I do part time work in a watch store. Just the other day, I was helping a customer with replacing a battery for a watch he hadn’t worn in five years. While I did my work, he answered his phone while waiting at the counter. I don’t normally eavesdrop, but the content of his conversation struck me. After answering hello, he told the person on the other line that he had “got out on Sunday,” which was just two days prior.
By get out, he meant prison, where he had been for five years which is why his watch needed a new battery. While he continued talking I gleaned that he had spent his sentence in a few different locations. He also had no intention of going back again. Shockingly, just one week before his release, he witnessed a man get stabbed to death right in front of his cell.
He left the store with his shopping bags and still continued his phone call, but he accidentally left behind one item. No, not his watch. That would be ironic. Instead he left behind a custom made cookie with “I’m sorry” emblazoned upon it with bright frosting. Whether this gesture was meant for a victim or someone else who happened to suffer during his absence I didn’t know, but my heart nearly broke that the cookie wouldn’t be received. Thankfully, he returned and retrieved his cookie.
Naturally, the experience made me curious, but not about his crime. I was more curious about what happens when a man attempts to rejoin society after being in prison.
My curiosity led me to happen upon the TV series, “Rectify” while surfing Netflix, which depicts a man, Daniel Holden, returning home after being on death row for 19 years when new DNA evidence suggests he has been wrongly imprisoned.
First of all, this show is dense. That’s a good thing. The way the characters, themes, setting, and plot all weave together inextricably is engaging and satisfying. The setting, a small town in the heart of Georgia, is the perfect setting to explore themes of justice, morality, sex, and family. In fact, I felt like the Southern Gothic tone was straight out of a William Faulkner novel. The inherent prejudices that stem from conservatism and religion provide a perfect back drop to explore the struggles of a man who is at odds with a society that is bound by those things, and further tainted by back country corruption.
The cast and characters are absolutely amazing. The main character Daniel is portrayed as philosophical, intelligent, yet socially inept due to his imprisonment. He younger sister, his greatest champion, adores him and with her boyfriend-slash-lawyer has worked hard to secure his release. Daniel’s mother is strangely distant, perhaps a bit disoriented since she has moved on since the death of Daniel’s father. Daniel’s step father welcomes his wife’s son openly while his son from another marriage is equally resistant. Daniel takes a shine to his step brother’s wife, whose devotion to Southern Baptistry (or whatever it is called) offsets her husband’s cynicism. And the there is Daniel’s teenage half brother who seems to adore him.
That may seem convoluted, but being from a strange southern family myself, this is quite the norm. Daniel’s character also functions as an audience surrogate, as his attempt to reacquaint himself with his home matches the audience’s attempt to get their bearings as well.
The themes are strongly portrayed in many of the characters, in which moral ambiguity keeps you on your toes as far as what to expect. There are no simple characters here, which isn’t to say that there are flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, which themselves are cliche. What we have are characters who are divided by a lack of understanding of the prison life Daniel endured, and his lack of experience with anything else. The society around him is composed of those who fear a monster walking freely in their midst, and those other outsiders and free thinkers who share in Daniel’s plight.
While the pace seems to meander a bit slowly, I personally don’t mind the more deliberate progress. The first season is only six episodes long, but they feel longer. I enjoyed being able to really absorb the interactions and almost surreal depictions. Helping with those depictions is the wonderful cinematography that seems to act like a narrator, giving us little cues between lines and scenes to remind us that there is more going on that each of the characters knows individually. Rarely does such a technical component of film jump out at me, but here its artfulness is impeccable.
The first season provided an exceptional television experience that is seldom matched, and I’m glad to know there is more in the next season and the upcoming third one beyond that. The tone of the series is on the darker side, with very little comedy or light heartedness that tends to get bundled in with other shows like Desperate Housewives, Twin Peaks, or even Orange is the New Black. This is actually a benefit, because what we get is a serious take on some serious subject matter that doesn’t rely on cheap tricks to fluff its content. It is a genuinely good drama with some of the highest quality writing I’ve seen in a long time.