Note: This piece is free of any finale spoilers, but does contain spoilers for earlier episodes.
"Accept the mystery:" this is the advice a college student's father gives to physics professor Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of the Coen Brothers' brilliant film A Serious Man, while simultaneously trying to bribe him and threatening to sue him. The contradictions of life can overwhelm even the most open mind, and the Coen Brothers seized upon a koan that summarized their existential coping mechanism: to embrace that which we cannot know, to find some comfort in our human limitations.
It's something that Daniel Holden, the main character on Rectify (inhabited so fearlessly, so passionately, and so oddly by Aden Young), would appreciate, I think. Sundance's brilliant character study about trauma and its affects upon a southern family, which ended on Wednesday night, embraced the mystery throughout its four seasons. The show had the trappings of a gothic murder mystery: the first episode begins the day that Daniel is released from prison after serving 19 years on death row (much of it in solitary confinement) for the murder of his high school girlfriend. Daniel couldn't remember the events of that night, because he was on hallucinogenics at the time, and was bullied into confessing to the crime by police, but was let go due to DNA evidence. Even so, the question of his innocence or guilt hangs over the entire show and is never truly clear. (People who have seen last night's finale may disagree slightly, but that veers into spoiler territory I'm going to avoid.)
And although the quest for the truth about the murder is a storyline that was never dropped from the show, it was also never the main point. Discussing the finale and its implications with Vulture, creator Ray McKinnon talked about everything that is left unresolved: "As in life, there are some things we shall never know and there's still great mystery in life," he said. "Sometimes that mystery doesn't have to be resolved. I feel like the show is what it is and it left some things maybe not totally clear in different people's subjective interpretations of the meaning... you know, there's no definitive interpretation. And I think in some ways that even includes mine."
If that sounds strangely ambiguous, like a person keeping resolution at arm's length for the sake of it, then that's just a part of beauty of this weird, heartfelt little show that one has to accept. I slept on it for years, despite lots of TV critics' recommendations, because it sounded difficult—as if difficulty should be a hurdle to great art, as if The Wire or Deadwood were not equally difficult and equally rewarding. I eventually binge watched the first season in a few days and found myself astonished: it was religiously curious, contemplative, and utterly transfixing.
Each episode of the first season takes place over the course of one day after Daniel's release. Because he was sent to jail before he even graduated high school, because he spent so much time separated from other human beings, and because he was convinced he was going to die, Daniel often comes across like an alien. There is innocence and wonder all over his face as he becomes reacquainted with the pace of everyday life, examines household objects like new discovers, and attempts to converse with people only to scare them off, because his lack of social skills results in him speaking in the language of the philosophical books he devoured in prison.
Before that first season, I had never watched a TV show which leaned so heavily into the slowness of daily life while also remaining so compelling. They took the moments that would have been "boring" on any other program and made this show about them. "It was the wildest week," Daniel explained during to a friend during season two about that period of his life. "Every day felt like a lifetime, it was pretty overwhelming."
Overwhelming, in a good way, sums it up right: no show has made me tear up more regularly than Rectify (except maybe Friday Night Lights at its best). Plenty of shows use emotionally manipulative tricks to induce heightened reactions out of its audiences, but when it isn't done well, it leaves you feeling used and resentful afterwards. Through its empathetic storytelling and dedication to emotional realism, Rectify could elicit those reactions just watching Daniel listen to his old Walkman in the attic. Or arguing about a kitchen remodeling job. "Watching paint dry" is supposed to convey just how boring something is, but watching Daniel literally paint a pool in the middle of the night carried the weight of the greatest dramas of our time.
I wanted to pick out a perfect clip to try to demonstrate the strange effect the show can have, but it's difficult to just drop a viewer in without them being immersed in the mood of the show already. This clip, from the season three premiere, is as close as I can get. Like many of the show's best moments, this scene has no particular relevance or baring on the plot of the show; it is just a moment in time. "I never really read outside... underneath the big blue sky," Daniel tells a stranger. "It's almost too much."
Season one could have been a perfect self-contained entity, but I'm glad the show continued for three more years, engaging with Daniel's continual struggle to feel like a functioning human being, and deepening the family and town which was permanently altered by what happened to him. It was especially amazing how the show developed Ted Jr., Daniel's stepbrother who entered the family while Daniel was in prison; he started off as a run-of-the-mill sleazy townie, and turned into the second most sympathetic and lovable character (after Daniel) by the end.
But Daniel's journey is the through-line that connects all the disparate threads, and it does not get easier, per se, as it goes along. The fourth season premiere hinges on a devastating conversation between Daniel and a counselor who is trying to help him rejoin society. Daniel describes what it was like in solitary confinement all those years, and talks about Kerwin, a fellow inmate who was his only friend during it:
After my friend was executed, I became despondent... more despondent. I guess depressed, enraged. But more than anything, I was lonely. So deeply lonely. He had protected me from that, more than I realized. When you are alone with yourself all the time, with no one but yourself, you begin to go deeper and deeper into yourself until you lose yourself. It's a perverse contradiction. It's like your ego begins to disintegrate until you have no ego. Not in the sense that you become humble or gain some kind of perspective. But that you literally lose your sense of self. And I'm not sure anyone unless they have gone through it can truly understand how profound that loss is.
It's like the psychic glue that binds your whole notion of existence is gone, you become unglued. I think therefore I am. I think too much, therefore I am not. I am not, therefore I am nothing. I am nothing, therefore I am dead. And if I'm dead, then why am I still so god damn lonely?
If I'm making it sound like this is too melancholy a show to even contemplate, let alone to watch, then I should hastily add that the writing is almost never heavy-handed; that the acting is subtle and lived-in, especially Janet, Daniel's mother (played by the great J. Smith-Cameron); that there is silly and weird humor throughout, which is important, because Daniel is a silly, weird guy who is often very funny (whether or not people notice/get it); that the music is expressive and moving; that the setting of Paulie, Georgia is its own character; that there are whole plots about tire rims and wacky inflatable tube men; that there is gelato therapy and CD shooting; and most of all, that the unexpected and poetic commingle in exciting, surprising and moving ways, again and again.
There are only 30 episodes spread over four seasons, so it's not a huge time commitment—but except for maybe that first season, which really is like a soft-lens fever dream, I don't imagine you'll want to binge-watch the show. Just remember, if you decide to give it a chance, to accept the mystery, and all the emotions that may arise in its wake. The uncertainty of the human condition, in all its failures and beauty, is the only thing the show is certain of.