Created by Ray McKinnon, the SundanceTV series Rectify aired a total of thirty episodes across four seasons from 2013 to 2016. It tells the fictional story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who was convicted at age 18 of the drug-fueled rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend, and sent to Death Row where he sat in near-constant isolation for the next nineteen years, at which point conflicting DNA evidence emerged. The series begins upon Daniel’s conditional release from prison, as he returns to rural Georgia and tries to assimilate within his hometown and family again amidst uncertainty, including his own, about his culpability in the heinous crime. While the show is as intense as this makes it sound, it is also leavened by many notes of quiet grace and peculiar humor. It is a distinctly humanist series about what it means to be human.
I recommended Rectify to friend Tanner Cipriano knowing of our mutual appreciation for emotionally heavy and beautifully weird series about grief and tragedy like The Leftovers, and once he finished it, we exchanged texts about what a powerful viewing experience it was. Because we had so many visually rooted thoughts, we realized that a video essay would be the best medium through which to root more deeply into the richness of Rectify’s storytelling techniques and themes.
After isolating individual scenes that we felt were essential to our memory of the series, we experimented with ways to connect them that transcended linearity, given that the concept of extended and distorted time was so central to the show’s premise, as well as to the experience of watching a multi-season serialized TV drama based heavily in character development. We decided that some scenes should be in slow-motion, suggesting the idea that Daniel would want to live in those moments forever or, alternately, could not escape them, while other moments would work best in fast-motion, signifying a rush to completion. We also utilized split-screens to capture Daniel’s mercurial moods, as well as to impart what it feels like for a viewer to reflect back upon key moments in a TV series. Those who have never seen Rectify will inevitably be confused by these juxtapositions, while even devoted viewers will strain to parse out the overlapping dialogue streams. But we hope that the shifting and combining temporalities evoke Daniel’s mental disorientation borne of a half-life spent in solitary confinement, as well as the temporal displacement he feels as he adjusts to the difference in time passing from the timelessness of his cell to the 24-hour routine of everyday life.
Structurally, Tanner made the pivotal call to use Daniel’s conversation with his halfway house counselor Avery (Scott Lawrence) from the show’s final season as the spine of the whole piece, as it concisely showcases Daniel’s accumulated trauma, fears, and guilt but also the grace Avery encourages Daniel to grant himself. We had also settled on five major sections for the essay, and to frame them rhetorically, we drew from the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Rectify explicitly references a few times. In Episode 1.04, prior to the one in which the agnostic Daniel follows the guidance of his devout Christian stepsister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) and gets baptized, he explains to her Aquinas’s belief that God reveals himself in nature. In his most substantial work about religious faith, Summa Theologica, Aquinas proposed his 'five ways', or five proofs for the existence of God through nature, and those concepts mapped surprisingly well onto our quintet of essay sections, with each titular conception tied to Daniel struggling at various points to have faith in his own humanity (or nature) and to decide whether he deserves redemption or not. Daniel buys an unidentified book for Tawney in Episode 1.06, and one could surmise that it was Summa Theologica, especially since she has the book on her nightstand in Episode 2.06. Tawney’s estranged husband Teddy, who has a fraught relationship with Daniel stemming from jealousy over the spiritual and potentially romantic connection between Daniel and his wife, grabs Summa Theologica from the bedside and reads out the following passage: 'Love may be of the seen and of the unseen, of the present and of the absent. Consequently a thing to be loved is not so adapted to faith, as a thing to be hoped for, since hope is always of the absent and the unseen'.
Intertwined notions of love, hope, and faith despite the unseen are rife throughout in Rectify, and through the creative decisions described here and depicted in the video essay, we hope to convey Daniel’s search for meaning and moorings of faith and grace in his life, as well as our own emotional and intellectual investment in that search as reverent viewers. Rectify devotees will know that the series is not as bleak an experience as our video essay might suggest, and we did strive to include at least one moment that points toward the show’s sense of absurd wonderment in human behavior and its aesthetic of playfulness, hence our whimsical manipulation of the segment featuring the turtle-loving apartment manager Melvin (John Boyd West). But we recognize that the video essay’s dark tone could also stem from the temporal context in which it was created. As we stitched together the final pieces in Winter 2020-21, pandemic isolation dragged on while the presidential administration led by Donald Trump executed as many federal Death Row inmates as rapidly as it could in its closing days. Our attempt to capture Daniel Holden’s loneliness and sense of self coming unglued started to feel like it was converging with our own. This is not to say, by any means, that we would equate temporary pandemic isolation at home with the inhumanity of long-term solitary confinement on Death Row, just that impressions of temporal and social disconnection abounded in the material we were working with and the lives we were living as we assessed and assembled the clips. A relatively short time felt like a long time felt like any time and no time at all. Tanner and I hope that some sense of that temporal displacement so uniquely conveyed by television’s viewing practices and so exquisitely transformed by Recitfy’s creators into powerful storytelling is imparted here.
Christine Becker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame specializing in film and television history and critical analysis. She is currently working on a research project about the history of a local sketch comedy TV series called Beyond Our Control. She also co-hosts and co-produces the Aca-Media podcast sponsored by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
Tanner Cipriano is a twin brother who enjoys painting, reading, and watching movies and TV. In 2017, Tanner graduated from the University of Notre Dame as a double major in Film and American Studies and then moved out to Los Angeles where he first worked as a Writers’ PA on the Netflix show Narcos and then became assistant to the showrunner, Eric Newman. Now, he is the Development Associate at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center and works closely with the Development team in all aspects of fundraising, marketing, and event planning.