Rectify is the best show on television you’re likely not watching.
Showing on the largely unknown Sundance Channel and plotted at a pace that can generously be called “meditative,” Rectifyhas never built a large following. Which is a shame, because Rectify picks up the torch from Mad Menin terms of offering some of the most empathetic, honest and truly human character development on television.
The show is about Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who after 20 years on death row for the murder of a teenage girl is exonerated when new DNA evidence comes to light. Moving back to the small town where he was raised, Daniel tries to adjust to his new life, even as the surrounding community remains convinced of Daniel’s guilt.
What’s interesting is that they might be right. As viewers, we are never 100-percent sure Daniel truly is innocent. Daniel himself - deeply broken from his time on death row - seems to be confused. Trying to separate his real memories from the manipulation and pressured confession he experienced as a teenager, Daniel seems trapped in a state of moral amnesia. Is he a murderer? Was he unjustly accused?
In the penultimate episode of this current season, the town sheriff asks, “Do you consider yourself a good person?” This could be the theme of the whole show. Every character – Daniel, his sister, stepbrother, sister-in-law, mom, the town sheriff and several others – are all ultimately asking, “Am I good?”
And the answer is never clear. These people both are and aren’t. They’re striving for goodness and terrified of it. They want to love others well, but aren’t sure they are worthy of that love. They share Daniel’s moral confusion.
Rectify captures the duality of a Christian theology of humanity.
It’s not uncommon for a show to have one or two characters following this morally complex arc, but on Rectify we are allowed to see the hopes, dreams, fears and brokenness of almost every major character. Villains – although they exist – are few and far between. As the show has unfolded, characters I’ve previously hated have earned my deep compassion. Characters I used to root for without reservation, I now see in a more complicated light.
But this is not moral ambiguity for moral ambiguity’s sake. What Rectify reveals is that this question – “Am I good?” – is one that all of humanity is asking. And in the show’s world, there is a deep nobility in the asking. Rectify is humanist in the best way, in that it’s rooting for all its characters and sees true beauty in their struggle to find peace.
The show’s naturalistic photography grounds the characters’ existential struggle in something hopeful. As we watch we see the world as a beautiful place, even as horribly unjust things happen. In this Rectify captures the duality of a Christian theology of humanity, which recognizes both the beauty of our imago dei and the insecurity of our exile from the garden. We are all asking, “Am I good?” and waiting for the one whose image we’re created in to give us the answer.
This ultimately is why I find Rectify so compelling, even beyond its spot-on acting, cinematography and slowly advancing mystery. As I watched last night's season three finale, I found myself rooting for these characters to find a peace in their spiritual journey, one that leads them to both love and be loved.
I’m hoping this for them, because I am hoping this for me.