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Stream On: How would you feel if you spent 19 of your 37 years on death row and were released? ‘Rectify’ explores

By on March 2, 2023

Rectify is SundanceTV’s first original series, a fictional dramatization of a rare but actual situation made possible by today’s DNA technology. Damien Echols, who was convicted and served nearly two decades in prison before being released in part because of DNA evidence, wrote about the series in The Huffington Post:Rectify is the story of a man who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, and spent 19 years on death row before getting out. [There] was so much about this show that mirrored my own life I began to wonder how much of my story had crept into the script…. I can tell you from first hand experience that Rectify is a very realistic show.”

RECTIFY

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“Sometimes you act like you don’t wanna get out.” (Kerwin Williams, Daniel Holden’s friend on Death Row)

Daniel Holden (Aden Young), met by his lawyer, mother, sister, stepfather, stepbrother Ted, Jr. and Ted’s wife Tawney, leaves a Georgia prison after serving 19 years on death row. New DNA evidence implies that 18-year-old Daniel was either not responsible or not solely responsible for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend Hanna, as had been alleged during his trial. Daniel, while freed, hasn’t been exonerated and will still be investigated by the law; two witnesses, George and Trey (Sean Bridgers, Women of the Movement, Deadwood), both testified that they saw Daniel placing flowers atop Hanna’s body.

Daniel spends the first few days of freedom in his room in his mother’s house or exploring it in her absence, doing everything an 18-year-old-might in a significant environment that he hasn’t seen in 19 years. But this 18-year-old has had 37 birthdays and it will take some time before he catches up, and there will be hiccups. In the attic, listening to his old music tapes, he puts an unlabeled one into his Walkman—it’s a mix-tape that his late girlfriend had given to him, complete with her spoken introduction, and it stops him in his tracks.

But Daniel’s young half-brother, whom he had never known, convinces him to bring his old BMX bicycle to the local skate/BMX park. There, he’s reluctant (he seems afraid of everything) but he mounts his old bicycle—and has a great time. (Bicycles might be one of the closest ways we can come to flying, with a feeling of freedom that once tasted is never forgotten.)

There’s a fine long scene in which Daniel, in a suit to visit the optometrist with his mother (where he receives a prescription to correct for nearsightedness caused by a long period of not looking at things far away), afterwards explores a big-box store in wonder, with beautiful choral music on the soundtrack. But afterwards, he and his mother are accosted by a scrum of reporters in the parking lot. They get into her car, ignoring the reporters and closing the windows, and another stain threatens their fragile peace of mind.

Daniel’s home town is a typical southern one, but the people aren’t as universally friendly as we might know—or is that because of the cloud that still hovers over him?

Daniel’s younger sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, True Detective) moves back to town to support her brother, and looks at apartments. She is shown one by a local, who is unnervingly distant—until he pauses and a look comes over his face. Daniel’s sister says, “What?” and he begins a long-winded defense of Daniel. “We never believed it.” Apparently he’s been rehearsing his speech since he saw Amantha at the door, and now it’s coming out in a rush, ending with “Tell Daniel, anything he needs…. I meant to visit him, but somehow, I never did.”

“You weren’t the only one.”

Daniel’s stepsister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, The Great Gatsby) is a sweet and innocent born-again Christian who is fascinated by Daniel and tries to bring him into the church. She asks if there was a church in prison, and he tells her he only got to see the chaplain—who would ultimately accompany the warden on his final visit. He tells her about their discussions, that focused not on where Daniel would go after…, but on preparations for … the act—of dying. Tawney is a little shocked, and says that he could have focused on both. “I wouldn’t like to see you go to Hell, Daniel.”

Daniel, who read voraciously in prison, tells an uncomprehending but interested Tawney, “You’re my Beatrice … from The Divine Comedy.”

The series plays out in 30 episodes of 45 minutes average each. Created by Ray McKinnon (who played the tragic preacher H.W. Smith on Deadwood), it examines the reactions to the situation of most of Daniel’s family and neighbors, and covers the legal hurdles he has yet to clear, from officers of the court who still don’t trust DNA and are ready to litigate it, to more sympathetic ones; also there’s the question of who did kill Daniel’s girlfriend twenty years ago … if it wasn’t him. And how will Daniel reintegrate into society, if he finally gets the chance? Rectify moves too slowly for some, but when paid attention to, is exquisitely detailed, dramatic and involving.

If you like contemplative but engaging TV dealing with the biggest questions, literally beginning with life and death, you should check Rectify out.


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