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Rectify: “Jacob’s Ladder”

Illustration for article titled iRectify/i: “Jacob’s Ladder”
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Rectify is a properly versatile and thematically rich title for the TV show Ray McKinnon and team brought to Sundance Channel these past six weeks. (And beyond, whenever the show returns for its well-deserved second season.) So many people at the fringes of the series want to “put right” what they perceive as the grave injustice(s) of the Daniel Holden-Hannah Dean case, it’s occasionally lost that the man those arguments turn into a bargaining chip might want to do some rectifying of his own. In a tense season finale, all Daniel Holden wants is to restore a sense of normalcy to his life—yet the overwhelming forces pitted against him have a competing interpretation of “normalcy.”

For 19 years, Daniel Holden lived a life where the only true variable was death. Every aspect of his time in prison was regimented, and while spontaneity could find its way into the day-to-day—through something as benign as the rhyming game seen in “Jacob’s Ladder” or as harmful as the sexual abuse Daniel has described to (and re-enacted upon) Ted Jr.—Rectify’s protagonist could count on routine to stay afloat. But as he describes in what might be the first season’s deftest bit of scripting, the last six days have demonstrated there’s no such consistency in Paulie. Daniel’s monologuing on the doorstep of Amantha’s new apartment drives right at the heart of the difficulties of adjusting to any new living situation or major life change: The human memory is such that the immediate past is all we know as a norm. Change is unsettling in the smallest instances; Daniel’s circumstances take that sense to the extreme. The great irony of his yearning for the mundane is that only a handful of people throughout human history would term what he’s been through “mundane.” That’s the first stepping stone toward making Rectify work, as both a television series and a stunning, sweeping meditation on change.


A door could open and reveal an unexpected face. A stranger could offer a gesture of kindness, and that gesture could extend deeper than any of us would ever imagine. A personal sojourn to a place of calm and reflection could end in a violent torrent of human cruelty. Mom could whip up a fresh pecan pie at a moment’s notice. And then there’s the greatest variable of all—though its consideration is one that Rectify would still prefer to hold off on: What we’ve accepted as the truth in our hearts and our minds could just as easily be false.

The variables in Paulie don’t all break down into simple binaries, and the question of Daniel’s guilt or innocence—treated more directly in “Jacob’s Ladder” than any previous episode—has more shades to it than similar questions posed by other shows. But one of the many powerful aspects of this season finale is the way it poses Daniel’s confession as his last certainty, the last scrap of the “ordinary” carrying over to this phase of his life. Strolling through a memory from his old old life, Daniel takes a roundabout path to fessing up to the crime: He doesn’t tell Amantha “I did it,” but rather discusses the relief of confession, the religious overtones of the series indulged once more as Aden Young conveys the utter burden his character felt being lifted from him in the audio that plays over the finale’s cold open. Amantha reminds her brother of the altered state he was in when he was discovered by the police, but that’s not enough to overturn a notion Daniel accepts more readily than that baptism he went through last week. After all, his conviction to the truth of that confession nearly cost him his farewell to Kerwin, whose ultimate fate marks one of the few, definitively chapter-closing moments in “Jacob’s Ladder.” While Daniel clings to the confession and the senator scrambles to make it stick back to his prey, a dead man tries to relieve his friend of that guilt once and for all: “I know you didn’t do it. Because I know you.” So rests the case that Kerwin and Jenks are the angel and devil, metaphorically and respectively, on Daniel’s shoulders.

Mental breakthroughs like the one Trey has atop his lawnmower are another reason the characters might want to immerse themselves in the mundane and quotidian. What 30 Rock calls “The Shower Principle” (the show really eased off on the cultural allusions in these later episodes, didn’t it?) applies to Trey’s sad, landscaping revelation—with routine occupying most of his thoughts, Trey unconsciously breaks down a dramatic irony that’s been in play since episode one, but ignored until now.

Disposing of George’s body, then, is a matter of managing the variables: So long as he does it properly, any accusations of foul play can’t circle back to Trey. (George’s corpse floats ominously toward season two nonetheless.) There’s a neat bit of bait-and-switch in putting the bandana across Sean Bridgers’ face: The image of a masked Trey has haunted the opening of all six episodes of Rectify, tempting the viewer to jump to the conclusion that it leads directly to the slow-motion tumble that closes out the show’s superb intro sequence. Instead, the bandana is there to shield Trey from the telltale stench of whatever he and George have been trying to hide in the Georgian wilderness all these years.


The unfortunate flipside of the teenage antics glimpsed in “Sexual Peeling,” the climactic scene of “Jacob’s Ladder” feels like the most inevitable development of the series so far. That doesn’t rob the sequence—or Daniel’s attempts to lash out against inevitability—of its power. It’s just that, in addition to the clues in the intro sequence, a fuzzy image of Daniel, sprawled out on the ground and seemingly battered, was central to promotional efforts for Rectify. The deeper the show got into this first season, the more it felt like the episodes were building to the community’s attempt to show Daniel he’s not wanted around Paulie.

Yet the variables remain: In the grand tradition of the violent, hateful, and Southern, Daniel’s assailants pull a page from the Ku Klux Klan’s book and hide their faces while they rearrange Daniel’s. It’s no great surprise the leader of the pack is Bobby Dean, but the lack of remorse in Linds Edwards’ eyes (and the choice to film him from below as Bobby exacts his final humiliation upon Daniel) digs at another of Rectify’s main themes: Regardless of who killed Hannah Dean, everyone in Paulie is capable of the inhumanity ascribed to Daniel. They may have set out seeking to avenge Hannah’s death, but it’s crueler to leave him there still breathing: They have no way of knowing it, but the attack is just the type of out-of-the-ordinary that keeps the show’s protagonist up at night.


In the face of growing chaos in Paulie, “Jacob’s Ladder” finds many of its characters groping for some form of order. It’s felt most thoroughly from a pair of mothers: Judy Dean is discovered by her son in the middle of an obsessive compulsive session with a box full of tchotchkes; Janet, meanwhile, copes with the growing threat of reprisal by proposing the distraction of a kitchen remodel. Rectify isn’t foolish enough to suggest Daniel is the sole cause of the tension within his hometown, but he certainly does agitate people. And even the surest sign of that agitation, Bobby Dean’s lynch mob, can be seen as an attempt to regain order in the town.

Daniel’s search for order, however, is ongoing. While certain plot points of “Jacob’s Ladder” bleed into the forthcoming second season—the possible discovery of George’s death; the re-opened investigation into Hannah’s murder—none are as important as Daniel Holden looking for a foothold in this brave new world. Even in its most (and appropriately) incident-packed hour, Rectify never loses sight of the fact that when it comes to arguments in favor of capital punishment or vigilante justice, a person’s life is at stake. This hasn’t just been one of the best television shows of 2013—it’s also been the most human.


Stray observations:

  • The last scene of the episode, an overhead splitscreen of Daniel and Kerwin’s cells, is actually three scenes: Daniel coping with Kerwin’s execution, the erasure of Kerwin’s presence at the prison, and the complete picture formed by the two. It’s a hell of an image with which to close out the first season and a poignant reminder of the unstoppable forces of change.
  • Thanks to everyone who turned out to read about and discuss this curious little series. I’m hoping the first season of Rectify has emboldened Sundance Channel to keep taking chances with its original programming; at the very least, we’ll be back here to talk about the second season of Rectify, whenever Ray McKinnon has it ready.

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