Aden Young is riveting as a former death-row inmate who returns to his small hometown with a big question still unanswered.
AMC Network
July 9, 2015 11:40 AM EDT

The typical murder drama would be maddening if it spent years without revealing who done it. There’s a murder at the root of the wonderfully atypical Rectify (Season 3 begins July 9 on Sundance), yet it might threaten what’s special about the show if it did solve the crime.

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) spent 19 years on the row for the murder of a teenage girl, when he was very young. He was freed by DNA evidence and returned to his family in their small Georgia hometown. But free is not the same as exonerated. Even sitting on a park bench with a book, Daniel feels compelled to apologize when a woman approaches the playground with her daughter.

We don’t know whether he’s guilty, either. The Daniel we meet, soft-spoken and tentative, might be an innocent man adjusting after 19 years of prison brutality. (A few locals connected to the case become nervous once Daniel is released.) He might be a quiet enigma with a dormant monster within. By the end of the first two seasons (available on Amazon, iTunes and Netflix), it’s not clear whether even Daniel knows now, or whether he ever did.

Rectify is concerned with what we do know: that a murder case never truly ends, solved or not. Daniel’s family is roiled once again by his release: the sister (Abigail Spencer) who fiercely defends him; the stepbrother (Clayne Crawford) who resents him; the mother (J. Smith-Cameron) straining to reconnect after two decades; the sister-in-law (Adelaide Clemens, in a transfixing performance) who reaches out to Daniel from Christian charity, then finds herself fighting romantic feelings toward him.

Everyone in this story is in an impossible situation; none, no matter how angry or spiteful, is painted as a villain. Creator Ray McKinnon has written a generous story, sweetened by luminous direction and Gabriel Mann’s hypnotic score. The continuing murder case provides some plot drive, but Rectify‘s investigation is spiritual: into forgiveness, grace, the holiness of moments in a finite life. As Daniel says, briefly overcome by being able to read under the blue sky, “It’s almost too much.” For Rectify, that little bit is just enough.

–JAMES PONIEWOZIK

This appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of TIME.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME
You May Also Like
EDIT POST