‘Rectify’ Series Finale Recap: A Perfect Farewell

'Rectify' Series Finale Recap: A Perfect
Courtesy SundanceTV

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen the series finale of Sundance’s “Rectify,” “All I’m Sayin’.”

“Because I know you.”

Hushed — that’s the word that kept coming to mind as I watched the series finale of “Rectify.” It’s always been a show with its very own quiet vibe; one of the things that makes it distinctive is a expertly calibrated tone that never goes too big or too broad. Even so, there was a special delicacy to this luminous and brilliant final installment. That last scene, in which Daniel fantasized about meeting Chloe and her baby in a field at sunset, had no dialogue. It didn’t need any. We knew what it meant for Daniel to raise his hopes and dreams that high. He was dreaming of a perfect moment, and even if he never got it, he had that dream.

The fact that he had the capacity to want it, to yearn for it, to love the possibility of it — that’s how far he’s come. It’s been quite a journey since he stumbled out of prison in that boxy suit way back in Season One.

One of the many accomplishments of “Rectify” is the way that it mediated the horrors it contained. It filtered them through quietness because loudness would never be an adequate way to convey the gravity and complexity of what these characters were contending with. Why would Daniel spend minutes staring at dust motes or at a wall of flip-flops in a big box store? Why would characters spend entire scenes fumbling to connect, verbally or physically, very often not quite managing it, or only haltingly saying a fraction of what they meant?

Because everything they were trying to process and feel and understand was too huge, too overwhelming. It’s a sign of how measured this show has been that it waited until this last clutch of episodes to take us through, moment by moment, Daniel’s prison rapes. We knew he’d gone through horrific things, but now we really know. The restraint of those scenes was devastating. 

And in the finale, there was the awful, ominous description of Daniel’s dear friend Kerwin being led away to be executed. How many people can utter the phrase “my friend’s execution”?

What do you do with these feelings? How do you even name them, let along not be overtaken and crushed by them? That is what Daniel has grappled with during these four seasons, and his family has done their share of processing and grappling as well. A lesser show would have used bombast or broadness or velocity of some kind to convey the mind-bending challenges they’ve been through. A lesser show would have taken all the nuance and depth out of how hard it has been for them to negotiate this contradictory maze and come out with a shard of hope in their hearts.

The show that we watched for four seasons has mirrored the gradual repair of Daniel’s psyche; the process, like the show, had to be subtle and gradual. Anything else would have been disrespectful to the realities of rape and isolation, and all the other traumas Daniel has endured. As others have pointed out to him, it’s incredible that he made it through those experiences, but they left their marks on him. He rarely seemed comfortable in any room he was in. Aden Young played Daniel as a man intensely, even painfully, alive, but one who was disconnected from a coherent sense of identity and self. He often seemed attached to his body in tenuous ways, like a ventriloquist’s dummy operated by remote control. 

Daniel’s shyness and discomfort disguised the fact that, sometimes, he desperately wanted others to connect to him. But what would they be connecting to? Even he didn’t know the answer to that question for much of the show’s run.

And so we saw him, during the course of these 30 episodes, take tentative steps toward re-forming his identity and rejoining the world. It was a journey that creator Ray McKinnon, the cast, directors and writers handled with enormous delicacy, intelligence and tenderness. But they never forgot the darkness that was in Daniel too, a formless and bottomless rage that Young could switch into seamlessly.

That rage was understandable, given that we now know definitively that he was imprisoned for something he didn’t do. Of course, the isolation and pressure from law enforcement and a million other factors jumbled the entire series of events in Daniel’s mind, hence his confusion about what he’d done that awful night. But another of the show’s great accomplishments was that it was never really a murder mystery, not as such. It didn’t try to be a puzzle you could solve at home. Trey may be lying or he may be telling another partial truth that is self-serving, but as the laconic sheriff pointed out, all of that was someone else’s problem now.

And yet, in its own quiet and thorough way, “Rectify” has had a lot to say about incarceration and its costs and the limits and flaws of even well-intentioned law enforcement. Determined prosecutors and weak or incompetent cops can guide a case toward an outcome they want, and railroad immature people who don’t really have any protection from the law. And whether they deserved to be in jail or not, the men at the New Canaan House had to somehow put each other back together again after their experiences in the brutalizing system. (By the way, watching those men talk and try to change the self-defeating thinking that had helped land them in prison in the first place was one of the most fascinating aspects of the season. Those group scenes were totally engrossing.)

Daniel never really had a chance, not when he was 18. Chris had protection from the law, in the form of his powerful dad, and it was telling that the short scene featuring Chris also showed his teenage daughter. She looked to be about the age Hanna was when she was killed, and it’s clear that Chris feels some revulsion and horror at what occurred then and the information that’s starting to come out now. “Rectify” was about a lot of things, but it was quietly persuasive about how power dynamics play out in small towns and in tight-knit circles of influence and friendship.

But somehow, the tenacity of the family and their lawyer eventually presented them with this barbed and complicated miracle: Daniel’s freedom. They were forced to write new chapters for a book they thought had probably ended.

Daniel killed Hanna. That was one story. Daniel didn’t kill Hanna — that was another story that even the girl’s mother came to accept. Daniel is too damaged to move on and adapt, or Daniel may be able to embrace an unknowable but possibly hopeful future — those were the competing stories of this season. Both were like prophecies in a way: If Daniel believed one narrative hard enough, it would probably come true. He had to make a choice. All the characters, not just Daniel, came face to face with the stories they had told themselves about who they were and what they wanted, and whether those things were true or not.

For so long, Daniel was the blank canvas on to which everyone projected their fears, their anger, their hopes and dreams. In an earlier season, I compared him to an unexploded bomb — he was an object that upset the fragile equilibrium of the town and his family. Erased and obliterated by two decades in prison, he had retreated and collapsed and nullified himself, as he explained to his halfway house counselor in an extraordinary monologue in the Season Four premiere.

Having endured so much violence, trauma and loss, Daniel reduced himself to nothing — or tried to. Over the course of the series, he had to come to terms with the fact that he is not a blank slate. This season especially, he began the long road of refilling and rebuilding his soul and figuring out what he wanted and how he might be able to get it. As Pickle said, the mere fact of having aspirations — even dashed aspirations — was a very hopeful development. Daniel had progressed to the point where, even if he knew he was incapable of a deep and lasting relationship with Chloe, he wanted something like that for himself someday. He had a goal on that hazy, golden horizon.

Kerwin’s last words to Daniel were, “Because I know you,” words that cut like a knife because being known means someone sees your soul — but if you have a knowable and findable soul, it can be crushed and mutilated. That’s a terrifying idea, especially for someone as damaged as Daniel. Perhaps Daniel’s soul — the true, vast, complicated depth of it — had always been there, but he had to train himself acknowledge to it without fear. For years and years, if he wasn’t collapsing down into nothing, he was ignoring big parts of his heart and soul. He had tried to be invisible; he had turned the light off inside himself and did the mental equivalent of sitting alone in a dark room. In the pilot for the series, he came out into the bright, unrelenting, mysterious and capricious world, and nothing could have been scarier.

And that’s partly why the golden light at the end of the episode was so moving. Daniel was now seeing the world in technicolor. His vision was big, grand, sweeping, romantic, poetic, intense. He’s always had an artistic and sensitive soul, and to see him embrace the depth and range of his emotions without fear or flinching was the most gorgeous, moving thing to witness. I’ll have to watch it someday without tears in my eyes, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

That moment reminded me of another field, and other friends — Tim Riggins and Tyra Collette drinking beer and remembering old times as they contemplated the future. The “Friday Night Lights” series finale had a similarly empathic and generally hopeful end, and what transpired in the “Rectify” finale — with two groups sitting around two convivial tables — was much deserved, given what these characters have been through.

For 30 episodes, this show examined despair without ever lapsing into nihilism. It acknowledged darkness and violence without ever being exploitative (many of its most powerful moments were acts of violence and coercion recalled through memory and monologue alone. That’s what great actors can do.)

Sometimes it was very deftly funny, as it was in that scene in which Daniel had an awkward conversation with his boss (that scene was so dry and absurd, it could have been an outtake from “The Office”). The spareness of many of its outdoor locations, and the ambiguity and stillness of so many scenes gave the show its own transformational metabolism.  You had to lean in, pay attention. In so many ways, “Rectify” modulated and masterfully harnessed all the enormous forces rolling around in the characters’ souls. It had to do that, or else the show would have seemed cheap, predictable, shoddy or forced.

It was never any of those things. With precision and compassion, it limned emotional states that are impossible to name. As I keep saying, this is one of the greatest shows of all time, and that series finale is easily in one of the finest to ever cap the run of a drama.

Aden Young’s portrait of Daniel is one of the greatest performances to ever grace any screen, without question. It’s a travesty he hasn’t been nominated for every single acting award in the TV world. The entertainment industry should make up new awards just to give to him. His commitment to this role and his honesty and craft in portraying Daniel’s journey have been awe-inspiring. I feel lucky to have witnessed his work, which has a range and grace that is inspiring, to say the least. 

Abigail Spencer never lost sight of the generosity and fierce love at the heart of the wounded Amantha. When her mother told her she was her hero, Amantha’s face reflected a kind of ecstatic devastation. Daniel and her mother are not the only one who feel shame about where they’ve been and where they ended up — but in that moment, Amantha was disarmed by that unasked-for praise. Much of the show’s warmth has come from Amantha’s fiery, loyal love, and her wit has been a constant pleasure. Spencer, like the rest of the cast, has been a wonder.

Clayne Crawford played the hardest character to like in Season One, and this season, Ted Jr’s growth and pain have broken my heart a hundred times. Crawford has given an unbelievably subtle and truthful performance, and it was beautiful to see him smile at the hug that Tawney got — a hug he never got from his dad. He has eternally wanted love and recognition — some kind of acknowledgment — from someone, and never getting that has left a deep wound. But one of the messages of “Rectify” is that people can change. In that moment, Teddy didn’t feel rage about not having been hugged by his dad; he felt pleasure that his father still felt a deep bond to Tawney. He looked past his pain to notice and celebrate a small but important moment of connection. He knew that it was important that Tawney speak to Daniel one more time, and despite everything that had gone on among the three of them, he handed her the phone. That’s change. 

Janet has evolved too; she’s telling herself a new story about who she could be and how she feels about where she is now. J. Smith-Cameron has done a terrific job of depict Janet’s attempts to remake her life and embrace uncertainty and possibility, and leave behind not just old junk from the attic, but regret and anger about what her family has been through.

So much of this show examines different modes of masculinity, and Ted Sr. has been that old school guy: He isn’t good at sharing his emotions or the depth of his love, but it’s there (and the fact that he followed through on the kitchen renovation and it looks great? Now that’s love). Bruce McKinnon and Smith-Cameron were so good in their scenes together this season, and often wordlessly communicated the characters’ affection and frustrations. And that bathtub scene between them… it was just perfect.

I’m so glad that Tawney and Daniel got one last phone call; given all they’d meant to each other, it was only right. Of all the characters, Tawney may have changed the most, and Adelaide Clemons depicted Tawney’s own process of self-discovery with such stillness and yet such specificity and commitment. Her scenes at Zeke’s bedside were profound and moving.

If I name everyone in this tremendous cast, I’ll be here all day, but I appreciate how J.D. Evermore gave texture and dimension to Sheriff Daggett’s doubts. He was a taciturn man who often let his actions speak for him, and his determination to figure out the truth about the night of Hanna’s death was one of the most dependable and solid through lines of the entire series.

Daniel may, one day, be fully exonerated. But as that scene at the restaurant shows, he didn’t necessarily need that to be a person, to have a life. He had friends. He had memories. He had some kind of a future. We know him. In that knowledge is a particle of grace. 

For an interview with “Rectify” creator Ray McKinnon, go here, and for a feature on the show, look here. For a podcast that delves into “Rectify” and its finale, go here.