At the opening of the Sundance Channel TV series “Rectify,” Daniel Holden has been released after 19 years of incarceration for the rape and murder of a friend when he was a teenager. After reviewing the case, DNA samples do not match Holden’s, and the conviction is called into question. Daniel is free.
But freedom is not a simple thing. To the joy of the sister who has been fighting for him all these years and the mother who has been widowed and remarried during that time, Holden returns to his small hometown: Paulie, Georgia. It’s a difficult homecoming, since many in Paulie still believe that he is guilty of the crime.
The first two seasons of the show tell of the first days and weeks of his return, flashing back to his mostly traumatic but occasionally transforming experiences in prison. Each frame is carefully composed; this series is a visual work of art. The characters, their relationships, and their interactions are deep and complex. There are moments of both transcendence and despair. Daniel is damaged and searching for light; his reentry to the family is difficult for everyone, in spite of their excitement over his release.
Viewers aren’t entirely sure of Daniel’s guilt or innocence, and his unpredictable, violent reactions further cloud the mystery. His step-sister-in-law, Tawney, is a devout Christian who sees good in Daniel and wants to help him grow closer to God. In many series, this would be a simplistic and superficial desire, but in the hands of these writers it is imbued with meaning and mystery.
The most compelling aspect of the series is the way that it reveals the grey areas. All of the characters are flawed human beings, but most wish for more. Guilt and justice, seemingly straightforward ideas, unravel under the weight of life. Those on the official side of justice—the police, the politicians—are susceptible to pride and twisting the truth, while the officially guilty vary widely from the worst of humanity to vessels of grace.
Grace, when it comes, is a thing of beauty and life in the series. Many of the people of Paulie find gratification or, at the very least, a way to numb their pain in all the wrong ways; this is a show for mature viewers. But when someone shows true depth of character, forgiveness, or love, it shines through the darkness all the more brightly.
It was not a huge surprise to me, then, to find that story editor and writer Scott Teems is a Christian, and I wonder if there are other people of faith involved in writing and directing the series. The need for grace and redemption is such a strong component, and each character, no matter how flawed, is depicted with compassion.
The third season of “Rectify” will begin on the Sundance Channel on July 9; you can stream the first 16 episodes on Netflix or Amazon before then.