The first two episodes of Rectify’s final season begin near daybreak, as Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), forge routines in each other’s absence. At the New Canaan Project, a halfway house for ex-cons in Nashville, the former rises before dawn to catch the bus to work, where he fills warehouse orders with precise marks on a checklist; at home in the small town of Paulie, Georgia, the latter lies in bed as the morning light lengthens, and sighs at the cracked eggs in the carton when she goes to bake a cake. Such are the rhythms of creator Ray McKinnon’s series, which draws strength from its reflective sensibilities—its faith that the simplest acts contain the germ of the sacred, the profound. Its thematic thrust might be said to come down to the question Daniel fields from Avery (Scott Lawrence), the director of New Canaan, near the end of the season premiere. “That’s what you have to decide,” Avery says. “Do you deserve to live?”
For Daniel, this isn’t an abstraction, though he tries to explain his experience by way of Sartre and Descartes. He was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his high school sweetheart, but his conviction was vacated at the start of Rectify’s first season, and he concluded the third by accepting a plea deal, requiring his exile from Georgia, in lieu of facing retrial. But as he passes row upon row of the warehouse’s merchandise, or stumbles into an artists’ collective with an expression of awe, the show’s interest is no longer in his guilt or innocence, if it ever was; it’s in the meaning one might ascribe to the life interrupted, captured in crisp, spellbound images of sculptures and a card game’s reminder of lost youth. “I’m not sure I can be out there either,” Daniel confesses to Avery: Even now, his irrevocable years on death row cast their long shadow, shaping his future as surely as they shaped his past.
As gentle and wise as ever, Rectify thus turns to humankind’s most fundamental questions.
In the parallel it constructs between Daniel and Janet’s respective routines, the new season is also attuned, in equal measure, to the reopened wound of his absence; reprising their sublime two-step in the third season’s finale across distances of time and space, Young and Smith-Cameron unearth the reserves of pain and affection that have made Rectify one of the best shows on television. Indeed, as Janet cleans her refrigerator or runs from a store, sent reeling by chance encounters with “the old days,” the series suggests that the search for purpose, for meaning, is not Daniel’s alone.
Daniel’s exile leaves his family at loose ends, as they spent decades trying to secure his release. What’s there to do now that time can’t be measured against the specter of his execution, now that they’re no longer the guides on his path back into the world? Daniel’s sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), whiles away her days as a discount store’s manager; his step-brother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford), sets out to repair his relationship with Tawney (Adelaide Clemens); even his attorney, Jon (Luke Kirby), pursues Daniel’s full exoneration, unable to give up the ghost. Throughout Daniel’s ordeal, their belief that he deserved to live lent meaning to their lives, and without him around to coach and to care for, they, like him, must create that meaning anew.
As gentle and wise as ever, Rectify thus turns, as it approaches its conclusion, to humankind’s most fundamental questions, reexamining Sartre and Descartes in its clean, poetic vernacular. In McKinnon’s hands, the familiar features of the characters’ lives—cakes and card games, fresh flapjacks and nighttime drives—assume the immanence of revelation, reaffirming the wonder, the weight, of the everyday. Biblical tradition holds that Canaan is “the promised land,” after all, and Rectify, with its keen knowledge of scripture, imbues its fourth season with similar optimism. As Daniel knows, even the most unremarkable routine is invaluable, and the cost of its loss incalculable. “Four years,” as he tells a woman recently released from prison, “is still a long time in one’s life.”