“Rectify” doesn’t pretend to unfold in real time. And it doesn’t have documentary affectations. But it does move forward very gradually and deliberately, with a drawl, giving the silences all the weight they have in real life. “Rectify” is slow drama, with Southern Gothic style pacing, where the beats continue while the dialogue doesn’t. The similarly slow “Breaking Bad” evoked the empty spaces of the Southwest, but “Rectify” speaks more of its languorous small-town Georgia setting.
The compelling six episodes of the first season of the SundanceTV series covered only seven days in the story, beginning with the day Daniel Holden was released from Death Row on new DNA evidence. In a way, the show’s long takes mirror Daniel’s state of mind after 19 years alone in a prison cell, which we learn about in haunting flashbacks. Each hour on the outside is a long, strange trip to him. As played by Aden Young, Daniel is a fragile, addled, almost preternaturally calm man-child, a lost soul dropped back into a society that has moved on since he left it at age 18.
Season two of “Rectify,” premiering Thursday at 9 p.m. and containing 10 episodes, continues in the same mesmerizing fashion as season one. It’s a fantastic return to the story, if you’re in no hurry for action and can admire show creator Ray McKinnon’s quietly fraught set pieces. Only hours have passed since the end of season one, when Daniel was beaten by vigilantes, including the brother of the girl Daniel was accused of raping and murdering. Now he lies in a coma in an Atlanta hospital, hallucinating about seeing his Death Row neighbor Kerwin in the afterlife. “Every day felt like a lifetime,” he tells Kerwin about his life after jail. Meanwhile, his loyal sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), and his mother — played with a rich range of emotional ambivalence by J. Smith-Cameron — sit at his bedside.
Without forcing exposition into the dialogue, the “Rectify” writers make it clear to new viewers what is happening and who is who. Daniel’s stepbrother, Ted Jr., a good old boy played with barely hidden insecurity by Clayne Crawford, stays away from the hospital. He resents Daniel, whose freedom has had a negative impact on the family’s tire business as well as on his marriage. His religious Christian wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), has formed a close bond with Daniel, in whom she sees something magical and whom she persuaded to get baptized. She is drawn to watch over him in his hospital bed, like a hovering blond angel, but she is aware that her powerful attraction to him appears untoward.
Meanwhile, Amantha remains fiercely protective of Daniel, certain he is innocent. But those in town still prefer to believe he committed the crime; he was released from prison but he was not exonerated. As the sheriff looks into the beating of Daniel in Thursday’s episode, no one wants to help him find the guilty parties. Of course, some of those people may be protecting themselves or their loved ones, too, for their part in the original crime. The town has found resolution in the passage of two decades since the murder and in denial about any lingering questions, and now Daniel’s presence has stirred it all up.
We really don’t know whether Daniel is innocent, even while a few clues indicate he is. Young’s masterfully vague and sorrowful performance, too, leaves room for either truth. But “Rectify” isn’t a whodunit, and that frees it up to explore all kinds of big questions about redemption, forgiveness, the double-edged sword that is freedom, the reach of maternal love, the subjectivities of time, and the purpose of religious belief. Rather than turning the show’s rudder toward a big reveal about what happened that night when the teenage Daniel was on drugs in the woods with his girlfriend, McKinnon and his writers keep drifting toward the deeper waters of the human drama. And they drift eloquently.