On TV: Rectify, “Donald the Normal”

Sundance TV’s drama, Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden – a death row inmate […]

Howie Espenshied / 8.8.14

MV5BMTAwNTM2NzM1MTZeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU3MDkyMjYwNDk@._V1_SX640_SY720_Sundance TV’s drama, Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden – a death row inmate in South Georgia who is released from prison because of “lack of DNA evidence” after 19 years of appeals and stays of execution.  The series is wrapping up season two, and it’s still unclear to the viewer if Daniel is innocent or guilty of the crime he was sentenced to death for – raping and murdering his girlfriend when he was 18. There are “whodunnit” elements to the show and slow reveals that suggest both that Daniel may have done it, and that he couldn’t have done it.  However, that’s not writer/director Ray McKinnon’s main storyline. He’s much more concerned with how Daniel reacts to and adjusts to a world that has changed drastically during the 19 years that he has spent in solitary confinement.  He comes home to his mother and older sister and a new step father and half brother (his father had died while he was in prison).

A pivotal episode in the series, “Donald the Normal” occurs early in season 2.  Daniel has been out of prison for several months now and has decided that it is time to go to Atlanta to fulfill a promise he made to the man (Kerwin) in the cell next to him for most of those 19 years. Daniel is still a well known, controversial celebrity in the state, so (while on a detour from his mission at hand) he assumes the name Donald when he meets Peggy, a kind stranger who initiates a conversation while both of them are looking at some paintings at the High Museum in Atlanta.

Unlike Daniel, Kerwin’s guilt is not disputed. He’s on death row because he was the trigger-man in a gang related drive-by shooting, and his stray bullet ricocheted and killed a 3 year old child. There are numerous flashbacks throughout the series showing conversations between Daniel and Kerwin (they rarely see each other face to face, but the walls are thin). The two convicted killers (one possibly innocent, one guilty and distraught over blood on his hands that he did not intend) have a community and form a bond that we wouldn’t expect to ever see between two men on death row.

The promise Daniel made to Kerwin (just before he was executed) was that he would go see Kerwin’s mother if he ever got out. The scene captures beautifully why we continue to hope Daniel is innocent. We see Daniel as a broken, changed man….certainly this gentle soul could not have done what he was originally accused of.

The strength of Rectify is it’s insistence that we view Daniel as having dignity and being capable of transformation, regardless of what he may or may not have done. In addition, there is continual exploration of what “freedom” is, and where/when Daniel is most free – is he most free when (in the pilot episode, during his first day of freedom in 19 years) he lays on the fresh cut grass on the 5o yard line of his old high school football field, breathing in the air? Or is he more free during those reflections back to his confinement, and his friendship with Kerwin? It is a deliberate, contemplative, beautiful series about (as “Donald” and Peggy discuss at the museum) discovering how to recapture “diminishing wonder”.