‘Rectify’ Returns for a Very Fine Final Season

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Rectify-Sundance-TV
Rectify-Sundance-TV

The beautiful, exciting, funny, and moving Rectify is back for a fourth and final season, Wednesday on SundanceTV. It picks up right where the previous season left off, with Daniel taking up residence in a halfway house in Nashville — one more step in the process of reentering the world after spending 19 years in jail for a murder we are still not sure he didn’t commit. Daniel, played with enormous care and dry wit by Aden Young, moves through life as though it’s a strange dream, which doesn’t help in his socialization, and is a source of worry to his family.

A family, I should tell you, that does not appear in the season opener. In a departure for the show, the first episode is all about Daniel: his new minimum-wage job in a warehouse, his counseling sessions with a bunch of roommates in the halfway house, his rare solitary moments when he’s left to his own wandering thoughts. It’s one of the marvels of Rectify — once you get on its honey-slow wavelength — that the show makes stuff that is potentially boring (Daniel’s checklist of warehouse items to be gathered for a customer; his long wait for the bus to take him to that job) completely engrossing.

Over three seasons, Rectify has kept the question of Daniel’s guilt or innocence — of the murder of his teenage sweetheart, Hanna, nearly two decades ago — a mystery… even to Daniel himself. He spent so much time alone in prison, exerted so much mental effort going over his memories, that he no longer trusts his own thoughts to be the truth. A different kind of TV show would portray this sort of character as mentally unstable, or as a potentially devious charlatan, or as a dense bore. But Rectify gives Daniel his dignity at a point in his life when — poor and reduced to the most elemental aspects of daily living — he would seem to have little dignity to spare.

The second episode shows us what’s happening with the rest of the cast during precisely the same time covered in the season premiere. Daniel’s mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), remains the person who’s most worried and agonized over Daniel’s life. His sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), is busy being wryly bitter about her new status as manager of a Thrifty Town dollar store. Daniel’s stepbrother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford), is trying to repair his frayed marriage to Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), with whom Daniel almost had a romantic relationship in a previous season. (Note: In the tightened timeline of Rectify, this occurred merely a couple of months ago.) I should also point out — especially if it’ll get you watching this show — that Spencer and Crawford have already moved on to starring roles in two new fall shows, NBC’s Timeless and Fox’s Lethal Weapon, respectively.

None of these characters is particularly happy or remotely satisfied with his or her station in life, and in a lesser show, they’d be depressing downers. But thanks to the writing of show creator Ray McKinnon, these are people who strike you as folks you know, or whom you may be yourself.

The show is very Southern, in its locale and its locutions, in its portrayal of a certain kind of lower-middle-class life, in its pacing and its literary roots. McKinnon’s storytelling reminds me, for example, of the short stories of Ron Rash, the way a low-rent Gothic gloom hangs over proceedings that are regularly interrupted by little eruptions of rueful or caustic humor. I’m telling you, McKinnon and this cast manage to make selling tires look like an intriguing profession you might keep in your mental back pocket as a possible future career/escape hatch.

I’m sure you get it by now: I love this show. It looked, at the end of last season, as though Rectify had reached a logical endpoint with the departure of Daniel to the halfway house. I approached the new season with trepidation: How could McKinnon separate his protagonist from the other characters and still keep everyone interesting and well-utilized? Turns out, I never should have worried for a second.

Rectify airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on SundanceTV.