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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rectify: “Modern Times”

Illustration for article titled iRectify/i: “Modern Times”
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In their trippiest 1960s collaboration, “Limbo: The Organized Mind,” Muppet man Jim Henson and electronic-music pioneer Raymond Scott explored the notion of man strolling through his own thoughts and memories. Against an eerie soundscape of synthesized pings and pongs, Henson monologues about the benefits of filing away “a great collection” of memories in certain corners of his brain: Good thoughts, sad ones, fears represented by abrasive tones and, in performance, a skeletal Muppet monster. Ultimately, the speaker’s ability to keep the memories in line fails him, and the barriers between fond remembrance and unspoken terror break down, everything coming back to him at once in a torrent of sound and imagery. It’s an avant-garde piece, but as with many of Henson and Scott’s individual works, one that was adaptable to a mass medium: One passage, concerning warm-fuzzies and a family picnic, became the basis for a television advertisement for Bufferin aspirin.

“Modern Times” brought “Limbo” to my mind while Daniel Holden took his own, Cracker-aided stroll down memory lane—but it strikes me now that its Madison Avenue relative can also be applied to Rectify’s third episode. The opening installments of the series are an artful and artfully done affair, ducking traditional storytelling structures and presenting Daniel’s first days out of prison in emotional impressions and images saturated with light. Its third, however, is where the commercial concerns of a television series begin to make themselves known: There has to be some sort of larger story driving Rectify, declared at the show’s midway point, as Jared receives threatening text messages and Jon has a heated exchange with Senator Foulkes at the diner. Scenes like these are the Bufferin commercial to “Always There”/“Sexual Peeling’s” “Limbo,” a simplified version of a concept that might be a little hard to swallow without something resembling narrative tension.


That tension announces itself in a pair of bookending scenes introducing the family of Hanna Abigail Dean: a cold-open TV-news interview with the girl’s mother and a chance encounter between Jon, Amantha, and Hanna’s shell-shocked brother. One of the most bracing aspects of Rectify’s first two hours is the tight focus on the Holden-Talbot clan, but it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the fact that Daniel’s release from prison dredges up bad memories for another family in Paulie. It’s held to the periphery, but the anger and confusion of the Dean family is a necessary component of Daniel’s return to his hometown. “Why ain’t you dead, Daniel Holden?” Hanna’s mother howls into the camera, externalizing a thought that’s surely occurred to Rectify’s protagonist as well.

The main question Daniel appears to be asking himself in “Modern Times,” however, is “How am I free?” Save for the finale, where a slow-motion bike ride works toward reclaiming the man’s lost youth, Daniel confines himself to the upper levels of the family home, enchanted by the everyday comforts of a room not much larger than his old digs on death row. There’s a touch of ambiguity to what comes after that extreme-sports montage, however, as the proceedings segue into a shot of Daniel, alone again behind a closed door, finishing out a Sonic The Hedgehog run on his old Sega Genesis. Did Daniel turn his younger brother down? Did he never leave the house that day? Does he want to leave the house after last week’s brief sojourns to the surrounding towns and the baseball field, or would he rather stay in the relative comfort and familiarity of a place where he’s free to strip naked and cover himself in pillow stuffings?

Aden Young amplifies his Unfrozen Caveman Defendant routine this week, and it’s hard to imagine the actor finding another role that so perfectly matches the intensity and the hurt of his thousand-yard stare. His character became a man in prison, but within his mother’s house, Daniel’s still the teenager gazing out from the press clippings tucked away in Jared’s closet. Rectify’s big on the concept that the strongest prisons aren’t the ones with iron bars, and Daniel’s as much a captive of time as he was of the state of Georgia. He doesn’t exactly free himself in “Modern Times,” but he grasps at liberty through old belongings and favorite songs. And when he stomps around the attic to Stone Temple Pilots, decked out in hunting attire and waving a turkey call, he’s not only dancing with the ghost of his youth—he’s dancing with the ghosts of his father and Hanna, too.

Daniel Holden ain’t dead, but as the one prison flashback in “Modern Times” elaborates, his father is—a loss he wasn’t granted much opportunity to grieve. Rectify’s lead is defined by a pair of deaths—Hanna’s passing and the death that was supposed to be visited upon himself—but as Daniel revels in the Proustian qualities of mixtapes and hunting waders, he mourns his father by celebrating the man’s life. Sifting through the contents of his own organized mind is a largely pleasant experience; the “Limbo”-like tides don’t rise until they’re called upon by Mazzy Star and the sound of Hanna’s voice, the episode’s other instance of a Dean trying to make contact with a Holden—and by far the most painful.


There’s a great juxtaposition between Daniel’s Walkman trawling and the image of Jon calling Amantha on his iPhone—each connect the men with their loved ones, but only the object in Jon’s hand is equipped for two-way communication. The electronic detritus littered around “Modern Times” calls back to Jon’s conversation with Rutherford Gaines, the now-ailing original defender in Daniel’s murder case. (The episode title comes from their conversation as well.) In the impassioned words of Hal Holbrook—playing Gaines’ righteous cynicism as if he’s onstage in his Mark Twain guise and trying to wake some snoozing schoolchildren in the back row—Gaines gives his successor some valuable advice: iPhones and PlayStation 3s might give off the illusion that we’re living in the future, but human beings still subscribe to medieval notions of justice and retribution. That’s echoed in Jared’s subplot, where the Southern tradition of anonymous torment is dragged into the 21st century via text messaging. As underlined in more colorful terms by Amantha, where these characters are from, you can sentence a man to die, but you can’t buy a beer, evidence that this isn’t a community that lets go of the past easily or willingly.

But that’s also the kind of plainspoken, “Hurry up, we only have three hours to go” language that makes “Modern Times” a bit of a step down from Rectify’s première. The series means to tell a small story, but it also has the markings of a Shakespearean tragedy—Daniel’s connections to Hamlet go beyond communing with the spirit of his dead father—and this would be the “rising action” portion of such a production. As such, aspects like Holbrook’s speech and the meeting between Jon and the senator are fraught with portent, a change from the stillness of the première. As with the introduction of the Deans, to ignore the larger, community-wide implications of Daniel’s return would strike a false note; still, I found the scene between Amantha and her potential future landlord, Melvin, to be a preferable alternative to that doom-and-gloom visit with Gaines. In commenting on how an incident of this magnitude affected the citizens of Paulie, it’s the little things that have the biggest impact—we don’t need to be told that Hanna’s death and Daniel’s confession nearly tore their families apart, but hearing about a small kindness Daniel once paid to a classmate provides shading and contours that Gaines’ big-picture speechifying leaves out.


There’s a whole world outside of the stacks of memories tucked away inside Daniel Holden’s childhood home. Keeping those details at bay in the première made for an effective two hours, but they have to creep in, like kudzu, at some point in Rectify. And Paulie’s a town that’s covered in kudzu and other types of overgrowth—ways of covering up a hurt that’s festered for nearly two decades. You puzzle over the details of an epic wrongdoing for years and years, and it’s bound to come back in painful, unexpected ways. (Like recollections of a sweet, strange boy who cared for a classmate’s turtles, or the unspoken rapture of Sonic The Hedgehog.) Unless you’ve just cleared out the memory clutter, like Gaines’ daughter did with his papers from Daniel’s original trial. And in someone’s memory, there’s the true answer to questions that will finally put the minds of Paulie at ease—though Rectify is its best, least compromising self when it suggests that peace of mind exists outside of questions of Daniel Holden’s innocence.  

Stray observations:

  • More ghosts: When Amantha takes Jon down to the scene of Hanna’s murder—a “taboo” she notes became a high-school rite of passage after Daniel’s conviction (before breaking another taboo with Jon in the car)—she gets at the way local legend turned her brother into some kind of boogeyman. Viewed in that light, Daniel’s reclusiveness in “Modern Times” echoes that of another fictional Southern boogeyman-with-a-heart-of-gold: To Kill A Mockingbird’s Boo Radley.
  • The decision to include Sonic The Hedgehog likely came down to a matter of licensing, but there’s a symbolic significance to Daniel playing a video game that involves the hero freeing others from captivity.

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