As it begins its fourth and final season, “Rectify” is still among the most special series on television. The unsolved crime at its center isn’t what sets the SundanceTV show apart; in fact, if it were truly focused on solving a decades-old rape and murder, it would fit neatly with a number of other dramas or even true crime shows. But while the question of if Daniel Holden (Aden Young) killed his high school girlfriend is still a part of the narrative, it’s not what drives “Rectify” forward at its perfectly leisurely pace. There are few series with this much concentration on character and the small moments that make our days better, even in the face of suffering and sadness.
The SundanceTV drama is famously low-rated, but the network has given showrunner Ray McKinnon the chance to finish it on his terms in the last season (four episodes were sent to press in advance). For those who haven’t watched it (over 99% of the US population), the season premiere isn’t the place to start, given the emphasis on the characters and their evolutions. It picks up a few months after the season three finale that found Daniel leaving his hometown of Paulie, Georgia. “A House Divided” focuses entirely on Daniel and his new life in Nashville at the halfway house New Canaan Project, where everyone calls him “Dan.” He struggles with communal living and adjusting to life outside prison, with his unique Death Row experience setting him apart from the other members of the home. The first episode introduces a few new characters, but it’s Caitlin FitzGerald’s Chloe who shows the most promise for the series.
The second hour “Yolk” plays in parallel, and it shows us life back in Paulie. Episodes three and four – “Bob & Carol & Ted Jr & Alice” and “Go Ask Roger” – weave between Tennessee and Georgia. In Paulie, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) is unmoored in the absence of her son, and only “Rectify” would choose to reveal a character’s troubles with a shot of a refrigerator being cleaned, treating the image as both dramatic and matter-of-fact. Amantha (Abigail Spencer) blossoms in her new responsibilities as manager at Thrifty Town, but her desire to smoke pot in the middle of nowhere remains and it brings a high-school friend (a charming Nathan Darrow) back into her life. Still separated, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) and Ted (Clayne Crawford) go on awkward dates while she determines what she wants, while both their careers introduce challenges outside their marriage.
For each purely joyful moment “Rectify” gives us, there’s an equally sad one to temper it. In its first four episodes, this season is more explicit in its expression of Daniel’s inner life, with a one monologue in particular breaking our hearts as it reveals more of the character’s pain. The show plumbs the depths of loneliness in ways we haven’t seen on the small screen, handling the emotion differently than “Mad Men,” “BoJack Horseman” and other critical favorites. Daniel’s 19-year isolation gives him a unique position in regards to his own self and others, but it’s impossible not to identify with him as he at once longs for and pushes away the possibility of connecting with people.
No other series sways so smoothly between elegy and delight, with each minute on screen feeling entirely true to life, in a manner that’s unlike what we usually see on TV. McKinnon has set his show in the South, without ever mocking the region or its people. He has created a drama that is at once progressive in its ideals, while presenting a nuanced view of Christianity and its central tenet of grace.
With its low viewership, “Rectify” is often rightfully called “the best show you’re not watching,” but you could just as easily remove the qualifier and simply deem it “the best show.” Its presence is evidence of why peak TV is great. It isn’t just the sheer volume of content available; it’s that the quantity allows something this precious and entirely different from anything else on television to exist, even if only for four seasons. [A]
“Rectify” returns on SundanceTV on Wednesday, October 26 at 10 PM.