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Rectify returned last night.

For those of you who don’t know, Rectify is a television series seen on Sundance TV that’s “about” a man released from prison after 19 years on death row for a murder he may or may not have committed.

The point is not really that particular mystery. The point is the impact the incarceration and the re-entry has had on this character, Daniel, and his family. Rectify is about human connection and how we do or don’t live with ambiguity and change. The acting is magnificent, the pace is meditative.

I like Rectify for a lot of reasons. I appreciate the southern setting. It’s filmed in Georgia, in a town a bit southwest of Atlanta, and a couple of the actors have Birmingham connections. I once saw and chatted with actor Michael O’Neil, who plays the corrupt senator in the series, in the Whole Foods here in town. The accents are good – even though two of the leads are Australian!

It’s a profoundly spiritual piece, with more than a hint of Flannery O’Connor.

If you want to catch up, the first three seasons are currently streaming on Netflix. I’ve written about it a few times before – the last time here, I believe.

So let’s get back to this first episode of this fourth and last season of Rectify.

When the third season ended, Daniel Holden was leaving his hometown of Paulie, Georgia for Nashville. He had been convicted of raping and murdering his high school girlfriend, but released from Death Row on an evidential technicality. He had confessed to the crime rtfy_401_jld_0415_-0142-rtat the time, but we have seen in flashbacks over the course of the series that this confession was almost coerced and that there are certainly others who might have committed the crime. But what we see of and hear from Daniel in the present has never been enough to lead us to conclude on his guilt in one direction or another.  In fact, our general impression has been that he is not sure himself.

In any case, for various reasons, after a few months out of prison, Daniel has admitted to the murder and, as part of the plea, has been exiled from his hometown and the state and is taking up residence at a halfway house in Nashville, which is where we meet him at the beginning of the fourth season, which seems to be taking place a few months after the end of the last.

This first episode focuses solely on Daniel up in Nashville. We don’t see anyone from Paulie, and we have no idea what’s going on down there. The question is – how is Daniel adapting? The answer: he is walking and talking, but as if he is still in his death row cell that has shrunk, encased him and which he wears like a cloak.

At least in Paulie, he had his family, and as fraught and awkward as his relationships with them were, at least he had some degree of familiarity. Here in the halfway house and at his warehouse job, he functions, but he doesn’t interact. He just doesn’t know how, and in Aden Young’s performance – in his eyes, body language and strangled voice – we perceive that struggle and honestly, it makes us a little afraid.

Alan Sipenwall has reviewed the first two episodes of this season here, and I can’t add to that except to share a bit of last night’s episode that struck me on a spiritual level.

Near the end of the episode, Daniel returns to the halfway house, and is pulled into conversation with one of the counselors. One of the core events of the episodes has been that Daniel’s roommate tested positive for drug use and left the house in the middle of the night. This initially seems like a tangential event that has nothing to do with Daniel.

But doesn’t it?

Daniel was his roommate. Daniel even saw him leave and did nothing, said nothing. There have been no fireworks or drama about this, but as the episode builds, the central question emerges:

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Well, yes, you are. “New Canaan” is the name of the halfway house and here, in this community of hope and new beginnings, yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

But this is not something Daniel knows a bit about, not because he wants to be cruel, but because almost two decades of isolation have malformed his soul.

This comes out in a cathartic conversation with the counselor, in dialogue that might seem a bit overwritten from Daniel’s perspective at first, but does make sense when you consider it as the fruit of twenty years of introspection and reading. It is not surprising that he would talk this way about his own existence and the stripping of his soul.

But even this is not what I want to focus on. For the core of Daniel’s dilemma comes down to this:

He doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know anymore if he killed Hannah or not. That uncertainty, that unknowing about the past, makes living in the present impossible.

Here’s what this made me think about last night, then:

Do any of us know the impact of our actions/ Do we have any clue to the reality of our own sins? Is there even any way for us to grasp every sin of omission and commission, what we have done and what we have failed to do? How the words I spoke in the grocery store yesterday helped or hurt and what they led to in someone else’s life a minute or an hour or ultimately a week down the road?

How tangled and mysterious is human history, activity and experience.

This is not to diminish the impact of sin. It is not to say there is no space for justice or requirement for restitution or judgment.

It is simply a recognition that there is only so much we can do for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we can’t even begin to count the ways. God must do the rest. All of our efforts to make sense of our impact on others fall short not only because they are weak and limited but also because we don’t know what to do. We do not know how to pray as we ought, Paul says, and not just because human words are limited, but because we can’t comprehend the scope of our lives and our impact, for good and for ill, on others. We don’t know what we should be asking forgiveness for, not all of it, not really.

How can we rectify when our sins are either so great or so unknown to us?

So how do we live? In continued isolation, separating ourselves from others because we are afraid, we feel unworthy of them in our guilt, real or imagined, or we feel superior to them in our innocence, real or imagined?

Or do we do what we can, hand the rest over, and edge from the door to the side chair to the place waiting for us at the table with the other sinners in the house that is half way?

Rectify season 4

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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 rectifyexamination 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.

 

 

 

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