By any semblance of conventional narrative logic, the third season finale of Rectify should have been the end of the series, period. Though it didn't resolve every one of the show's outstanding questions – chief among them whether Daniel Holden (Aden Young) actually committed the murder of his high school girlfriend Hannah, for which he spent two decades on Death Row before being released due to new DNA evidence – it sent Daniel away from his mother Janet's home in Georgia to a halfway house in Nashville to begin the next phase of his life, and it left the rest of his family in a place where they seemed ready to start healing after his unexpected return from prison tore all their lives asunder. In a traditional drama, the shot of Daniel saying goodbye to Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and closing the door of the halfway house would have been the last we ever saw of him, like how The Truman Show never followed Truman outside of the dome.
But those of us lucky enough to have watched Rectify through its first three seasons(*) know that it's never had any interest in narrative convention. It's a story about what happens after the story is over – not the tireless quest by Daniel's sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) and lawyer Jon (Luke Kirby) to get his conviction overturned, but Daniel's difficulty in returning to the world he never expected to see again – told in an ethereal style where even the familiar subplots about investigations into Daniel's actual guilt or innocence can feel besides the point. So why shouldn't Rectify creator Ray McKinnon turn the fourth and final season into showing us what happens after what happens after the story is over? Until the moment of death – the moment Daniel spent 19 years anticipating, only for it to be pulled away by Jon and Amantha – your story keeps going in some form, and the new season's early installments (the show returns Wednesday at 10 on Sundance; I've seen two of the eight episodes) make clear how much more there is to learn about Daniel, Amantha, and the rest, even after they've allegedly found some closure from his release.
(*) The first three seasons are streaming on Netflix. If you're thinking about catching up, I wrote about that back in the summer.
The opening hours of the final season are structured differently from how the show usually functions, with the first focusing entirely on Daniel – or “Dan,” as he now reluctantly goes by – struggling to fit in at a new job, a new home, and a new life, while the second takes place at the same time with the family back in Georgia. It's in some ways a recreation of what the world was like for everyone before the series began – Daniel alone, everyone else making do the best they can without him – but understandably very different. Daniel is out in the world, a (relatively) free man, but one who's no better at interacting with people than he was at home. (If anything, this is a more remote and confused Daniel than we've seen in some time, because at least with his family, he had a shared history and bonds of trust.) And Daniel's absence only brings into sharper focus how much he changed everyone else's lives while he was there, including the end of Amantha and Jon's relationship and the separation of Daniel's stepbrother Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) and born-again wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), who tried to save Daniel's soul and later pondered an affair with him. No one is the same as they were months ago(*), before Daniel came home.
(*) Like many of the great cable dramas of this era (The Shield, Breaking Bad), this one takes place in a much more compressed time period for the characters than for the audience. For the most part, this has worked fine, but the show has had to keep Daniel's teenage half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker) more hidden as he's aged beyond the timeline; he spends most of the second episode camping in a tent in the backyard, away from co-stars he might tower over by now.
Young's performance continues to be extraordinary, with a monologue late in the premiere all but guaranteed to raise the dust level in your home as you watch it. But it's a measure of the work McKinnon and the supporting actors have done in demonstrating how the smaller conflicts in the lives of Amantha or Ted Jr. or Tawney can be just as powerful (to them and to us) as Daniel's larger existential crisis, and as a result, the show loses nothing for its main character's absence. Whether Amantha is reckoning with the fact that her life has led to a job at the local Thrifty Town, or Ted Jr. is trying his hardest to be supportive of Tawney's attempt to decide what to do with her life – even if that decision ends their marriage – each scene is just as pregnant with emotion, and meaning, and beautiful acting(*) and imagery, as the show's more iconic scenes where Daniel discovers something new and stares at it for an uncomfortably long period of time.
(*) Production on this season wrapped earlier in the year, which means it's airing at the same time as Spencer and Crawford's new gigs as network action heroes on, respectively, Timeless and Lethal Weapon. Game 2 of the World Series means viewers will have to wait a week to be able to see Crawford play two wildly different roles on the same night.
Rectify has been one of TV's best dramas every year it's been on the air, and though it's not perfect (the two 6-episode seasons felt too short, the 10-episode second season too long, which will hopefully make this year be baby bear's bowl of porridge), McKinnon and company have earned the benefit of the doubt on whatever they've wanted to try by now. Still, when Daniel closed that halfway house door last year, a part of me thought this was a perfect place to stop, and that another season of this very slow, specific, gorgeous drama could risk overstaying its welcome.
Two hours into the final chapter of the Rectify story, I realize that, like Janet watching her son walk away, I'm not ready to say goodbye just yet. Thankfully, I won't have to for another couple of months.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com