While there’s much to be said about the inventive first season of “Rectify,” Sundance TV’s meticulously told original series, one of its main themes was re-entry. Daniel Holden, the death row inmate struggling to adjust into a world where time matters again (after spending 19 years in a windowless room without it) spent the days depicted in Season 1 simply trying to comprehend his new world, a world he’d spent almost two decades pushing out of his mind. Watching him compliantly move about a place so common to Average Joe Citizen was as fascinating as watching a newborn baby learn to walk. Yet creator Ray McKinnon knew that inherent wonder would only last so long, and has wisely pushed Daniel past unquestioning consent to a new emotion in Season 2: Anger.
Reinventing a show like “Rectify,” one so unique in its subject matter, tone, and visual splendor, is no easy feat. These crucial, identifying elements must remain, but audiences aren’t looking to retread the same story. So after the Season 1 finale, when Daniel was beaten within an inch of his life by the vengeful brother of the victim he may or may not have murdered, Daniel is moving past re-entry, even refusing to adjust to some degree. Now, he’s challenging others to accept him, even when many never will. [Mild spoilers to follow.]
Season 2 of the Georgia-set series opens with a framing device both unique and familiar: Daniel is in an induced coma as his body recovers from the severe beating it took in the graveyard. His family is panicked, and his sister Amantha (could there be a better Georgian name than Amantha?) is on the offensive, ready to put a pounding of her own on anyone who crosses her. McKinnon balances the real world difficulties facing the family — who worry he may never wake up, and what will happen if he does — with Daniel’s own thoughts on the subject. How? By returning to the memories, dreams or possible afterlife of his prison cell.
Daniel meets his friend Kerwin in the new season’s first scene; we last saw Daniel’s neighbor walking the green mile at the end of last season, but now he’s returned to provide his friend counsel. The two discuss the plusses and minuses of living in a world both have reason to see as unnecessarily cruel. Daniel questions whether returning to the real world is worth it at all. The construct itself is intriguing enough — a dead man advising a man who’s considering whether or not life is worth living — but the eery atmosphere created by McKinnon and cinematographer Paul M. Sommers truly makes the scenes stand out. The white walls of the prison cells dominate the frame even when the characters leave their imagined prisons. White specs and outlines follow them outside, maintaining the mystifying tone to which we’ve all grown accustomed while pushing into new territory.
The whole construct is reminiscent of when Daniel went hitchhiking last season, asking the driver before he left if it was all a dream. He seems to know he’s dreaming now, on one level or another, but the action within Daniel’s unconscious inaction is impressive. He’s making decisions, generating thought, and progressing to the person we meet when he wakes up (of course he has to wake up) — an angry man, but not one we’ve ever met before.
Like the rest of his outstanding character, Daniel’s anger carries many different shades. He’s not lashing out. He’s not becoming the monster he was labeled. This isn’t a cliche-ridden story with an all-too-evident A to B endgame. Though there is a scene where Daniel stands up for himself, and not to the people you’d at first suspect. Another depicts an understanding of a man’s character beyond that of anyone who acts purely on emotions. If any one word can wrap up Daniel’s character, it’s thoughtful. His mental state has always been at the forefront of “Rectify,” and it’s not forsaken now.
If anything, it’s even more present. Rather than feel distanced from Daniel’s often obscure actions, we’re starting to see the results of his many, many thoughts. Season 1 saw him slowly lay down in a field of grass, gently pull apart a pillow and generally wander from spot to spot, trying to establish a foundation in a world he’d written off long ago. Now, he’s here. He’s invested. All those blows may have been what it took for Daniel to get to this point, much like the rape he described and reenacted with Teddy defined his identity in prison. (Teddy, meanwhile, continues to be the most captivating tertiary character, with his status as reluctant family member or outright villain still in question.)
“Rectify” has a 10 episode order in front of it for Season 2. That’s four more than Season 1, and the first three episodes show it. They feel like the first third of an arc, but without losing any of the show’s meditative quality and, more importantly, without any scene coming across as extraneous. McKinnon crafted something truly original a year ago, and he appears to have done it again a year later. His characters are defined, but never predictable. His story deliberately paced, but never slow. In Season 1, he examined the construct of time through a character who had the idea taken away from him. Now, he appears to have mastered it.