Daniel Holden (Aden Young) the lead character of Sundance’s quiet drama Rectify, is an odd duck. He does not make a lot of eye contact. He speaks slowly, and the way he opens a conversation tends to knock people off guard. “Hell is other people,” he tells someone in tonight’s season premiere. He knows that that quote comes from No Exit. He read Sartre’s play in prison, sitting in a cell alone for much of the nineteen years he spent inside, waiting for the execution he’d been sentenced to.
A show about loneliness, regret, and French existentialism is a tough sell for a television audience. It is a tough sell in a way a show that is more straightforwardly “about” murder and crime is not. A crime set the clock of Rectify going—the rape and murder, in a forested area of central Georgia, of sixteen-year-old Hanna Dean—but in a move that has sometimes impressed critics and sometimes frustrated them, the show has rarely been about solving it. A weird, loner of a kid, harangued by the police into confessing to Hanna’s death, Daniel was sentenced to death as the sole person responsible. At the outset of the show, Daniel is released on DNA evidence that proved someone else was at the scene of the crime, but there are no CSI scenes here.
Rectify does not exactly treat the murder as irrelevant. It is simply a whodunit that recognizes that in real life “exoneration” cases, the whodunit is often beside the point. The West Memphis Three, for example, set free years ago, technically pled guilty to the murders of three young boys in Tennessee, murders they say they did not commit. They took an Alford plea, a Supreme Court creation that allows a defendant to enter a guilty plea while openly maintaining their innocence. Taking an Alford plea at least spared the Three the theatrics of local prosecutors taking them back to trial for those murders. But it was a compromise, and in the end, still no one knows for sure who killed those children. It clearly wasn’t the Three. But who else it might have been, authorities still can’t properly say. Everyone involved is still chained to the murder that way.
That is the truth at the heart of any successful exoneration case: The freedom, once obtained, isn’t really free. And Daniel wasn’t as “lucky” as the West Memphis Three. He had no celebrities behind him, only his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer). The authorities were still convinced he’d committed the crime. He was only offered a traditional plea bargain, one which had him formally confess to Hanna’s murder. This season, the show’s last, meets him at a halfway house in Tennessee, where he is serving out the terms of his probation, though he’s been hollowed out by the entire experience. Daniel has a habit of wandering from home for days, staring off into space, frightening a housewife at a merry-go-round who doesn’t know what to make of his awkward hellos. He even, one late and unwise night, assaults his stepbrother (Clayne Crawford), after an argument. He is going through the motions of a life that promises only limitation and regret.
“What’s your name?” someone asks Daniel in the premiere.
“It doesn’t matter,” he replies.
“Why doesn’t it matter?” the person asks.
“This isn’t real,” Daniel replies.
It’s become a cliché to say that a piece of drama is about “the nature of truth.” But Rectify so openly plays with the slippery nature of memory that the label directly applies. The confession scene, which played at the end of Season Two, is one of the most remarkable pieces of acting to appear on American television in the last ten years because of the line it treads between fantasy and reality. Aden Young delivered an account of the crime that made it clear, without his ever actually quite saying it, that Daniel doesn’t know if he killed Hanna. He doubts that he did, but he has no unwavering belief in his own innocence. “See, it’s the beauty that hurts most. Not the ugly,” is the sort of thing he said while trying to account for the events of twenty years ago, wearing a cheap brown suit and an openly anguished expression.
In another sort of show that confession would rapidly move a person out into the world. On Rectify, it took all of the third season to get Daniel to decide where he would go after the plea bargain. One of the conditions that prosecutors put on the agreement was that Daniel would have to leave Georgia forever, a prospect he greeted with an equanimity that troubles and infuriates his family. Amantha was particularly devastated, having devoted her whole adult life to arguing for her brother’s innocence, only to see him give in so quickly.
The struggle to cope with Daniel’s release unfolds in slow, painstaking detail. As a family, the Holdens aren’t talkers. Much of what the crime took out of Daniel, out of his sister, his mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is shown only indirectly; in the second episode of the season, cleaning out the fridge takes the place of naked emotional confession.
It isn’t quite the view of “the system” taken in something like The Wire, which pulled back from reports of high Baltimore crime to examine the institutions that kept those crimes happening. Here, in place of “the system,” we have characters. There is the evil now-Senator Foulkes (Michael O’Neill), who once was the prosecutor in Daniel’s case and clearly helped to force a confession. There is the Sheriff, Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore), who is just skeptical enough to keep an investigation open on his own time, but mostly believes Daniel is guilty, too. And there is the present day prosecutor Sondra Person (Sharon Conley), who is trying to hold her own against a dark morass of small-town dysfunction. And though there is little time spent on the kind of rank institutional incompetence that David Simon likes to track, it seems significant that every single one of these characters either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the truth.
It’s significant because, as anyone who spends any time with the justice system knows, it’s a very bad system for fact-finding. People don’t have the time or the concentration or the will to figure out what actually happened. Rectify has often been praised for upending the TV formulas that way, for “how radical its storytelling is,” as Matt Zoller Seitz put it at New York. But out in the real world, I think, outside the narrow and rigid formulas of television, a lot of people know a story like Daniel’s. In that sense, it isn’t radical at all.