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Sundance’s Rectify could be The Wire for small-town America

This wonderful series — wrapping up its run with its new season — understands the South in a way TV rarely does.

The cast of Rectify prepares for the final season.
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.

One afternoon shortly after actor Aden Young had wrapped season one of Rectify, his wife called. He’d gone out a few hours earlier and hadn’t returned. She wanted to know if he was okay.

In the deeply emotional Sundance family drama, Young plays Daniel Holden, a newly exonerated death row inmate who re-enters society after nearly two decades in prison. On the day his wife called looking for him, he’d found the character hard to shake and had been standing on a street corner for four hours; as Young recounts the experience, it’s with the wry smirk he wears even when telling the most devastating story imaginable.

"I couldn’t move," he says. "I was petrified that I was going to fall over. I was absolutely fine. I was healthy. My kids were healthy. I had a beautiful wife. For the first time in my career, I think, I even managed to pay off one of the credit cards. And yet Daniel was there, just going, ‘Don’t move. It all hurts, and if you move, it will hurt more.’ Like when you have a bad back. I was afraid to turn my head. I was afraid I would see through the façade."

It sounds weird, I know — like the kind of mystical mumbo jumbo actors sometimes tell reporters to make themselves sound profound. But I know from having talked to Young several times over the course of Rectify’s run — the show’s fourth and final season debuts on Sundance Wednesday, October 26 — that he takes this character and this world seriously. And not in a self-important or self-involved way; that’s just the effect Rectify has on those involved in it, and its tiny coterie of devoted fans.

Young’s solution to his Daniel problem was simple: Build the character a guesthouse in his head where Daniel could go to live in between seasons.

"I knew he was there. I’d occasionally take him things, but I wouldn’t see him. Then Sundance would email me, and I’d go and check on him," he says.

And yet now, as Rectify prepares to leave the airwaves forever (the series finale will air in December), there’s a larger question at play. Is this show — which essentially nobody but TV critics watched — going to leave a footprint? Will it matter?

Yes, I would say. Rectify takes us to places TV doesn’t always visit — and it does so with such grace and honesty that I think it will be found in time. The series is a vital piece of art, because it presents a world TV often forgets, and it does so with beauty, bittersweetness, and humility.

Rectify grants the American South a dignity TV doesn’t always allow it

Aden Young stars as Daniel Holden in Rectify.

When I spent a day on Rectify’s set in June, as the cast filmed the sixth episode of season four, Abigail Spencer, who plays Daniel’s sister Amantha, recounted how an executive for AMC Networks (the studio that produces the show) had recently shared his hope that Rectify will ultimately have a similar life cycle to The Wire.

Yes, The Wire was little watched while on the air, but after it ended, more and more people watched it, became obsessed with it, and turned it into the enduring TV classic it was always meant to be.

For Spencer, that comparison point makes sense in terms of long tail viewership. (She is, she tells me, still receiving tweets from people who are just noticing her work in a string of Mad Men episodes from 2009.)

But it struck me in another way, too: Like The Wire, which dug into the systemic failures of the American city, Rectify travels to a place TV rarely travels to, to examine people in crisis. Only in this case, that place is a small town in the South, and many of its residents would likely turn up on other TV shows as goofy rednecks — as stereotypes, more or less.

"There’s a droll humor in the way that people talk. Southerners have this gift of language, even the ones that aren’t loquacious," says J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Daniel’s mother, Janet, when I ask her what Rectify gets right about the place she was born. "Southerners don’t always say what’s on their mind. They’re circuitous. They’re polite. They’re embarrassed to talk about money. There’s this whole code of behavior."

Rectify’s empathy starts with showrunner Ray McKinnon

Rectify creator Ray McKinnon laughs on set while filming the fourth season.

Rectify is both interested in exploring why those stereotypes exist and in poking at them a little bit to see just how real they are at their core. The series takes place in a world of extreme empathy — where it attempts to understand the motivations of each and every character, no matter how difficult that might be.

"I think in the South, a lot of people are who they think other people see them as. You rarely get to see who they are underneath that," says Clayne Crawford, who plays Daniel’s step-brother Teddy.

Where does that empathy come from? The answer from the show’s cast is unanimous: series creator Ray McKinnon, who wrote the pilot for Rectify in the 2000s, then nearly saw the full series produced in 2008 on AMC with Walton Goggins in the lead role.

While AMC passed on the ruminative show, Rectify eventually found a home at AMC’s sister network Sundance, which has turned it into the cornerstone of its efforts to produce TV reminiscent of arthouse theaters — hyper-specific deep dives into under-explored corners of America and overseas imports.

"If you spend enough time digging into people, almost all of them are complex," McKinnon tells me. "[Fictional] small towns, it’s usually the outsider who comes to town who’s complicated, and the small town people are the ones who are, at the worst, caricature. At the best, they’ve been simplified. So I wanted to give them their full due."

While Rectify shoots on a typical TV schedule — meaning each episode is filmed over the course of about a week — McKinnon does his best to leave room for collaboration on set, especially when something isn’t quite working. His actors appreciate the space to try things out.

"I have been on set with Ray this season when there was a ton of pressure and time was not on our side. We’d shot two or three takes, and Ray would come out and say, ‘All right. Everybody leave the set. This isn’t working. Let’s take a break. Let’s get the material back in our hands, let’s read through it, and let’s find out what it is we’re looking for,’" Crawford says. "That doesn’t happen on a normal television schedule. It’s really just about trying to get the dialogue down."

"Part of me would get frustrated that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, that he didn’t have it written in stone," Young says. "He couldn’t find the creature within the marble yet, without looking. Hone a bit, hone a bit, hone a bit, and there it comes. We weren’t making it out of clay. His script was the slab. It would come in, and we’d start chipping."

That empathy also stems from how Rectify shoots in a real Southern town

That’s the very real Griffin Police Department standing in for the fictional Paulie Police Department.

Even if you took McKinnon out of the equation somehow, Rectify would be swathed in a cocoon of Southernness.

When I left Atlanta on a muggy June day to travel to Rectify’s setting of Paulie, Georgia, I was headed about an hour south of the city to a town called Griffin, which has just under 25,000 residents and is the sort of quiet little town you might find anywhere in the country — dotted with quick stops and dollar stores. But Griffin has its very own Southern brand of specificity.

The Rectify sound stages, for instance, are right next door to a leather tanning business, and on hot days, when their neighbors open the doors to let in a breeze, Rectify’s personnel can see alligator skins hanging up to dry. This is where Rectify has filmed all four of its seasons, and the distinctness of the location has created, for the actors, a kind of bubble.

"It was a great luxury — the whole town was your set, and you were immersed in this universe," Cameron says.

When I visit Griffin, it’s amazing how much the town has both embraced the production and incorporated it into day-to-day life. A massive buffet-style lunch is set up at a local church, while scenes set in Paulie’s fictional police department are filmed in Griffin’s actual police department.

A fake kids’ birthday party is staged in someone’s back yard, with lots of locals and their children essentially going through the rituals of a neighborhood gathering in service of a scene where Amantha struggles to handle a personal and social humiliation. Once you witness such a scene, Rectify feels less like a TV show and more like an augmented reality etched on cellophane and carefully placed over the top of Griffin’s real-world existence.

"When you arrive in Griffin, you leave off all of the pace and things you have to do in LA or New York. It provides a lot of focus," Spencer says. "It feels more like a theater troupe going and making something for a summer."

Being so isolated from the rest of the show business world has fostered a deep trust among the cast. When I’m on set, there are tense moments (as there will be on almost any set), but it’s rather remarkable to watch as they are subsumed into the rest of the show. It’s all fodder, and being in Griffin has built up that safe space to try things in.

"I feel like it’s okay to be vulnerable with these people because I love them and I trust them. And I think Griffin is a big part of that," says Adelaide Clemens, who plays Teddy’s wife, Tawney. "I can do anything. I know I’m not going to be judged, and if it isn’t completely accurate, I trust that Ray will know what to do with my performance."

Rectify’s use of Griffin as its living, breathing set might be the aspect of the series that most resembles the indie films that used to be Sundance’s stock in trade. Like so many independent American films before it, the show makes the best use it can of out-of-the way locations, tipping past a Hollywood version of America in pursuit of the real thing.

Or, put another way, Rectify wouldn’t work without just the right small town. In its own way, finding Griffin was as important as the empathy McKinnon and his cast bring to the series.

In its own way, Rectify is one of TV’s most important shows

There’s a surprisingly moving plot about painting a swimming pool on this show.

Can a TV show as little-watched as Rectify is make the world a better place? I’d like to think so.

There is, for instance, a stunning scene in the third season, in which Teddy, struggling to deal with an assault he suffered at Daniel’s hand, goes back over the history of his relationship with Tawney. Hovering near tears, his voice wavering slightly, Crawford makes sure he never quite crosses the line into open weeping, even though you can sense that somewhere in Teddy, he’s both incredibly ashamed and relieved to be expressing such vulnerability.

It’s a scene I’ve never seen in quite this fashion on television — the bold, cocky guy undone and unraveled. In season one, Teddy was an easy character to dislike, the peacock who strutted when Daniel seemed almost too sensitive to live. But after Daniel knocked Teddy out and shoved coffee grounds into his butt, Rectify insisted on making you see the character, over and over again, as human, hurting, vulnerable.

Popular fiction doesn’t really give us characters like Daniel or Teddy or Amantha or Janet. And the beauty of Rectify is encapsulated in an idea McKinnon expresses to me: Over its four seasons, the show will have followed these characters for about six months of their lives. But they will go on in some other universe, even if we don’t get to see what they’re up to.

"The story could continue on and continue on and continue on, like human beings do," McKinnon says. But, he adds, putting these characters under the microscope was central to what made the series powerful: "I never wanted to jump too far ahead and miss those little steps, those possible transformations or regressions that we do as human beings."

As a result, being part of Rectify is not an experience the cast will be able to shake very easily.

"It’s hard to wipe your feet of the journey and the character once the day is over, because it’s so thick with every moment," Spencer says.



I’ve seen a few episodes of Rectify’s fourth season, and they’re as sweet and soulful as the show has always been. They contain passages of stark beauty, and moments of dreamlike simplicity. And above all else, they’re guided by McKinnon’s unfailing empathy for each and every character on screen. At a time when it’s harder and harder to imagine the country ever finding its way past the many ways it’s tearing itself asunder, Rectify stands as a constant reminder that, ultimately, we are all only human — even the most powerful or downtrodden among us.

"Almost everybody has something about them that’s worth empathizing with," McKinnon says, before laughing: "There’s a couple that I’m not sure about in the world right now, but…" He grins.

Yet even though Rectify could conceivably run forever — and for as much as it seems like everyone involved in the show might be game to check in on these characters 10 or 20 years down the line — there’s a certain perfection to ending not with a period, but with a comma, a pause before life goes on.

Which brings me back to Aden Young, and the character living in a guesthouse in his head, and how he might let go. This summer, when I sat down to chat with him at a Rectify press event held after filming concluded, we discussed how he and Daniel would finally part ways.

"One of the most difficult tasks an actor has is the ability to let somebody go," he says. And then he checks his watch, to see when his slate of interviews will end. "In approximately an hour and 15 minutes, [Daniel] will be dead, because that’s when we leave. We’re never going to get together like this again. This is it. We’re finished. So much of Daniel exists in Ray and exists in [Rectify’s other cast members]. That’s who we are.

"So much of our lives, 20 percent of my adult life, has been spent in communion with this and the traumatic story we’ve told. We’ve been through something together, and it’s going to be a very difficult thing to say goodbye to."

And then he laughs one last time. "But I’ve got an hour and 15 minutes to prepare."

The fourth season of Rectify debuts Wednesday, October 26, at 10 pm Eastern on Sundance. The three previous seasons are available on Netflix.

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