Truth, Guilt, and Forgiveness: On Binge-watching “Rectify”

I haven’t had a chance to do a good binge-watching of anything in a damn long time, so yesterday it was kind of a treat to be able to watch the entire (6 episode) first season of Rectify while putting in a bunch of hours of data-entry that I’ve been procrastinating for about 6 months. I don’t know if it’s the best show to have binged on, or the best way to watch this particular show, but I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to see where else it’s going to go.

The whole show has a very meditative quality to it, where ambiguities abound and seem to only get bigger as you get more answers. One of the scenes in the first episode has one character assuring another simply and calmly that he will tell the truth (as a new investigation and trial into a decades-old murder case is likely to begin following DNA examination that leads to the release of the lead character from death row), and the second man asks, desperately and painfully “And what is the truth?”. The show has some of the markers of the mystery genre, as the question of whether or not the lead character is guilty despite the DNA evidence remains open through the episodes. The thing is, I sort of hope they never close that question completely, because I think this show is so much more than the mystery, and only by leaving it open can it remain that way. The story is not really about whether or not Daniel is guilty. It’s about what happens in the uncertainty, about what it means for some people, like his sister, to believe with complete conviction that he is not, and for others, like the now-senator who prosecuted the original case to fervently believe that he is. It’s about the ways that people come to conclusions about the truth – about whether Daniel is guilty, and about whether he is forgiveable and can be redeemed – using incomplete, constantly shifting information. Some elements break up the idea that it’s a binary between guilt and innocence at all, but a whole lot of messy everything in the middle, even though the law needs it to be a binary, and so many people need it to be one way or another (the siblings – Daniel’s sisters and the victim’s brother – most prominently demonstrate these needs).

I find myself thinking a lot about the title of the series, because I wonder what, exactly, it looks like to rectify a situation like this. What makes this story right? Part of that depends on that binary question – for the victim’s mother, who needs Daniel to be guilty, it could only be his death, the eye in return for the eye, or at least, she thinks that would make it more right. Assuming his innocence, what happens to the trauma of the years lost in prison? There are some beautiful details about what this experience has done to him that go along with an overall awakening-caveman kind of vibe to the portrayal – his reaction to being touched “positively” for the first time in years, his (possibly temporary) need for glasses as a result of never having had to focus on anything far away for decades, his anxiety at having to think in terms of dates and clocks again after years of doing timeless time. Not to mention the physical violence of prison, including his own experiences and the relationships he formed with other death-row inmates who were then executed. Some of the characters work to bring the questions of forgiveness into the discussion on justice and restitution, but it’s the title that strikes me most, maybe because it’s not a word or a concept that is every directly addressed.

I’ve written this review/reflection in a meandering manner, and maybe that’s the only way there is to write about the story, because no matter how much I try to think rigidly and thematically about it, my reaction thoughts snowball and fragment and become ambiguous. And then I think some more and realize that’s not just the story or this show, it’s kind of where I’m at, and it turns out there’s quite a lot of beauty in that spot.


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