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“Rectify,” the excellent and patient new drama that begins tonight on the Sundance Channel, is about a man just freed from death row. At 18, Daniel Holden, an odd boy from a small Georgia town, was found cradling the bloody, raped corpse of a girl he went to high school with. He was arrested and confessed to the crime. A friend testified to having witnessed both the rape and the murder. He was convicted and placed on death row. His sister, years younger than him, continued to sit in math class with the murdered girl’s brother. Twenty years later, as “Rectify” begins, Daniel (Aden Young, who looks not unlike Damien Echols) is set free by DNA evidence proving he was not the rapist. Daniel has spent his entire adult life in a small cell and he comes back into the world, to the town he grew up in, like a newborn, but not an innocent.
There is some alternate version of “Rectify” that is paced like a thriller: The murder remains unsolved. The two boys who were with Daniel the night of the killing are lurking around, clearly knowing more than they are saying. Many people believe Daniel is still guilty. Threats are made. A Georgia senator is pressuring the district attorney to reopen the case. But “Rectify” unfolds at a much slower pace, concerning itself not with plot so much as feeling and mood. The first six episodes of “Rectify” cover the first week of his release. We’re meant to feel time’s length, like Daniel, to sink into the physical experience of readjusting to the most basic freedoms, to being able to close a door one can choose to open, to lie down in the grass, to stare at feathers coming off a pillow. And we’re meant to understand how overwhelming all of that is. Daniel has trouble sleeping, except in cars: All of the information speeding by is so much for him it works like a soporific.
Daniel gives off a zen, almost religious vibe: He is helpless and searching, quiet but given to occasional confessions about his mental state, and that is easily mistaken for a sort of purity. People react to him both as a sort of a freak show — boys snap his photograph when he goes to a convenience store — and a presence, one they project all over. His stepbrother Ted (Clayne Crawford), a smarmy salesman who doubts Daniel’s innocence, is overcome by sibling rivalry and competitiveness. Ted’s wife, the devout, sweet Tawney (Carey Mulligan lookalike Adelaide Clemens), is drawn to Daniel, sure she can save his soul, because he is so unlike her husband. Amantha (Abigail Spencer), Daniel’s devoted and fiery sister, has twisted her life around her brother and now has to learn how to let go. (Spencer has turned up in many other things, including “Mad Men,” but this is the first to make exactly the right usage of her sultry neediness: She’s a standout.)
Is he pure? Or is he just floundering? How much of Daniel’s calmness and silence and curiosity is intrinsically him, and how much is the result of his experience, or the result of his new circumstance? He has not had time to become a regular adult, but that doesn’t mean he is still an adolescent. In the prison flashbacks, he seems mature. On the outside he is happy riding around a trick bike with his high-school-age brother. He goes digging around for his old Sega and mix tapes from 1993. But when Tawney wants him to be baptized she is unable to see that he also wants her, something she wouldn’t miss in another 38-year-old man. When Ted gives him a dirty magazine, it’s a sort of crass act of kindness.
“Rectify” is about the long legacy of violence, how a brutal murder has irrevocably altered dozens of lives and an entire community. The blood is dry, but everyone is still damaged. Seeing the world from Daniel’s eyes, we believe he is innocent. But even we don’t know what exactly happened. It seems possible Daniel doesn’t either. Though there are occasional bursts of violence — a suicide, disturbing prison flashbacks, beatings — the most disturbing parts of “Rectify” are in the telling: hearing the details of the grisly murder and threats made against Daniel’s family, watching Daniel’s friend in prison being led to his death. In one scene, Daniel tells Teddy about the experience of being raped in prison, a description so powerful it stays with Teddy, ultimately begetting other sorts of violence.
“Rectify” will not be for everyone. The cast is stellar, you can almost feel the Georgia heat; a show that explores the consequences of violence, rather than serving up a gruesome pile of it, could hardly be more welcome at this moment, but the going is methodical and slow and sometimes painful. That’s the point: Rectifying this circumstance, this man, his family and his community will be a long process, maybe even a forever one, stuck always in a present tense.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.