‘Rectify’ is beautiful and slow

Willa Paskin (c) 2014, Slate. NEW YORK — “Rectify,” which begins its second season this week on the Sundance Channel, is a TV show in a fugue state. At the beginning of its first season, 38-year-old Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was released from death row, his conviction for a rape and murder he did not commit overturned by DNA evidence. Unlike other series that might have taken this turn as an occasion to tell a high-octane tale of murder and courtroom intrigue — Who actually killed the girl? Would Daniel be re-convicted? What was going on with all his shady high-school friends? — “Rectify” instead adopted Daniel’s frame of mind: overwhelmed, hazy, a man waking up from a nap that went on for way too long.

“Rectify” slowed things down almost as much as a TV show can. The first six episodes, cataloguing Daniel’s first week out of jail, were about as unhurried as a TV show can be short of burning a yule log, but it was toward an admirable end. Creator Ray McKinnon didn’t want to soup up the long tail of violence, making it purely entertaining and gripping; he wanted to make it land. Getting off death row is a miracle, but it is not a panacea, and by underscoring the difficulty and strangeness of Daniel’s every single minute, the audience was made to feel that too — presuming, of course, that viewers did not zone out with their smartphones while Daniel studied a blade of grass.

I was very moved by the first season of the show, but an extremely ungenerous feeling came over me as I watched the first three episodes of the second. It was that itch of impatience you get when you would like someone to get over something horrible already, but only because you, anyway, are exhausted by it. (See: other people’s breakups.) The season begins where the previous one left off, with Daniel in a coma after being nearly beaten to death by a group of men that includes the brother of the woman he had allegedly killed. The coma lasts two days and two episodes.

Moreover, the new episodes make Daniel less complicated, not more. Last season, his ethereal vulnerability was occasionally mistaken by those around him for a kind of saintliness, but the show itself never made this mistake. Daniel’s sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), a sincere, beautiful, devout Christian, formed an immediate connection with Daniel, whom she saw as a vulnerable, innocent soul she could save — perhaps because that was more comfortable than recognizing her attraction to him. But Daniel had no such confusion: He agreed to be baptized because of his very real lust for Tawney, not because of some closeness to God. In the season’s most memorable moment, he strangled his jealous stepbrother Teddy (Clayne Crawford) after Teddy mocked Daniel’s experience being sodomized in jail. Daniel knocked Teddy out, pulled his pants down, and covered his backside with coffee grounds.

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But in the new season, Daniel takes a hard turn toward the saintliness the show has avoided saddling him with. When he wakes up from his coma, Daniel opts not to identify the people who attacked him. Daniel is, innately, a gentle soul, an oddball even before he went to prison — and now, one who reacts to two decades of wrongful imprisonment without much anger. But for Daniel, a week out of prison, to take the long view — for a guy hours out of a hospital bed to turn the other cheek — comes very close to suggesting that living through trauma is somehow ennobling.

There are still moments of “Rectify” that are gutting. Daniel, with broken ribs, trying to help a neighbor move a branch but merely becoming a burden. His flashbacks to his time in prison, in a one-man cell, the only person he can talk to a sociopathic pervert who once sodomized him. Daniel playing in a car he can’t drive, like a teen-age boy without his license, even though he’s nearly 40. But it’s still slow-going.

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Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.