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Rectify is the best show no one watches. Here are 5 reasons to check it out

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) contemplates his future in the second season of Rectify.
Daniel Holden (Aden Young) contemplates his future in the second season of Rectify.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Rectify, which concludes its second season on the Sundance Channel tonight, is the best TV show you're almost certainly not watching. Last week's episode drew just 120,000 viewers, a minuscule number that probably should have doomed the show for cancellation but fortunately didn't. (The show that follows it, The Honorable Woman, is another good show you're not watching, considering it drew just 80,000 viewers.)

Fortunately, the first season of Rectify is short — at just six episodes — and it's on Netflix. Presumably, season two will be up there at some point, too, so you can get all caught up in time for season three next year. And you should. This is haunting, beautiful television, not quite like anything else on the air.

Here are five ways Rectify built and improved upon an already impressive first season in its second.


Rectify flashes back to the night of the murder. (Sundance)

1) It gained a stronger plot

In its first season, Rectify was much more about mood than anything else. Granted, that mood was spectacular, but it used its central conceit — Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from prison after spending nearly 20 years on death row — as an excuse to ruminate on all of the ways modern life might seem strange and isolating to a man who had been removed from it for that long. Its most famous scenes took the quiet, philosophical Daniel and placed him in convenience stores and Walmarts, places where the bright gleam of commercialism might seem all the weirder.

In interviews before the second season debuted, creator Ray McKinnon promised that the show would dig even deeper into the question of whether Daniel committed the murder that landed him on death row. He confessed to the crime but was also a teenager who was high on psychotropic drugs at the time of the killing, and DNA evidence eventually called enough of the case against him into question to win his release, though it did not exonerate him.

This central ambiguity — whether the largely gentle Daniel is capable of such darkness — is so important to everything that makes Rectify great TV. Trying to pin down the events of the night the murder happened might have backfired. Instead, however, McKinnon used those events to give the second season a through line that tied everything together, while maintaining the ambiguity. The mystery wasn't the point. How the mystery affects all of these characters was.

The more that is known about what happened, the less anyone knows about the actual events. That allows McKinnon to dig ever deeper into his true central theme: the ways people even tangentially connected to awful events are scarred, marked, and changed by them.


2) But it didn't lose what made it special

The first season of Rectify was marked by those long, ruminative passages where Daniel would reflect on life inside and outside of prison, but it also had an intense empathy for everyone onscreen, even those who wanted to put Daniel back behind bars. There's a tenderness to Rectify that can understand how even, say, those involved in increasingly elaborate attempts to return Daniel to prison, driven more by political expediency than anything else, remain human beings, marked by sorrow and fear and guilt, before all else.

That empathy extended throughout season two. The first season's most problematic character was Daniel's step-brother, good ol' boy Teddy (Clayne Crawford), a man who had never seen adversity and was set up as a foil to Daniel for no real reason. Late in the first season, Teddy pushed Daniel too far, and Daniel did something horribly cruel to him that the show promptly seemed to forget about.

Season two has turned into one of its major plots Teddy's reactions to what was done to him and how he tries to process his emotions of violation in the face of the traditional, buttoned-down masculine exterior. Not helping matters is the fact that his wife, Tawney (the astounding Adelaide Clemens) is clearly drawn to Daniel. As the season goes on, Teddy becomes more and more isolated from the other characters, and his inability to cope starts to fray every relationship he has.

In season one, Teddy was Rectify's closest thing to a one-dimensional heel. In season two, he's retained his role as a foil for Daniel, but the show has given viewers every reason to empathize with him. That empathy — and that faith in an essential humanity that exists within everyone — has always been the best reason to watch Rectify.


Daniel (Aden Young) enters a space between life and death. (Sundance)

3) It can be heart-breakingly beautiful

In the second season premiere, Daniel finds himself in a dream space seemingly between life and death, where he meets a friend he made on death row, someone he never thought he'd see again. Their conversation doesn't center on the improbability of their meeting, as it might on other shows. It centers, instead, on the question of whether life is ultimately a gift or a long slog toward death, a kind of cosmic sentence between the hard punctuation marks of beginning and end.

It's a staggeringly beautiful scene, not just thanks to its writing and acting, but thanks to its direction, which places the events in a barren field and is never shy about pulling back to find Daniel and his friend, dressed all in white, amid all this death. Beautifully directed scenes like this are present throughout the series. And more importantly, they're not afraid to linger on lovely images, to represent all of the good and bad that life can offer.

It could be incredibly, incredibly pretentious, the kind of pseudo-philosophical babbling that has done in many a lesser show. But Rectify earns moments like that - or others, like when Daniel stands beneath a flowering tree, petals drifting around him, or when he sets off on a bike back to his hometown in Georgia after a brief sojourn in Florida - because it wears its heart on its sleeve. It honestly wants to be a series that asks its audience to consider the idea that life is a gift, yes, but one that leaves bruises. And both sides of that equation are necessary.


Daniel (Aden Young) travels to Atlanta. (Sundance)

4) But it's not afraid to be weird

Rectify is often called a "Southern gothic" series, because it's set in a small town in Georgia and features its share of odd characters around the fringes of its universe. That quality didn't get as much room to breathe in season one as it might have (though Daniel's meeting with a guy known only as "the Goat-man" made up for that all by itself). In season two, which offered the show more episodes to play with, McKinnon and his writers brought in more and more of these tangents and off-beat encounters.

From Daniel's brief sojourn in Atlanta (where he pretended to be someone else entirely) to the arrival of a wild, older guy who's known only as "Lezlie with a Z" to an encounter between Daniel's sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) and a man who kept pulling change out of weirder and weirder places, season two took plenty of time to explore the odd, funny moments that make life that much more bearable.


Branches keep falling off the tree across from Daniel's house. (Sundance)

5) It has the soul of a great novel

The longer season two went on, the more it revealed that season one was merely a prologue to the show's true story and themes. Deep down, Rectify is a very literary show, and not just in the sense that its characters speak in a kind of everyday poetry that recalls great Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy.  No, it's a literary show in that it uses the symbolism of, say, a tree losing its branches in a way that changes and shifts its meaning, depending on the episode and circumstances.

The longer it runs, the more Rectify seems to take place in this almost literary void, a place where summer becomes fall becomes winter becomes spring becomes summer again, seemingly in the course of an episode or two. The world changes to reflect the characters' feelings, and the events that happen reverberate throughout the ensemble so that a tiny ripple in one character's storyline becomes a tidal wave in another's.

This could all feel unbearable but for the fact that Rectify understands how the tiniest moments in our lives can feel like immense gulfs of feeling to disappear into, depending on our perspectives. For a long time, television made cold and chilly shows about brutal, difficult people. On its surface, Rectify could be one of those shows, but it's not. It's something else entirely, a series about the way we grow invisible tethers to others in our lives, seemingly without trying. It's about the way those tethers stretch and sometimes break. And it's about the way that they sometimes cinch tighter, and we're left working to keep our heads above water together, like it or not.

The second season of Rectify airs its season finale at 9 p.m. Eastern tonight on Sundance. Season one is available on Netflix.