Catching Up on 'Rectify'
An interview with Alabama native Clayne Crawford, who plays Ted Talbot Jr. on The Sundance Channel’s beautiful, haunting Southern Gothic drama, available on Netflix.
to put (something) right; correct.
“Rectify” kind of comes across like a sci-fi show. The Sundance Channel series’ logo, with the title spelled out in thin white letters – half of the “R” and a bit of the “Y’s” right branch missing – looks alien and otherworldly. But “Rectify” isn’t even in the same breed of strange universe as one of the Sundance Channel’s other shows, “The Returned,” in which a collection of people who have been dead for years mysteriously reappear in a tranquil French town in the mountains.
“Rectify” is more haunting.
The show’s pilot introduces the audience to Daniel Holden (played by Australian actor Aden Young) being released from prison after DNA evidence questions the validity of his conviction. His alleged crime? The violent murder of his girlfriend Hanna 19 years ago, when Daniel was just a teenager. Daniel has spent the last 19 years of his life on death row, believing he is going to die in prison. So has his family and community. The main conflict of the show is the tension Daniel’s homecoming brings to his family and town: how does a man in his position engage with a world that’s changed so drastically in his absence? How will his family and a town of skeptics receive him?
Clayne Crawford plays Ted Talbot Jr. on the show, Daniel’s stepbrother whose father married Daniel’s mother while Daniel was in prison. Crawford was born in Clay, Alabama, and recently moved back to the Birmingham area after living in New York and Los Angeles the past 15 or so years of his career. When I asked him about his Southern roots, why he decided to make the move back to Alabama and how the South influences “Rectify,” Crawford was quick to answer and explicit in his responses. Crawford says his grandmother always told him to trust his gut, and that “four years ago, something just told me to come home.”
Crawford is glad he did, because according to him, “Rectify” is the best job he’s ever had. First, Griffin, Georgia, where “Rectify” shoots, is only about two and half hours from Crawford’s driveway. Second, Crawford couldn’t say enough kind things about the cast of “Rectify,” which includes the wonderful Abigail Spencer as Daniel’s free-spirited sister Amantha and Adelaide Clemons as Ted Talbot Jr.’s deeply religious and naive wife.
“It’s such a symphony of talent and everyone works in such harmony together,” Crawford says. “We all love each other in such a unique way.”
Love and harmony among cast members is ideal on any set, but I can see how it would be particularly important for a show like “Rectify.” Unlike most television dramas, “Rectify” isn’t merely about solving a court case, locating a criminal and any other of the tens of tropes TV viewers see played out on networks over and over again. “Rectify” is a show about humanity — specifically exploring how human beings react against the chaotic backdrop of the United States justice system, particularly the death penalty. There’s a moral weight to the show, and while “Rectify” isn’t politically heavy-handed, it seeps into your conscious in a surprising, haunting way.
“The show is about how we as human beings are flawed and crave redemption,” Crawford explains. “The justice system is extremely flawed, and once you go through that process, you’re never the same.”
In many ways, “Rectify” is as much about its Southern setting as it is any single plot arc or individual character. The show is set in the small town of Paulie, Georgia, a fictional place but one that feels real from the moment director and Georgia native Ray McKinnon’s perceptive camera enters the community.
Like most true and good Southern art, religion plays a big part in the story of “Rectify” and its characters. Tawney, Teddy’s wife in the show, is extremely devoted to her faith and church, and makes it her mission to convert and save Daniel, even though it means making her husband uneasy with the intimacy of her friendship with the recently released alleged murderer.
Crawford told me that when the cast was filming season 1 in Griffin, he and Clemons would go to a local church in Griffin “to get a sense of community” and rediscover “what it is that’s so appealing about religion.”
“Paulie is religion,” Crawford says. Daniel heavily wrestles with faith in the first season, even getting baptized while donning a white cloak at the prodding of Tawney. Other characters in “Rectify” struggle with religion too, facing eternal spiritual quandaries like “What is justice?” and “What does it mean to truly forgive?”
The small town feel of Paulie, Georgia, and its people are something Crawford sees as distinctly Southern. He told me about his hometown of Clay, Alabama, describing it as something like “one grocery store and one post office and 35 churches.” To Crawford, Paulie in “Rectify” is a lot like the town he’s from.
“There’s a fishbowl aspect because there’s so little going on in everyday life,” Crawford says of small towns. “People find entertainment in their neighbors.”
Crawford sees this function of the fishbowl as fuel for the central conflict in “Rectify,” as Daniel Holden attempts to grasp a world that’s two decades grown from when he was last able to freely walk around in it, and the small town of Paulie tries to come to grips with Holden being back amongst them. Curiosities are peaked when something so big and controversial splashes in a small pond, and folks make their own sometimes-damaging conclusions about a situation, especially one as intense and close to the heart of the town’s as Daniel Holden’s reentry into civic life.
Perhaps what I appreciate most about season 1 of “Rectify” and am looking forward to in season 2 of the series is how different it is from anything else on TV. It’s something Clayne Crawford recognizes and is perhaps one of the main reasons “Rectify” is such an enjoyable, refreshing experience for both an actor in the show as well as its audience. When I asked Crawford about the TV he watches, he mentioned that HBO’s “True Detective” had recently been a favorite. That show — set in the bayou near New Orleans, mysterious and character-driven and sometimes plain creepy — is the closest comparison I have to “Rectify.”
Because of the attention to detail, emphasis placed on building real, emotional characters and the consideration given to place, “Rectify” is more like a literary novel than a television show. To me, that’s exhilarating in our current TV landscape, which is all too cluttered with flat characters and recycled plots. “Rectify” isn’t an easy show to watch — it makes you work hard and often is uncomfortable — but it’s the standard of critical engagement “Rectify” requires that makes it more like “The Sound and The Fury” than the recycled courtroom or cop dramas churned out by big networks.
I asked Crawford what viewers can expect from season 2 and how it will be different from or similar to the events and story of the first season.
“The first season played as a first act,” he says, his nod to theater supporting my opinion about the literariness of the series.
He went on to imply that the next set of episodes will keep digging into the characters’ insides and exploring how specific people interact with each other in the wake of Daniel’s increasingly stressful, achy, complicated situation as a prodigal son of sorts having returned home. It’s a second act (and a first, if you haven’t seen season 1) worth delving into.
You can check out the first season of “Rectify” streaming on Netflix now. The second season premieres on The Sundance Channel on June 19.
Photos courtesy of The Sundance Channel.