Stress Warning: This post contains descriptions of strong emotional responses which may be upsetting to people under extreme emotional stress.
I have been re-watching the Sundance series Rectify, a compelling television drama that ran four seasons between 2013 and 2016. It is perhaps the most richly scripted series I have ever seen on television, more like literature than drama. Certainly, no television series has ever made my heart swell with more warmth for a character. My thoughts about the character and the series must come out for some reason; perhaps I will know why after writing this reflection.
I’m referring to the lead character, Daniel Holden, played by Aden Young. The series begins with Daniel being released from prison after serving 19 years on Georgia’s Death Row. As the story evolves, I accept that this is not an ordinary drama that will resolve the plot issue around which the story revolves. I will not learn definitively, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether the teen-aged Daniel killed the teen-aged Hanna Dean, his girlfriend. This storytelling is more creative, thought-provoking, layered, and lovely than “did he or did he not do it.”
Rectify focuses on character. When Daniel is released from prison based on new DNA evidence, everyone in his family and in his hometown of Paulie, Georgia, is forced to confront their own losses, hopes and dreams, and their own despair, anger, fear, resentment, insecurity, confusion, guilt, and regret. None more so than Daniel. It is a hard and harsh beginning, and a little bit more life than I thought I might be ready for when I first tuned in to the series. With news of Daniel’s release, everyone in Paulie is shaken and forced to begin again. Everyone is asked to do something outside their comfort zone. As a viewer, so am I.
The story moves along with a dreamlike hazy quality, textures and distinctions unfolding with deliberate nuance, like the slow burn of a high-quality, oak-barrel-aged whiskey. Each episode is rich, smooth, and shaded, its writing elegant and refined like a fine Scotch, delivering just enough earthiness without becoming grim or phenolic and just enough sweetness without becoming sentimental or sappy. Over time, my appreciation of the series matures, and I distinguish subtle, complex qualities of the cinematography, direction, script, dialogue, and acting.
Scenes linger long on faces and hands and hauntingly beautiful rural landscapes in sunlight and moonlight. Fields, forests, backyards, graveyards, kitchens, diners, bedrooms, and buildings – settings are simply exquisite in every detail. It is not a show of twists and turns, big car chases, and loud gunfights, but rather interconnected circles, like prehistoric stones, coppiced trees, and human relationships in small communities. Dialogue is slow and deep, full of mesmerizing pauses and silent spaces that bend time. The show welcomes me in with a burn that warms as I go with it, like sipping a whiskey neat. I am reminded to be patient. I won’t understand everything immediately.
The emotional intensity of the series, however, isn’t a place to linger too long. It’s not easy to watch an individual, a family, and a small town work their way through and beyond their lowest of lows in life. I can feel Daniel’s sadness, depression, heartbreak, danger, loneliness, awkwardness, gratitude, hope, amusement, and resilience. His humanity, I guess. Everything I need to know is in his face, his eyes, the intonation of his voice, and the slump of his shoulders. He has a natural, romantic innocence and strength, like stardust. Glimpsing his soul, I sometimes feel uncomfortable to see so far inside him – the child and the man, the sweetness and the darkness – a person both eager and reluctant to make a human connection. I want to protect the grown man and worry over him. Through Daniel’s story, Rectify allows me vicariously to experience relief from some past and present-day sorrow by fantasizing about relieving Daniel’s, to see suffering with pure sympathy rather than the added frustration of feeling powerless to change it.
Daniel is living a life a long way from what he wants because the world isn’t what he thought it was and pressures of the past continue to weigh upon the present, but he appreciates the simplicity and richness of every remarkable turn. Like sunshine through a window, Daniel’s life slowly revolves with the day, flecks of golden light slanting through his experience, memories, fantasies, and emotions, revealing understanding – however brief – before turning dark and closed, then opening to the light again. He cannot swallow the world at one time. And no one knows that better than his mother.
The character Janet Talbot, played by J. Smith-Cameron, is perhaps the most uneasy of all the characters. With so many intense emotions under the surface, Daniel’s mother reveals her personal struggle in sudden silences, facial expressions, and the faint trembling of her hands. She accepts uncertainty, values meaningful human connections, and understands that feeling unsettled can be an impulse for change and discovery – for Daniel, for everyone. No one in Paulie settles comfortably with the circumstances, but Janet’s mental and emotional fortitude are tested more than anyone’s, except Daniel’s, of course. She witnessed the destruction of her son with his imprisonment and she must witness his rebuilding with his release, knowing that he is still in danger as prosecutors threaten to reincarcerate him.
While few others want to face the uglier facts of Daniel’s life in prison and his re-entry into the world outside prison, Janet understands his loneliness and aloneness. It’s like she is staring steadfastly at a candle flame whose shadows spread grotesquely over the ceiling and walls and the heavy darkness upon the room. The candle sputters, smokes, and flares, fighting for life, and then goes dark. Suddenly something shifts and shoots pain through her heart. Rage and sorrow cut deep lines across her brow and in the corners of her eyes. What does one do with all those feelings, let alone name them, and not be destroyed by them? It must be utterly bewildering for her.
In the second episode of the series, Daniel has an intimate conversation with the character Tawney (a young religious woman married to his stepbrother) about the seasons of the year, and he is moved by the anticipation of experiencing rain and thunder. Daniel’s disclosure that where he had come from was a box with no windows – walls surrounded by more thick walls that blocked all awareness of the world outside – makes this scene especially poignant. Tawney says to him, “It will be glorious, Daniel. You won’t be disappointed.”
The art of the series, the scenic photography, the poetry, the music, the humor – these elements provide serenity, joy, laughter, and a heartwarming respite from the heartbreaking storyline. Among my favorite episodes is Janet and Daniel’s road trip, which includes a happy day at the beach, a dance during dinner, moments of tenderness, contentment, and quiet melancholy, and in general much needed alone time between mother and son. In another episode, when Daniel presses his mother to tell him why she stopped riding her bicycle, Janet says to him, “I don’t think we have to tell sad stories; life’s too short.” To which Daniel replies, “That’s exactly why we have to tell them.”
Books, books, books. Daniel has read a lot of books, all kinds of books, most of which Janet supplied him throughout his years in prison. It’s not surprising, then, that the show’s writers include many literary references – with restraint and credibility – which enrich the dialogue, add intimacy and intelligence to relationships, and reveal Daniel as a quiet, reserved, contemplative person, accustomed to solitude and the company of books. I recall references to Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, William Shakespeare, Jean-Paul Sartre, W. Somerset Maugham, Tobias Wolff, and Leo Tolstoy. One of my favorites is when Daniel says to Tawney, “You’re my Beatrice.” While Daniel clarifies he’s referring to Dante’s La Vita Nuova, I, on the other hand, think of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Each meaning is interesting to ponder – a love inspired by physical desire and the soul’s longing, or a love inspired by intellectual energy and emotional vulnerability.
The beautiful poignancy of watching Rectify is witnessing Daniel change his world view from despair to optimism. Having spent 19 years living a life leading toward its end, he is suddenly freed from Death Row due to heroic efforts of caring people to reverse that course. We watch him shift his mind from planning his life’s end to imagining a life with color again. He grows from having a troubled sense of self to realizing his self-worth and his personal responsibility not to let himself down. A long, gradual, painful, sometimes violent, sometimes joyful journey, it includes encounters with memorable sympathetic characters who offer kindness and insight as well as with hostile villains who disguise themselves as victims and people out to satisfy their own ambitions. But Daniel does find friends and tenderness, and he begins to learn good things.
By the end of the series, I don’t know what’s in store for him, but I believe in him and have hope for him. Perhaps it’s because over the four seasons, I’ve witnessed him giving his life back to himself. The State of Georgia can’t do that, the town of Paulie can’t do that, and neither can his family. Only Daniel can give himself back to himself. Years ago, after reconsidering self-defeating coping skills better suited to the life behind me, I had to make a choice: I changed my world view and adopted new skills. I embraced the depth and range of my emotions – my humanity – and stepped out into the world without fear. I tried to put things right, to alternate the currents in my own life.
The lingering message I receive from Rectify is that people will surprise us, life will keep us guessing, and we never know what’s in store for us – however horrid, however glorious – but it’s important to keep hope in our hearts and do our best not to let ourselves down. Optimism has a useful purpose when we’re lost: it helps us change course. Life owes us no answers because the truth is usually more complicated than we think it is, and time can distort things. If we avoid judging and defining ourselves through the distorted mirrors of other people, if we recognize the profound truths in our bonds with family and friends, if we take personal responsibility for our own behaviors, and if we choose to help each other, we are capable of much good. The people and creatures whom we love, who know us, love us, believe in us, and want us to believe in ourselves, are forever significant to us.
Closure for me is mirage-like. Healing has its limits. Some experiences have left me irrevocably wounded, forever changed. Some have left me with a spot of sunshine and warm comfort. Some, as Tawney said, have been glorious, like the vivid blue blossom of a sky pilot – and love, much love. So, I strive to create authentically touching moments of being present, of connecting, of caring, embracing, and letting go without expectation. I strive to express gratitude for kindnesses and to diminish perceived slights. With bridled optimism, I hope for a good night’s sleep and a good day’s memory, the enduring love of family and friends, the beauty of a full moon, a cherry tree bursting with blossoms, a field of sunshine, and a wood of coppiced trees.
Composed between May 14, 2017 and May 19, 2018
- put (something) right; correct.
- convert (alternating current) to direct current.
- find a straight line equal in length to (a curve).