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Rectify finale: this is one of the most emotionally acute shows in TV history

Sundance’s lovely, little seen drama wrapped its four-season run with beauty and forgiveness.

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) gets an unexpected second chance at life in Sundance’s amazing 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.

Why does Rectify work?

The Sundance drama follows a man named Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who is released from death row after 19 years, and the family that tries to make room for him in their lives after all that time. It ended its run Wednesday, December 14 with a terrific, soulful finale, filled with perfectly realized moments and the sense of life moving ever forward. Not everything is resolved, because that’s not how life works. In reality, a story doesn’t end when you tell it to.

The show has been, throughout all four of its seasons, one of TV’s best. It’s taken big storytelling chances and embraced a ruminative quality in its performances and visuals. But that ruminative quality can also make it trying at times, especially if you’re not 100 percent on board with the show’s internal, emotion-driven stories.

So much of what happens takes place inside the characters’ heads. In many scenes, we’re bearing witness as they change the way they think about a certain idea, or how they come to an understanding with someone they don’t always agree with. Rectify has its plottier elements — especially when it digs into whether seemingly sweet-tempered Daniel actually committed the rape and murder he was convicted for — but those elements are often among its clunkiest.

So why does Rectify work? The series finale offers some hints.

Rectify is filled with characters trying to put shattered pieces back together

Daniel’s mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron, left) visits him in Nashville.

The characters on Rectify sometimes speak as if they’re discovering their emotions all at once. They knew those emotions were there, but they took great pains not to examine them too closely. In a sense, that’s what the show is about. It can be easy to ignore many of your less pleasant feelings when nothing really challenges your status quo, as was the case for Daniel’s family when he was in prison.

Yes, their lives had been shattered by his conviction, sentence, and imprisonment. But then they spent 19 years living with his incarceration, getting used to it and coming to understand it. Daniel’s release served as a kind of jolt to the system, a sudden shock that sent the characters spinning off course and made them realize how much unhappiness they’d been living with.

Thus, Rectify isn’t really about Daniel’s release — it’s about how his release affects both him and his family, emotionally. And over the course of its run, the show neatly mirrors itself. Season one was mostly about Daniel’s immediate reaction to reentering the outside world in the form of his hometown of Paulie, Georgia, and season four is essentially all epilogue about his family. Daniel has moved from Paulie to Nashville (though we still check in on him), but his family is left behind trying to make sense of what they’ve been through.

Before the finale, Young, who fostered such brilliant chemistry with every single one of his castmates, had only shared screen time with two of them in season four, and the finale only offered screen time with one other (though he shared a series of phone calls with a few more). The season focused on the other characters taking stock of how their lives had changed in Daniel’s handful of months spent in Paulie after getting out of prison. Marriages ended. Businesses closed. New loves blossomed.

None of this was the sort of high-stakes, pulse-pounding TV that tends to dominate headlines. It was quiet and small, driven by the innermost self. But the more you watch of Rectify’s fourth season, the more you realize that the show’s central idea is to probe everything its writers know about the characters’ emotions and help them find a way to speak about their feelings.

Watching season four is like watching a dam burst, as each character experiences some sort of major revelation about what they want in life, then finds the words to express it. There are few shows as wise about the inner workings of our minds as this one, and Rectify season four has been next level in that regard.

This is especially true for Daniel himself.

Daniel Holden isn’t yet at peace, but we can see how he might be

Daniel meets a woman named Chloe (Caitlin FitzGerald), who becomes a friend and companion.

In a vacuum, stranding your protagonist in a completely different city, hundreds of miles away from every other character on the show, doesn’t seem like the smartest idea. Daniel might not have been the world’s most traditional main character, prone as he was to waxing on about philosophy in a quiet rumble, but he was the glue holding the show together. If the family had shattered in the wake of his release, he was diligently trying to put the pieces back together and carve out a place for himself among them.

But sending Daniel so far away forced him to do something he hadn’t really had to do in the previous three seasons: confront himself.

Oh, sure, he spent plenty of time in season two (the series’ best) trying to figure out whether he had committed the crimes he was convicted of. (He had been using drugs at the time and had no memory of what happened.) But when he mentioned being sexually assaulted in prison way back in season one, references to this central horror in his life more or less stopped there, only alluded to going forward in brief bursts of his rage.

In Nashville, however, Daniel can’t escape either himself or his memories. He’s trapped with his own PTSD from his time on death row, and while he avoids therapy at first, the handful of people he befriends in Nashville aren’t terribly well-suited to helping him find stability. The scenes where Daniel finally, finally finds a therapist to talk to — and then resolutely, almost clinically works his way through his worst memories — feature some of Young’s finest work.

Daniel doesn’t suddenly become whole again over the course of the finale. That would be impossible; it’s not how people’s psychologies work. But by its end, we start to see how he might find peace with himself and what’s happened to him. The last 10 minutes of the finale, sweet and sad and wise, ensure as much.

If there’s one thing Rectify knows, it’s that every new day is a gift. That sounds — as one of the characters might put it — "corny as shit," but it’s something the show deeply, fundamentally believes. If you’re on this Earth for however long, you might as well use the time to make it a better place for others and to understand and accept yourself. Nobody on Rectify gets all the way there, because none of us do. But they’re a little closer when the series ends than they were when it began. And that’s a start.

Prior seasons of Rectify are available on Netflix. This season is on Sundance’s website.

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