At a time when more TV dramas feel like the great American novel, “Rectify” is something of a marvel, playing like a little haiku. Lyrical and hypnotic, the SundanceTV series concluded its six-episode third season Thursday, advancing the ball on a variety of fronts, with fractured relationships and new beginnings. While the plot was set in motion by a murder, the program is defined by its personal drama. Although series creator Ray McKinnon and his cast haven’t received enough accolades beyond love letters from critics, unlike the show’s fictional characters, they have nothing for which to atone.
It’s been a slow road to possible redemption for Daniel (Aden Young, simply splendid), who spent 19 years on death row for a rape and murder. Now, exoneration appears to be within his grasp, although the damage his time in prison inflicted on him suggests there might be no getting back to the man he could have been.
Still, Daniel’s release has triggered ripple effects throughout his circle, which played out this season in the form of tested and broken relationships. That included his loving mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and stepfather (Bruce McKinnon), as well as the stepfather’s son Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) and his wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens). Even Daniel’s sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who became involved with her brother’s lawyer Jon (Luke Kirby), has broken off those ties, providing an additional strain of melancholy to the season.
All that has transpired against the backdrop of the ongoing investigation into what really happened all those years ago, with the local sheriff (J.D. Evermore, also terrific) revealing himself to be a slow-talking, Southern-fried “Columbo,” gradually zeroing in on those who might have truly been responsible for the crime.
As for the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), there was one beautifully played scene after another, none better than Tawney’s imagined meeting with Daniel in prison, where they spoke of nothing less than love and God and the perhaps-futile search for both. That came as Daniel and his mom spent a few pleasant hours together on a trip to the beach, with her and her husband having chosen their respective sons to the point of threatening what had always looked to be a strong marital bond.
Although McKinnon and company moved the plot ahead on almost every score, this truncated run left behind plenty of loose ends. And when Jon visited the former prosecutor turned senator (Michael O’Neill) whose hands appear unclean in the disposition of Daniel’s case, it merely reminded viewers how much regarding the story remains unresolved.
SundanceTV has fared better with limited runs or miniseries than its episodic dramas, and like a lot of smaller cable networks, it’s looking to brand itself in the way that big corporate brother AMC did with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” years ago. That somewhat alleviates the pressure on “Rectify” – picked up for a fourth season even before this one began – to be a ratings blockbuster, although it would probably be nice if the audience grew beyond the TV critics who keep hectoring readers, friends and even total strangers to give it a try.
As it stands, episodes are averaging about 280,000 viewers, per same-day Nielsen data. That’s a pretty puny figure despite sister network AMC’s efforts, including a pre-premiere marathon, to help buck up the show, even allowing for heavy time-shifted viewing.
Near the end of the finale, Daniel started what could be a new chapter in his life, saying all that he could do was give it his “best shot.” “It’s all anybody can do,” his mom responded.
“Rectify” will probably have to settle for being a critical darling, not a commercial hit, one of those shiny baubles that offer prestige, even if serious awards consideration has eluded it. (The series did garner a prestigious Peabody Award but has thus far been overlooked by the Emmys, perhaps too laconic to stand out amid flashier dramas.)
If that’s as good as it gets, it’s still nothing to sneeze at. And nobody can say that McKinnon – best known as an actor before creating the series – didn’t give this opportunity his best shot, and then some.