Daniel Holden is innocent.
I’ve always felt this way about the lead character of Sundance’s excellent Rectify, or at least I’ve always thought I felt this way. But last night’s Season Two finale, “Unhinged,” moved me solidly into the He Didn’t Do It camp. It also nearly sent me over the edge thanks to its steady buildup of tension and a cliffhanger ending. (Thankfully, it’ll be back for a third season.) Even as more details emerged about what happened that night 19 years ago when 16-year-old Hanna Dean died, and even as Daniel made choices that potentially could have let him leave the entire ordeal behind, other events appear to be intervening. Because no matter what, this tragedy is full of human players, and humans can be jealous, and desperate, and fearful.
Rectify stumbles slightly here and there with minor predictable plot mechanisms, such as Ted and Janet thinking they’re talking about the same thing when they’re not, or the old “What are we going to tell your mother?” line the mother hears right as she’s entering the room. Still, what it gets right it gets right so well, and as heady as this will come across, the drama is one of the most moving, thoughtful, beautiful, and haunting contemplations of life around. And when you aren’t joining Daniel and company in contemplating existence, you’re contemplating whether Daniel really committed the murder for which he was sent to death row.
Only during the back half of this season have we really able to piece together a clearer picture of Hanna’s murder. In some ways, whether Daniel killed her or not didn’t and still doesn’t matter; the story is how Daniel and his family, not to mention those they encounter, grapple with the aftermath of a death row inmate being released thanks to a vacated sentence. But we could see even Daniel’s family members wavering, and it was easy to join them in doubting the innocence of this damaged man. Daniel hasn’t been one to claim innocence or guilt, but as the prospect of a plea deal gained traction — a promise of not returning to prison if he’d admit he killed Hanna — we really got to know his ultimate struggle: What will it take to actually be free?
The debriefing scene in “Unhinged” contained the most we’ve heard about the crime from Daniel’s point of view, even though Trey Willis enlightened us to his and George Melton’s involvement in raping Hanna before her death. I don’t doubt his innocence of the crime, and as frustrating as it was to see him confess to it, I can’t blame him. At 18 after Hanna’s death, Daniel fairly clearly was coerced, falling to the pressure of the interrogation room and confessing to a crime he didn’t commit just to get the questions to stop. On the outside of these situations — and they happen — it can be easy to wonder how anyone could confess to a crime they didn’t commit. But Daniel painted the picture for us well: He was young, and scared, and wanted to call his father. He was told and believed that he’d be able to “go home” if only he’d tell law enforcement and other officials what they wanted to hear. So he did. But he didn’t go home. Nineteen years later, many of the same players want the same thing, with Michael O’Neill’s slimy Senator Foulkes pressing for a confession and Daniel only wanting the ordeal to be over. Is he a coward, like Amantha said? Maybe. But what could he possibly have learned these past 19 years other than the system - namely, its players — can’t always be trusted?
What Rectify has done very well this season is weaving the stories set up in Season One together — Amantha’s struggles to live a life that isn’t defined by her struggle to exonerate Daniel; George and Trey reckoning with Daniel’s release and their own involvement in the crime; Daniel and Tawney’s relationship and mutual attraction; Teddy’s jealousy, his taunting of Daniel, and Daniel’s violent retaliation — and building up to a point where they couldn’t help but collide. Teddy perhaps is the most interesting character, a man viewers oscillate between despising and sympathizing with. His logic of blaming Daniel’s return to Pauley for destroying his so-called perfect life is understandable even if it’s faulty, and Tawney tried to get that point across that they probably weren’t has happy as they thought they were to begin with. Teddy is acting out of feeling powerless, just like Daniel, but the former is striking outward while the latter is willing to take hits if it means they’ll eventually stop.
“Is it too late?” Teddy asked Sheriff Carl Daggett, referring to pressing charges against Daniel for assault by chokehold and coffee grounds. No, it doesn’t appear to be too late to put a kink in Daniel’s plans for taking the plea deal and accepting banishment from Pauley and most of Georgia. And it’s too late for the family to find any sort of healing if Teddy goes through with the charges. Here was a music montage that worked — the characters going about their day, most worried about the outcome of the debrief, not knowing their world is about to explode. Even more tumultuous than Teddy’s charges is the discovery of George’s body by local kids, a development sure to ratchet up tensions in Pauley and hopefully deepen Daggett’s and others doubts about Daniel’s guilt, or at least the story of Hanna’s rape and murder. Daggett already is on the trail, wondering what happened to George and how Daniel and Trey are involved. Now it’s time to reexamine everything; it’s time to reopen the case, and the wounds.
Bobby Dean let Jared go when he found he’d broken into the family house and Hanna’s preserved room — take whatever you like, he said. He’d be doing the family a favor. But there is no peace in sight for any involved, and there never was a hope for peace from the beginning. The actions of those who decided Daniel’s fate by deciding what the truth was made that kind of resolution impossible. He’s innocent of the original crime, but he’s not innocent of hurting Teddy. Now we have to wonder if it’s too late to put any of it right.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.