Rectify opens with Daniel Holden being released from prison after 19 years on death row. His sentence has been vacated on the basis of DNA evidence, but he has not been exonerated. That’s an important distinction. For one thing, it means that he could be tried again, but what’s more important when it comes to Rectify is that we actually don’t know whether he is innocent or not. We might believe that he is, like his sister Amantha, or we might believe that he’s guilty, like State Senator Roland Foulkes, but we do not know.
Of course, the fact that Daniel is the protagonist of our story predisposes us to think that he didn’t do it. That’s just how TV shows work. But Rectify withholds. What happened to Hanna instead forms the underlying mystery of the show, and as the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that Daniel himself doesn’t really know what occurred on that night in the mid-90s when they took some mushrooms. We’re keyed in from the beginning that things are not as straightforward as the senator thinks through the scenes between Trey and George, but the mystery lingers.
That mystery is not the point of Rectify, however. This story is much more about the characters and how they grapple with the situation they find themselves in than anything else. I’d argue that this goes for the authorities as well. Here we have a man who confessed to raping and killing a 16-year-old girl when he was 18. Why would he confess if he didn’t do it? Was it a forced confession? At one point the old sheriff, CJ Pickens, says they didn’t believe there were such things at the time. But even if we do it remains a hard thing to think about someone admitting to something that they did not do, particularly when it is so heinous.
On the other side, we have the aforementioned Amantha, who has fought tooth and nail for Daniel over the years. Their mother Janet has perhaps always believed in his innocence but has struggled to even deal with the whole thing. Her second husband, Ted, seems to believe Daniel didn’t do it, but it’s not clear how much of this is him loving and supporting Janet. His son, Teddy, isn’t so sure, and I think one of the great strengths of Rectify is in its presentation of his character. He is insecure in many ways, but his position is understandable if you think about it. His wife, Tawney, believes in Daniel’s goodness, but things get, well…complicated. Then there is young Jared, who seems fascinated by his older half-brother, but struggles to understand why he would ultimately take a plea deal after his release. And Daniel’s lawyer, Jon Stern, gives yet another perspective on things, as he ultimately tells Amantha that he doesn’t think Daniel himself is even sure what happened that night but continues to fight for him to the very end.
It’s all too much to get into in a single piece, but the character work in Rectify is amazing. If you haven’t watched this show, you should. There may be “spoilers” in this article, but you can’t spoil something like this. The real power is in the characters and their interactions. The real power is in what Rectify has to say about the human condition.
Solitary Confinement and Being-in-the-World
Lisa Guenther has described solitary confinement as inflicting an ontological harm on those it is imposed on. In other words, her claim is that the harm done is not merely psychological, but existential. Of course we know about its effects, so to many, this might seem like a distinction without a difference. But I think that Rectify gets precisely to this ontological level.
Think about it: Every time I hear a sound and see another person look toward the origin of that sound, I receive an implicit confirmation that what I heard was something real, that it was not just my imagination playing tricks on me. Every time someone walks around the table rather than through it, I receive an unspoken, usually unremarkable, confirmation that the table exists, and that my own way of relating to tables is shared by others. When I don’t receive these implicit confirmations, I can usually ask someone — but for the most part, we don’t need to ask because our experience is already interwoven with the experience of many other living, thinking, perceiving beings who relate to the same world from their own unique perspective. This multiplicity of perspectives is like an invisible net that supports the coherence of my own experience, even (or especially) when others challenge my interpretation of “the facts.” These facts are up for discussion in the first place because we inhabit a shared world with others who agree, at the very least, that there is something to disagree about.
Martin Heidegger would frame things as a question of being-in-the-world, where the World is not just some brute reality—it has to do with how we make sense of things and our place in relation to the whole. This involves being with others, having a sense of history, and the way we are directed towards the future. Ultimately, this means being-towards-death, which Heidegger contends opens up a possibility for authentic being, as opposed to an inauthentic existence determined by “the They” (das Man).
It’s not simply that we are all going to die—though we are, and I apologize for reminding you of that fact—it’s that each of us is defined in relation to our own end. We can push it aside, and most of us do most of the time. We instead get caught up in the affairs of the world, whether it’s celebrity gossip, or sports, or even politics taken in a certain way—we get caught up in what They think and how They value us. We allow ourselves to be determined by those others. And Heidegger thinks a real confrontation with death can snap one out of all of that.
This is the basic question: what does it mean to be authentically? What does it mean to be oneself? It is not to be alone. Whoever said you are most yourself alone in a dark room was wrong. Your being is determined by others. This doesn’t mean they get to decide who you are, necessarily. It means only that our being is always a being-with and a being-in-the-world.
How I conceive of myself is always determined by these factors: how I relate to others, and how I relate to the whole thing. It relates to what I care about, who I care about, and how. Fundamentally, I am just here, thrown into this world. But there are others, and a past, and a future. And I make sense of myself in relation to all of this.
But Rectify calls all of that into question. Or, rather, I’d suggest that what we are seeing here is a failure with regard to each of these concepts. What if my being-in-the-world is undermined? What if I am kept from being-with? What if I am constantly told when I am going to die only to have it not happen and be thrust back out into a world determined by das Man into which I no longer fit?
We see all of this through Daniel. He does not know how to be in the world. He gives a strange speech about time when he is released. Or, at least, it is probably strange to us, because what he expresses is the way he lost the sense of time on death row—without a future, or a window even, the only way he could cope was by making everything one extended present.
He had a friend—Kerwin—who he would talk to through the vents in the wall. But then they took Kerwin away and killed him, leaving Daniel only with the psychopathic Wendall on the other side, who he frankly wished would shut up and leave him alone. But maybe even that connection—a connection to a man who will masturbate as he tells you about how he raped you—is something to hold onto. I don’t know. I suppose it is a perverse kind of being-with?
We can’t be alone like that. It undermines you ontologically—in your being—to be alone like that. And this is what happened to Daniel. So it’s no wonder that when he gets out he is strange. He can’t just go from that existence where the only way he could cope was to not be in the world to one where he is. Rather than being-towards-death opening some authentic existence as Heidegger suggested, Daniel came to conceive of himself as already dead. He put himself outside of time. This is why he says that he’s not sure he is even alive after his release.
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 am dead, then why am I still so goddamn lonely?
To rectify something means to make it right, and in this regard I have to contend that the title of Rectify is ironic. The series is ultimately about how nothing can be made right. There is no going back. There is only moving forward. And that’s fraught.
Start with the wrong of Hanna’s death. You can’t make that right. Even if you think (as Sen. Foulkes does) that Daniel did it, to put him in prison, or put him to death isn’t rectification—it’s retribution.
Maybe you think it’s justice to pay the crime back on the offender. I think that’s debatable, but the point here isn’t even to get into that debate. The point is that payback—be it retribution through the law or personal revenge—doesn’t right the wrong, whether you think an eye for an eye is what justice looks like, or that it makes the whole world blind.
It doesn’t rectify things. It doesn’t bring Hanna back. We can’t undo that.
Neither can something like Daniel’s incarceration be undone. Again, whether he deserved it or not is beside the point. This ontological harm has been done. And it was done to Kerwin, as well, who it would seem really did do what he was accused of, even if it was an accident. How much does that matter?
As a society, we have to decide what to do with murderers, rapists, and the like. It’s not an easy question, by any means. But punishment doesn’t really right things, and if we have punished someone unjustly, we really have no way to rectify it.
Rectify plays with this on a more interpersonal level, as well, with things like what Daniel did to Teddy, or the latter’s relationship with Tawney. There is no taking things back.
But that gets to the ultimate lesson—there may not be rectification, but there is absolution.
Something’s Gotta Be the Truth
Rectify doesn’t tie everything up with a neat bow at the end. Meaningfully, we still don’t know what happened that night some 20 years ago. We can piece things together, like that Daniel didn’t rape Hanna and probably didn’t kill her. We might even conclude that Chris Nelms is the one who did (kill her), but a good amount of that depends on things we hear from Trey, who isn’t exactly the most trustworthy person.
Jon: Why would I ever believe anything you say?
Trey: Something’s gotta be the truth…
Something does have to be the truth, but at the end of the day, Rectify isn’t so much about the truth of what happened that night as it is about a broader truth pertaining to the human condition. The past cannot be undone; it’s all about how we grapple with it and move into the future (or don’t).
Hanna’s mother has kept her room unchanged for 20 years. It’s understandable. But even as she tells Janet that she no longer believes Daniel killed her daughter she says she doesn’t believe she can change it. She can’t let go. She thought that seeing Daniel die would bring her some peace, but she’s not sure now that finding out who really did it will even do much of anything for her. That makes sense, too. It’s an odd notion that seeing someone punished can bring you solace, if you think about it. Perhaps Nietzsche was right, and it’s all based on schadenfreude. If you don’t feel that joy in suffering of the other who has wronged you I suppose it might all feel a bit empty. This is what Mrs. Dean has come to: she’s glad that Daniel wasn’t executed because he didn’t do it, but is now confronting that the loss of Hanna is irredeemable. Retribution isn’t rectification.
It’s the same with Daniel’s assault on Teddy. We can perhaps understand why he did it, but that doesn’t excuse it. Teddy mocked Daniel’s trauma, so he gave him one of his own. I do unto others what has been done to me. So, of course, Teddy—at a certain point at least—wanted retribution. But by the end of the series, he sees that there is nothing in that.
His relationship with Tawney was caught in that whole dynamic, along with his jealousy with regard to Daniel. But he discovers that his issues with his wife went deeper than all of that, as they couldn’t get past it. Their divorce is another irredeemable loss.
Or perhaps that language is too strong. Redemption differs from rectification, after all. Maybe we can be redeemed through forgiveness and our future actions even if we can never truly right past wrongs. And this does seem to be the note that the finale of Rectify hits. All of our characters are moving forward, forgiving others and themselves, and doing the best they can.
Early on, Daniel gets baptized. Later, he says that he thought it was Tawney, not Jesus, who could save him. This was a mistake. In the last season, Chloe tells Daniel precisely that she cannot save him, but she can hold him, and she does.
Wrongs can’t be made right. I’m sorry. Retribution doesn’t make things better. I’m not denying that we need to punish some people, but it’s all a messy business. A Utilitarian point of view would make it all about consequences—protecting society with an emphasis on rehabilitation and so on—but I’m not sure about all of that when it comes to the story of Rectify, either. Are any of these men the boys they once were? Is Chris a threat now? I don’t really think so, but I’m uncomfortable with the notion that he should thus be let off the hook.
I suppose the Christian thing to do would be to forgive, but what does that entail? If we’re precise about it, it’s not about acknowledging some excuse or anything like that. It’s about recognizing that a wrong has been done and forgiving it anyway. And that’s hard. It’s maybe the hardest thing.
Does the person in question have to apologize and seek that absolution? Do they need to be contrite? Maybe, but we risk putting conditions on an act that is almost at its most beautiful when these things do not hold. In itself, forgiveness is absolute—it’s absolution. There’s no reason for it.
Maybe the hardest thing is to forgive yourself. In the finale of Rectify, Daniel tells Jon he’s realized how many people have helped him, and how that number is far more than the people who’ve harmed him. He’s started to feel a responsibility to them, to not let them down, and at least a twinkling of a feeling to not let himself down. He’s begun to at least hope for hope. But he focuses on the now, and being there for the dinner to celebrate Pickle’s job.
Meanwhile, the Holden/Talbot’s have sold the tire store and packed it all up. Then they have a dinner of their own. All of the relationships in Rectify seem to be improving in their way.
Daniel returns Janet’s call from earlier, and Teddy wants to talk to him. In their own way, I think they clear the air. And then Teddy hands the phone over to Tawney, which given the role that Daniel played in their split says a lot. Teddy’s come to peace about things.
At the end of the day, all of the trauma is still there. Nothing could undo it. But everyone is moving forward, which is not to say that they are moving on. The past is there and nothing can get you out of that. Perhaps there is redemption. Perhaps there is forgiveness. Perhaps there is even salvation, depending on how you think about it. But there is no rectification. Nothing can save us from the past, but at best we have each other.
I can’t save you, but I could hold you if you’d let me.