What's it like to re-enter into a community that sent you to death row where you spent two decades for a crime you may not have done? "Rectify" is a haunting meditation on just that. The six-part series is the Sundance Channel's first wholly-owned scripted drama, and marks its foray into the leagues of HBO, Showtime and AMC.
"Rectify" starts with Daniel Holden's (Aden Young) release, after 19 years in a sterile jail cell staring down the death penalty. His conviction for raping and murdering his teenage girlfriend has been thrown out over faulty DNA evidence, due to the heroic efforts of his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) and a lawyer (Luke Kirby) from an Innocence Project-like group. Though free for the moment, Daniel's fate is still in question, as the prosecutor of his original (Michael O'Neill) case is now an established politician, ready to chase Daniel right back into prison.
He also finds himself at odds with a community, a small Georgia town, many of whom are still convinced Daniel is guilty. Even reconnecting to his family poses a problem for Daniel. While in jail, his father has died, and his mother (J. Smith-Cameron) has remarried, making half of his family — his step father, two brothers and step-sister-in-law — strangers. Dan's younger step-brother (Jake Austin Walker) is a reminder of the teenager Dan was before entering jail. His older step-brother (Clayne Crawford ) doubts his innocence, to the protests of his sympathetic wife (Adelaide Clemens).
And you might too. The show – or at least its early episodes – does not make clear whether he did commit the crime, the graphic details of which are leaked only slowly. The uncertainty hangs like a cloud, as Daniel's community grapples with whether it sent an innocent man to death or has just released a guilty man to freedom.
But even while withholding the answer to its ultimate question, there is plenty for "Rectify" to explore.
As much as it looks at Daniel's adjustment to the world he hasn't known in 19 years, "Rectify" is a mediation on his family's adjustment to him. His very presence — not to mention the threat of him being prosecuted again — exposes cracks in their relationships with one another, and even puts a strain on Amantha, Dan's most ardent ally.
"She has devoted her whole life to that, and now that he is out there is an entire shift in her purpose," says Young, who plays the role of Daniel. And despite her efforts to prove otherwise, even she cannot be sure of his innocence. "Family could be the last people who know your secrets," says Young.
The people around Daniel are plainly rattled by his release, but Daniel's internal journey is more guarded. "Rectify" moves slow – slow even for a so-called "prestige drama" – each hour-long episode essentially covers a day in Daniel's post-jail life. But watching him open up and adjust to world around him is like watching a flower bloom. Some moments are spark with joy, as when he lays in the middle of a baseball field. Others are tinged with dark humor, as he tinkers with an iPod for the first time. But many are underlined with agony, as — the threat of his re-incarceration aside — even freedom from prison doesn't guarantee Dan freedom from the memory of it, or the memory of crime that put him there. "He is guilty of that burden," says Young, no matter if he is a innocent man robbed of much of his life, or a monster now on the loose.
Creator Ray McKinnon offered to tell Young the true verdict on his character, but Young turned it down. "I felt in some ways it would be too heartbreaking."
"Rectify" premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.