I’ve heard a lot about Rectify recently. Ot comes highly recommended by a few friends and the fact that it has AMC’s name attached to it (albeit broadcast in the US by Sundance TV) gives it a certain cache (lest we forget AMC in the US was the network that brought us landmark series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad). Even though it’s onto its third series in the US, this is the first time UK viewers have seen it. If you read some of the reviews and primers out there, Rectify is being touted as the next US series that transcends. So anticipation was high for this one. Here’s the set-up: After spending 19 years on Death Row for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend, Daniel Holden is going home. His conviction has been vacated due to new DNA evidence, thrusting him back into a world he no longer knows. Having spent his adult life waiting to die, Daniel must now learn how to live again. But, his re-entry into the outside world? He’s haunted by the past, dogged by the present, and uncertain of the future. Add in some fragile family dynamics, and you have something that intrigues right off the bat.
At its heart, Rectify is a human drama, exploring what happens to a person when he has to adjust to a new, wider world. Not only that but it looks at how his family and local community react to him after so long inside. Tack onto all that a now open murder case – and a look at the resentment a case previously thought of as open-and-shut causes – and Rectify boasts some really interesting dramatic elements.
Before we get to the case we first we see Daniel (Aden Young) leave prison. It’s a remarkable opening scene, cutting as it does between his excited family travelling in separate cars to greet him on his release to Daniel himself, bemused by the reality of being let out of the cell he’s been living in for almost two decades. He’s forgotten how to tie his tie, so the prison guard helps him. The guard asks him if he wants something to drink. After so long behind bars Daniel isn’t used to being offered anything by a prison guard, not least a drink, and this new-found benevolence heightens his bemusement.
And then we see his family – his tearful mother Janet, his chain-smoking sister Amantha and his step-father Ted. They greet him tearfully, and as the shutters slowly roll up the bright sun makes them squint. Daniel takes his first steps into a free world.
His new lawyer Jon, who guides him through a press conference on the edges of the prison gates. Daniel is still bemused, naturally, and the gathered crowd seem to be torn as to whether to greet this apparent victim of a miscarriage of justice with warmth or mob-fuelled derision. Certainly Senator Roland Foulkes, who originally prosecuted the crime, is vehemently opposed to Daniel’s release and says so in his opening salvo at the press conference.
Foulkes isn’t the only one not welcoming Daniel into the free world. His step-brother Ted – who took over the family firm while Daniel was in prison – fears for his job now. His wife Tawnee, meanwhile, is fascinated by the whole thing, insisting on watching all the news reports about Daniel’s release.
As for Daniel, he trudges solemnly back into small-town life in Georgia, the wide expanses of the lush Deep South, with its stifling, oppressive heat squeezing him like a vice. For a man who has been used to the confines of a solitary existence in a tiny cell, it’s all a bit much. Daniel doesn’t say much in this first episode, squinting and anxious, his eyes shifting from side to side unsure of how to react inin everyday situations. His eager sister Amantha wants to do stuff with him, but he just wants to ride around in the car and see his hometown from a distance from the safety of a cockpit.
Like all the best American dramas, Rectify strikes the perfect balance between languid pace and unfolding narrative. During this unfolding narrative we meet the local police force who are resentful of Daniel’s release and who vow to get to the bottom of the case. There’s a wonderfully, quintessentially Deep South character – retired Sheriff, CJ Pickens – who has a drawl as rough as a back road, and throughout the dialogue is suffused with typical turns of phrase from the area.
There are other characters too. We travel back to Daniel’s cell in flashback scenes, where he strikes up a friendship with his neighbour and fellow Death Rower Wendall Jelks; as well as the two original witnesses to the case, whose testimony helped to seal Daniel’s fate. We see George and Tre meet, presumably, at the act of the original crime; George scared that Daniel’s release may uncover the real truth. The episode ends with George taking a gun and shooting himself in head, as the noises of the creek chirp around him.
So as first episodes go, Rectify certainly passes that all-important test. As Daniel begins to let himself laugh again – thanks to his step-brother and his DVD collection – there’s still a huge sadness and anxiety that mists over him like a cloak. It’s certainly quality, multi-faceted drama, with the intrigue of Daniel’s interaction with his family, the continued resentment of police and a potential procedural element all ingredients to a simmering pot. This is drama that lingers like the Georgia heat, its pace such that we can luxuriate in its characters and their interaction.
At this early stage I’m wondering if showrunner Ray McKinnon will play around with our perception of Daniel, especially his role in such a horrid crime is still open to discussion. There’s also the opportunity to get to work on his family’s dynamic and politics, especially Amantha’s past.
We’ll see. For now, Rectify is definitely one to keep an eye on.