Again plodding along at a near-hypnotic pace, “Rectify” begins its third season almost exactly where the second left off, and that’s a good thing. Awash in critical acclaim, this deeply rich and provocative drama remains a standout for its little-seen home SundanceTV, even warranting a pre-return marathon on big brother AMC. While that’s unlikely to translate into much of a ratings boost for a series so steeped in pain and sadness, it’s a welcome endorsement of a show that offers further proof great dramas are coming from an extremely wide variety of sources.
Just to recap, season two ended with Daniel Holden (Aden Young), the walking embodiment of coiled feelings and cordoned-off emotions, agreeing to a plea deal in the case that had put him on death row for 19 years, despite his apparent innocence. Weary from the struggle, he’s hoping to spare his family and perhaps find a fresh start elsewhere, although the motivations of the bureaucrats with whom he’s dealing aren’t necessarily to be trusted.
At the same time, Daniel’s act of aggression against Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), the son of Daniel’s stepfather, risks coming back to haunt him and unsettle the family. And there’s the little matter of the strained relationship between Ted and his wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), to whom Daniel was inexorably drawn almost as soon as he was released from prison.
Finally, there’s Daniel’s long-suffering mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and sister (Abigail Spencer), who have labored to defend and free him, and now face the deflating prospect of having him admit his guilt — or really, in his own mixed-up mind, culpability. Those long-ago events surrounding the murder haven’t entirely remained buried, despite Daniel’s riveting account of what happened at the close of season two.
Anchoring everything is Young’s remarkable work in the lead role, playing a man whose impassive demeanor only occasionally hints at his inner turmoil, illustrated in part through the judicious use of flashbacks to his time in prison. When he says to a mother and child on a playground, “I’m nobody to be worried about,” you believe him, but could hardly blame the woman for taking the kid and leaving nevertheless.
Created by Ray McKinnon (who wrote the Stephen Gyllenhaal-directed premiere), “Rectify” remains a master class in nuance — in small looks and long pauses that say more than pages of dialogue, where even a trip to the local convenience store fosters a sense of unease. In that respect, the series is frequently deceptive in terms of how much the story advances from week to week, since it regularly feels like not much is happening.
Sundance has delivered some admirable limited series, but its attempts to follow this show with additional dramas have been uneven, reflecting just how difficult it is to approximate this indie-film niche in episodic form.
After seeking to adjust to life on the outside, Daniel’s journey has taken turns that could hardly have been anticipated, and it’s frankly tough to foresee where the show goes from here, or for how long. Still, “Rectify” has established itself as a trip worth taking, and for a discriminating few, at least, the protagonist’s slow road to redemption remains an utterly absorbing one.