

Cameron McAllister is a speaker and writer with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). He lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, Heather. You can find him online @cammcallister7 on Twitter, and listen to him talk about signs of life in today's culture on the Vital Signs podcast

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In ‘Rectify,’ Gritty Realism Meets Its Match: Grace