At one point in the third season of “Rectify,” Amantha Holden is floundering her way through a team-building exercise at a management training seminar for her job. To help her out, the moderator suggests, “Why don't you tell us a story that only you can tell us?”
Her story – about how older brother Daniel wound up on Death Row as a teenager, how she devoted her entire adult life to getting him released, succeeded through DNA evidence, and then saw him confess to the murder a second time to cut a plea deal, making her efforts and years into a joke – fits the letter of the suggestion, if not the spirit of the exercise, and it leaves the entire room speechless.
“Rectify” itself doesn't exactly tell a story no one else on television could. Almost from the moment TV was born, the medium's been filled with stories of crimes, cops, trials, confessions and the rest. But the series tells the story of Daniel, Amantha and the rest of their family in a way no one would ever think to do – a manner so specific, strange, wonderful and against the grain that its continued existence (including yesterday's early order of a fourth season), even in this TV drama renaissance, feels almost as miraculous as Daniel's release from prison after all those years.
It is a show that's very difficult to describe, because it's only marginally about what it seems to be about, and because all its special qualities have to do with its distinct tone, and pace, from its sense of location to its completely open heart.
So yes, the first two seasons (only 16 episodes, all streaming on Netflix if you're curious before the season 3 premiere tonight at 10 on Sundance) told the story of how Daniel (Aden Young) returned to the small Georgia town he never expected to see again, and to the loved ones who didn't know quite what to make of the man he's become. But “Rectify” creator Ray McKinnon has demonstrated only the vaguest of interest in whether Daniel actually murdered his high school girlfriend. It's possible he's wholly innocent, taking the fall for a killing performed by the secretive Trey (Sean Bridgers), but it could well be that he was involved on some level. As Daniel's lawyer Jon (Luke Kirby) suggests early in the new season, even Daniel doesn't seem to know exactly what happened all those years ago.
Daniel's guilt or innocence matters very much to Amantha (Abigail Spencer), to their mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), to Sheriff Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore), and to everyone else whose life has been upended by Daniel's return. But his role in this murder matters much less to “Rectify” than his unlikely presence in this world that seems so alien to him. The show is about the experience of being Daniel Holden and being around him, and as a result it can simultaneously feel like nothing is happening while everything is. Plot isn't irrelevant here, but it very much lives in the shadow of emotion and atmosphere. This is one of TV's very best shows, but where many of its contemporaries are great stories, “Rectify” is a feeling. Sometimes it's confusion, sometimes it's love, almost always it's sadness, but to watch it is to be tangled up in the heartbeats of all these people who never asked or expected to be in this situation.
So while the new season (I've seen three of the six episodes) puts slightly more urgency on Carl exploring various acts of violence Daniel may have committed since being released, it's really much more about the ripples of Daniel confessing to the murder – even though he's not even sure what, if anything, he had to do with it – to avoid going back to prison. It's about Amantha wondering why she put so much of herself into trying to rescue her brother, about their stepbrother Teddy (Clayne Crawford) trying to pick up the pieces of a marriage (to Adelaide Clemens' Tawney) that Daniel's return somehow shattered, about Tawney recognizing the many ways her marriage had broken well before Daniel appeared, and about tension between Janet and Daniel's stepfather Ted Sr. (Bruce McKinnon) over the many ways – some literal, like the kitchen Daniel dismantled – he's disrupted their home.
This kind of small, intimate character work demands high-class acting to make it watchable, let alone as engrossing as “Rectify” is. Young and Clemens(*) were the standouts back in the first season – Young mesmerizing in Daniel's stillness, Clemens so vulnerable as a born-again woman surprised to connect so deeply to this stranger – but as McKinnon and his creative team have placed more weight on the other actors, they've risen to the challenge. Crawford was surprisingly strong in season 2 (and continues to be this year) as the show found reserves of empathy for Teddy, and Spencer is fantastic this year as Amantha comes to grips with the wreckage of her life.
(*) Most of the show's actors come from the American southeast, but Clemens was born in Australia and Young spent much of his childhood there. And though nearly all the characters are meant to have grown up in this same small town, and in some cases in the same house, almost no one speaks with the same accent. In particular, Daniel often sounds like a Tennessee Williams character, while Amantha sounds much more cosmopolitan. It's a mark of how great the rest of the show is that this glaring inconsistency is so rarely distracting.
Very little time has passed since Daniel left prison(**), with a pace so measured that McKinnon could probably get another two or three seasons just out of the 30-day period Daniel has to leave Georgia as a part of his plea agreement. Yet so much has changed, in our understanding of these characters and the way they interact. When Daniel first got out of prison, he was barely verbal verging on catatonic, and season 1 devoted a lot of time to Daniel simply staring at things. Now, he's just barely comfortable enough in his own skin to occasionally tell jokes – albeit deadpan, oddly-timed jokes that no one knows how to react to, because no one ever knows how to react to Daniel.
(**) The only real issue with that: as Daniel's teenage half-brother Jared, Jake Austin Walker has started looking very adult by now, even though it's only been a few weeks, or months at most, since we first met him.
This is an amazing show, beautifully acted and simply beautiful to look at (early episodes this season were directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, Lawrence Trilling, and Billy Gierhart), with a keen appreciation for faith and family and community that eludes even some of TV's more celebrated dramas. Once upon a time, it seemed improbable that McKinnon could generate more than a season out of this story, let alone the minimum of four he'll have to play with. Now, though, “Rectify” feels sturdy enough to run a good long while, not just because the seasons are short (after doing 10 last year, the show is back to 6; the episode count for next season is still undetermined), not just because he's parceled out the story so slowly, but because the story is ultimately besides the point. Whether Daniel did or didn't kill his girlfriend, and whether he stays free or somehow winds back in prison, doesn't matter, because the damage has been done. All that's left now is sifting through the rubble to see what, if anything, can be built on top of it.
In the season premiere, Daniel has what should be a perfectly innocuous conversation with a mother at a playground, but which instead leaves her as dumbstruck as anyone who meets him. Without telling her any of his history, he notes how rarely in his life he's gotten to just sit and read outside under a big blue sky.
“It's almost too much,” he tells her, unwittingly summing up what it's like to be around Daniel Holden, even for a few minutes.
“Rectify” may be too much for some viewers – or, given its agnosticism about the crime at the center of it, too little – but it is just the right amount of everything for this one. In many ways, it's the best symbol of this new Golden Age of TV. You can understand how a “Mad Men” or a “Justified” stuck around as long as they did, for business reasons as well as artistic ones. “Rectify” seemingly continues to exist only because it's too great not to.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org