A captivating mystery about a man released from death row but still suspected of murder, Rectify may be the greatest show you’ve never seen. With the final series set to air this autumn, Crime Scene explores this unique drama’s TV legacy.
Will the mystery be solved?
Crime fiction and drama is defined by a sense of closure: an exploration of a murder ultimately reaches a solution that allows the characters – and viewers – to move on. But Rectify, one of the most acclaimed US mysteries of recent years, does things differently.
In the first episode, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) leaves jail on a technicality after 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend, Hanna Dean. As it reaches its fourth and final season, the dreamy, meditative drama has loyal fans hooked but perhaps not holding out for a clear-cut resolution from writer, producer and director Ray Mckinnon. His show isn’t a typical whodunit, which may explain why its audience is loyal but small.
“The murder mystery, certainly it’s the backdrop of the story,” says Clayne Crawford, who plays Daniel’s stepbrother, Teddy Talbot. “I don’t know if, when this thing is all said and done, we’ll have any more clarity on the murder of Hanna Dean. I think the story is more about the flaws of the judicial process: regardless of [whether] he was innocent or guilty when he went into the system, he’s certainly broken when he leaves. The fact that in this country there’s just zero rehabilitation, I think Ray kind of wanted to shine a light on that aspect of the process.”
Crawford has compared Rectify to Twin Peaks, which also shifted the whodunit element into the background in favour of exploring family secrets in a small town. David Lynch famously regretted answering the question of who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. Rectify has – so far – shown the confidence to hold out on us.
Although it spurns obvious TV twists, Rectify is gripping and suspenseful in its portrayal of a man who was sentenced to death at 18 and is now trying to adjust to re-entry into his life. Inevitably, he is not welcomed back by everyone in the town
of Paulie, Georgia, particularly the unapologetic former prosecutor, Senator Foulkes (Michael O’neill), who wants to send Daniel straight back to jail. DNA evidence has freed him, but he’s not been formally cleared of the crime – and that uncertainty never goes away. “It wasn’t ever really my focus to look at his pure guilt or his innocence,” Young said at a US launch for Season 4 of the cult drama. “It was my focus to look at how this man’s life has impacted this town and his family.”
It’s a heartbreaking role for Young as Daniel, who struggles to cope with life on the outside. “I think that Aden Young’s performance as Daniel is exquisite and, if more people had seen the show, would have been Emmy worthy,” executive producer Mark Johnson tells Crime Scene. As well as portraying the trauma resulting from his years of solitary confinement, Young has to get into the head of a man who’s repeatedly come close to death: Daniel received a stay of execution on five separate occasions while on death row.
During flashback and fantasy sequences in the jail, Daniel is seen anticipating his execution as he’s strapped to a gurney, as well as sharing hopes and fears with his neighbouring prisoner. Although it’s a minor part of the show, the flashbacks ensure that Rectify is one of the great prison dramas, not least because Daniel struggles to leave the confines of his cell behind when he finally finds freedom.
If Daniel is innocent, he’s never vocal in his own defence – his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) and lawyer Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) did all the heavy lifting in the appeals process. “You’re the most reluctant innocent man I’ve ever seen,” says the fellow inmate. Despite his fragile state, there’s a quiet dignity and a courtly Southern charm to Daniel, though that doesn’t mean he didn’t kill his girlfriend. “I truly don’t think he knows,” his lawyer admits in Series 3.
It’s a lingering mystery in a poetic crime drama that resists easy answers. “There’s that issue and hopefully by the end of this season, how we deal with that will leave you, in a Rectify way, satisfied,” Mckinnon said recently. “Maybe some people it will, some people it won’t. Something’s going to be revealed for sure.”
There are some echoes of the truecrime case in Making A Murderer in the way that Daniel is freed after a lengthy sentence but then becomes a target of the cops in another case. When Daniel goes on a road trip to Florida in Series 2 to talk to an eyewitness in the Hanna Dean case, the repercussions could be fatal. Sheriff Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore) considers Daniel a suspect over the suspicious death of that witness. However, Mckinnon manipulates the viewer’s sense of justice by putting someone who’s innocent of this crime in the frame. Because you’re rooting for Daniel, you find yourself willing another potential miscarriage of justice to take place. Rectify may be breaking the rules of crime drama, but it works magnificently.
While Daniel is fragile and troubled following his release – he goes off on benders and is prone to self-sabotage – the impact is just as momentous on the wider family. In particular, his arrival exposes cracks in Teddy’s marriage to Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), who forms a spiritual connection with Daniel. “I think it’s a unique family drama,” Crawford tells
It wasn’t ever really my focus to look at his pure guilt or innocence
Crime Scene in his rich Alabama accent. “It’s really how these family members are navigating life and one another with this new element. And once you’ve been in contact with Daniel, it’s difficult to kind of go back to this life that you once knew.”
While Young has been praised for his performance, Crawford is also a revelation as he’s forced to confront his own demons. “The fight between Tawney and Teddy at the end of Season 2 was gutwrenching,” says Crawford. “You know, you have to immerse yourself into these situations or it would just never work, because so much of it is what’s not being said. I grew up with guys like Teddy, who were jocks, athletes – everything had to be perfect for them, their hair, their clothes, but truly they were just broken on the inside.” As well as the script, Crawford was drawn to working with Mckinnon, a showrunner who’s also an established actor. “The work that he did on Deadwood for HBO was just so incredible,” he says. “It’s been such a joy as an actor to have a man like that who’s there helping you.” Compared to his new role on Lethal Weapon, Crawford says Rectify is “quiet, peaceful, it’s like a monastery” during filming. “Between takes it’s quite a delicate process, it’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever worked on,” he adds. “So we keep the set extremely quiet. The crew could not be more respectful and understanding of the actors and the work that’s going on there. It’s a lot like working on an independent film.”
Rectify is a low-key, slow-burning series made by Sundancetv, though it has the involvement of some big hitters. Johnson and fellow exec producer Melissa Bernstein also worked on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. “I was drawn to the pilot script of Rectify by the affection Ray Mckinnon had for all of his characters,” explains Johnson. “Even the so-called ‘villains’ were redeemable and completely understandable.”
While Johnson believes Rectify deserved more in the way of awards recognition, he does concede that the show is “not for everyone”. Crawford claims there are “more people in Europe and the UK who are watching this show than in the States – nobody gives a shit out here – so I really appreciate all the support that we have over there.”
Nevertheless, Rectify has been a critics’ favourite on both sides of the Atlantic – and there’s a sense of anticipation for the final series. “Without giving too much away, with Season 4 I think you’re going to see who we were before Daniel’s release,” says Crawford. This final season also involves a major change for Daniel, who is leaving behind a town divided over the question of his guilt. Mckinnon has said that “part of the tension and part of the mystery and part of the suspense of this season will be ‘Can Daniel become himself?’”
“I will miss Rectify in a very profound way but recognise that this is where it should probably end,” adds Johnson. “I think it is a show that will be discovered over the years and may have a very strong afterlife.” It may be the end for this beloved show, but the enduring TV mystery of Rectify will continue to captivate viewers new and old.
Rectify series 3 is out now on DVD. Series 4 airs on AMC UK later this year.
Teddy’s wife Tawney (Adelaideclemens).
Daniel and the series never really leave jail behind.
Claynecrawford plays Daniel’s stepbrother Teddy, who is forced to face his own demons.
Daniel’s return has an impact on the town and family around him.