Series Review: Rectify (Sundance Channel) 2013-2014

Sundance TV brings us another amazing show in Rectify, currently airing its second season. The show was created by Ray McKinnon (Sons of Anarchy) and stars Aden Young (Daniel), Abigail Spencer (Amantha), J. Smith Cameron (Janet), Clayne Crawford (Teddy), Adelaide Clemens (Tawney),  J.D. Evermore (Sheriff Carl Daggett), and Luke Kirby (Jon). Here is a description of the series from the Sundance website:

Nineteen years ago, Daniel Holden was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend, Hanna Dean. Thanks to newly discovered DNA evidence and the efforts of his sister Amantha and lawyer, Daniel’s conviction has been vacated. Season 2 of RECTIFY finds Daniel Holden committed to living in the present. Unfortunately, there are many places and faces in his hometown that remind Daniel of the past – his incarceration, Hanna, and his role in Hanna’s murder.

The drama takes place in the fictional small town of Paulie, Georgia (filmed in Griffin, Georgia just south of Atlanta). When the series begins, we see Daniel as he is released from death row. In one of the first scenes, he can see a new inmate having to endure a strip search not unlike the many he has likely endured during the last 19 years. When one of the guards approaches him and asks if he'd like something to drink, he seems stunned and confused at the sudden respect he is shown now that he is no longer an inmate. This is the first of many strange experiences that lay in store for Daniel as he ventures back out into a world that no longer resembles the one he had known when he was locked up as a teenager. 

Daniel is a complex character, played to perfection by Aden Young, an Australian actor by way of Canada. Daniel is quiet and moves very slowly and deliberately. He has not known time in the traditional sense that the rest of us know it. He has not been able to experience the passing of a day by looking the the sunrise or sunset. He does not know the seasons of the year, having been locked in a windowless cell for 19 years. He has only had his books and his neighbor, Kerwin, for company. He is able to talk with Kerwin through the air conditioning grate in the wall and occasionally see him as he is taken out of his cell. At first, it is unclear whether Daniel is a little slow, possibly mentally challenged in some way. But soon enough, we realize that he is a man of tremendous intellect and inner strength. In fact, we see him handle most situations with a deliberate, studied approach. Even his manner of speaking suggests that he is quietly considering each decision the day brings in that he doesn't use contractions but speaks each word fully and with purpose. There are times when you think you know him. His face stirs such emotion in the viewer that you want to take care of him, much like the members of his family and those few friends who still remember him from before his incarceration. But around every corner, we meet a different side to Daniel and find that he is a man not easily figured out.

The other players in this drama are experiencing their own private drama. His sister, Amantha, has stood by her brother over the past 19 years, working tirelessly to clear his name and have him released from prison. In the process, she has put her own life on hold. Although she lives in Atlanta at the beginning of the series, she soon moves back to Paulie to be near her beloved Daniel. Amantha is not a delicate southern flower. She is tough and hardened. The only times we see her soften are when she is with her brother or the young handsome lawyer from Atlanta that is responsible for Daniel's release from Death Row. Abigail Spencer is mesmerizing as Amantha.

The young lawyer, Jon, is played by Luke Kirby (Take This Waltz). In some ways, he's supposed to be the typical big-city, Jewish lawyer. But Kirby is understated in his portrayal. We soon realize that this case has become personal for him. He is struggling with the truth of the case. What was Daniel's role in the death of Hanna? And he is struggling with his palpable attraction to Amantha. Both of them realize the inappropriate nature of the relationship, but neither can stay away from the other. The chemistry between Luke Kirby and Abigail Spencer is electric on the screen.

Daniel's mother, Janet, is another interesting character. While she is a southern woman who is quite soft and refined, she is also quite strong and assertive when it is called upon. She is quite educated and shares Daniel's love of good literature. It is quite clear that the two have a special relationship. They understand one another. They "get" one another in a way that Mothers and Sons don't often experience. I love their scenes together.

My favorite couple, and the one that perplexes me the most, would be Tawney and Teddy. Tawney is played quite believably by the Australian actress Adelaide Clemens. Believe me, as a Southern girl myself, I have a high standard for nonSoutherners playing us, and she nails it. She is sweet, demure, and a devoted Christian in the truest sense of the world. There is a goodness in Tawney that I would hate to see shattered by the ugliness and evil in this world. But I fear that her faith in the goodness of others might be in jeopardy. 

Her husband, Teddy, on the other hand, has a more jaded, cynical view of the world. His father is married to Daniel's mother making Daniel his stepbrother. He is not so quick to welcome Daniel back into the fold. At first, he fears that Daniel might try to usurp his role in the family tire business that was started by Daniel's father before his death. But soon enough he finds his fears turn to the close friendship between Tawney and Daniel. The two men have words about the situation and it soon goes south for Teddy as Daniel teaches him a lesson he painfully learned in prison. I was intrigued by Clayne Crawford as Teddy. For some reason, I just knew his accent had to be organic. Having grown up in Alabama, he sounded quite familiar. And sure enough, he is from Clay, Alabama. I love when I can guess these types of things.

I would like to highlight two stand-out performances for actors in smaller, but critical, roles: Johnny Ray Gill as one of Daniel's Death Row neighbors Kerwin, and Jayson Warner Smith as Wendall, his neighbor on the other side. Gill's Kerwin is childlike and sweet. We see a young man who came into prison for a crime he committed when he was likely young and impressionable. It was an accidental homicide which occurred during the commission of another crime, and he now finds himself becoming a man while awaiting his death. He and Daniel strike up a friendship by talking through the wall. This friendship likely keeps both of them sane as they play invented games. They get to know each other quite well and become best friends and brothers of a sort.

Wendall, on the other hand, is everything that Kerwin is not. He is a psychopath that has  committed crimes that are so despicable, I hope we never have to hear about them. Smith plays him so well that my skin literally crawls when he comes on screen. He can bring out anger and disgust in Daniel like no one else. He is definitely the embodiment of evil unfortunately balancing out the goodness that exudes from Kerwin. An amazing performance but at the same time, it is difficult to stomach some of his scenes. 

Others in the town have been equally affected by the death of Hanna. Her mother, for example, is like a ghost of a person. At one point, we see that she hasn't changed anything in Hanna's room since the murder 19 years before. Her life and her home have fallen victim to entropy and apathy.

Season 1 ends with Daniel finally coming face-to-face with some of the townsfolk that believe he is guilty for the death of Hanna and are determined to partake in some vigilante justice. Season 2 begins just after this attack and promises to be as gripping as Season 1. In Season 2, we get to know the local sheriff a little better. And even though he still believes that Daniel is guilty, he is sworn to uphold the law and that is what he is going to do. Even though it seemed as if he was going to be the stereotypical corrupt Southern sheriff, he is anything but that. I find him to be as complex a character as any on the show. I never expected to be so drawn in by him as he has a fairly small role in Season 1, but I can't wait to see what Sheriff Daggett will do next. And it goes without saying that J. D. Evermore is authentic in his portrayal of this strong Southern man.

The casting, writing, and direction are unlike anything currently on television. I think this is one of the most important TV series I have seen and that includes Breaking Bad, The Wire, and The Sopranos. It should not be missed and I would recommend that viewers watch it multiple times as I have. I have seen Season 1 four times and still find new things. 

Season 1 is currently available streaming on iTunes and Netflix and Season 2 is available on iTunes (see my links on the left). You can also purchase it from Amazon in my store which is linked at the top of this page.





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