I kept wanting to write about the television series Rectify last year, but I never did, did I? I meant to because I found the program fascinating, beautiful, and spiritually suggestive in a way that is absolutely unique to television – indeed American pop culture.
The program is about Daniel Holden a man released from 19 years on death row. He had been convicted for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, but finally released because of issues with DNA evidence.
The show’s first season had only six episodes, each covering a day or so in Daniel’s first week of freedom. It’s a meticulous examination of his reintroduction to life outside, his family’s reintroduction to him, as well as the small town that still holds him guilty (as he well might be – we don’t know at this point.)
The tone is a combination of meditative and the grotesque – and since it’s set in a small Georgia town and has spiritual undertones, we are obliged to term that grotesque “Flannery O’Connor-esque” aren’t we? But it’s valid here. And be warned – there are rough points, unpleasant to watch, but they always have a point.
Spirituality is taken very seriously – conversations happen, questions are raised, and differences explored. It’s refreshing.
Last night, the show returned, this time for a ten-episode run. I don’t think I’d recommend starting fresh with this season. Even I, who’d watched the previous season twice through, was a little confused at some points and regretted not re-watching at least the last episode of season one. But…let’s go on:
The episode picks up where the last ended: Daniel had visited the grave of the girl he was convicted of killing, and while there, was beaten almost to death. We find him now in the hospital in an induced coma, his mother and his sister at his side. The episode moves between the present moment and the reactions of Daniel’s family and the townspeople to his beating and the dreams deep within Daniel’s damaged self, all of which reflect his prison time – the dehumanizing moments and the life-giving ones.
Matt Seitz has a piece on Vulture today that calls Rectify “truly Christian art.” This is startling, coming from a website and magazine that normally has no interest in religion except the sneering kind, but the piece is good and true and the description of the show isn’t even intended ironically:
Rectify is a straightforwardly spiritually minded drama in which Southerners weave talk of the presence or absence of God into everyday conversation, along with allusions to prayer and doubt, heaven and hell, sin and redemption. Daniel’s deeply devout sister-in-law, Tawney Talbot (Adelaide Clemens), has casual conversations about God, sin, and afterlife with Daniel, and much pricklier ones with his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who isn’t too big on the whole “God has a plan” thing, given all that’s happened to Daniel and their extended family. Tawney knows her husband Ted Talbot Jr. (Clayne Crawford) is growing apart from her because “we don’t pray together anymore.” This is a world that a lot of Americans live in, and yet you rarely see it depicted on TV. Here it’s portrayed without hype, and with zero condescension.
Old and New Testament imagery are built right into the story. The first season consisted of six episodes that unfolded over six consecutive days. The season ended with Young’s character, the former death row inmate and autodidact Daniel Holden, comatose after being attacked by vigilantes; somehow McKinnon has turned “He is risen” upside down (“He has fallen”) and fused it with “On the seventh day, He rested.” Add that to all the different variations of death/birth already depicted on the series (Daniel was reborn intellectually through his studies in prison, reborn again upon his release, and then reborn yet again when evangelicals baptized him; his presence in town forces many citizens to grapple with un-Christlike revenge fantasies) and you’ve got more Christ imagery than you’d think any TV show could handle. Somehow Rectify handles it. It’s all part of the texture. It’s there if you want to latch onto it, and if you don’t, no biggie.
Well, I would disagree with that last point – given the centrality of these themes and images, if you don’t want to “latch onto it,” you’ll miss quite a bit – going back to O’Connor – if you don’t understand that her stories are about grace and our resistance to it, then yes, it’s a biggie.
Last’s nights conversation between the devout Tawney and the doubter Amantha (and yes, she is as annoying as her name – I sometimes wonder if McKinnon gave the character this irritating name that isn’t quite right to subtly guide our reaction to her character) brings out the best of Rectify’s treatment of spiritual matters – and a weakness.
In the waiting room, Tawney tearfully wonders how God could have let this happen – she fully believes in Daniel’s innocence and seems puzzled as to why the rest of the world doesn’t agree. My quibble with this particular articulation of theodicy is that I really don’t think any devout Christian would ask that question – “How could God let this happen” about that incident – thugs beating up a guy they thought was guilty of a terrible crime. She might ask different questions – why can’t we see the good in others? Why do we judge? How can help others reconcile? But I think Tawney, given her understanding of her faith, wouldn’t be tempted to blame God for the actions of others in this case.
BUT – here’s the good part. And it was only a few words, but it expressed so much. Amantha is the free spirit, of course, with undefined spiritual views. We might assume she’s an atheist or at the very least agnostic. Tawney turns to her.
“Do you believe in God, Amantha?”
Amantha stumbles over her words, waves her off, shakes her head – and perhaps we think she is going to say straight out “no” – but instead she says in aggravated resignation, “Well, I believe in evil, so…..”
And off she goes, wondering.
How very interesting. Suggestive. Who else said something like that?
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.