The Best Show That Explores Sexual Assault
The SundanceTV drama Rectify offers the most nuanced portrayal of a subject that’s too often carelessly sensationalized on television.
Public conversations about rape culture and sexual assault have perhaps never been as prevalent as they are now, thanks to college-orientation flyers, headlines about the 2016 presidential election, and survivor-powered social-media campaigns like #NotOkay. And like most issues of national importance, the subject has been increasingly tackled in pop culture, particularly on television. But greater visibility hasn’t necessarily translated into more sensitive or resonant stories about sexual violence.
Real-life survivors might struggle to find their experiences reflected accurately in the “shock-and-arouse” approach of shows such as Game of Thrones, which rely on titillation or use rape as a cheap plot device. Law & Order: SVU often depersonalizes sexual assault by treating it either as ripped-from-the-tabloids fodder or as a chance to illuminate political issues like the rape-kit backlog. Shows like Jessica Jones and The Americans have worked toward a more authentic, survivor-oriented depiction of life after rape—but they refract the experience through the fantastical lenses of superhero and spy genres. This approach may make for compelling television, but has an element of wish fulfillment that feels alien to many survivors, who must move through a more mundane world in their recovery.
So it’s ironic that perhaps the best drama to explore the trauma of sexual assault is a show that, unlike SVU or Game of Thrones, very few people watch: SundanceTV’s Rectify. The acclaimed series, which recently began its fourth and final season, takes a more straightforward, sobering, and subtle approach to sexual violence than many TV audiences are used to. Rectify follows Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a man released from a 19-year stint on death row after being wrongly convicted of killing his girlfriend. Daniel’s experiences of sexual assault in prison inform his character and the story in meaningful ways after he returns to his hometown of Paulie, Georgia, and tries to rebuild his life. Rectify doesn’t valorize or pity him, but it also doesn’t expect him to “get over” what happened and move on. The show’s exploration of gender, victimhood, and recovery distinguishes it from other series and sets an important example for how TV can grapple with rape in a way that’s both artistically engaging and empathetic to survivors.
Rectify establishes its protagonist’s history early on with a powerful scene of Daniel narrating an account of his attacks. In the second episode of the first season, Daniel’s stepbrother, Teddy (Clayne Crawford), asks if men on death row receive “conjugal visits,” his smile betraying an unspoken prison-rape joke. Daniel responds by describing his own gang rape: He talks about putting up a fight as a “gesture to [his] manhood,” though his struggles were always futile. He talks about how one of the most humiliating parts of the immediate aftermath was walking back to his cell feeling like “a freak show,” because the “good guys won’t even look at [him].” As Teddy’s face tightens into a look of horror, Daniel talks about seeing his rapists’ faces behind the other cell doors: men who “look at you [like they can] literally consume you, eat your heart, and shit you out like you were nothing.”
The moment is so potent in part because it’s a rare example of a male survivor publicly excavating his own grief. The only other series that’s so extensively featured men as victims is HBO’s Oz, which tended to treat prison rape as a Grand Guignol soap opera. But the scene also echoes throughout the rest of the series, adding necessary context to many of Daniel’s interactions. In the season-four premiere, the protagonist finds himself living uneasily in a halfway house for other ex-cons in Nashville. When his three other roommates crowd into his room to confront him for being aloof, Daniel’s body clenches protectively, a reflex familiar to any survivor who might bristle after having an old memory triggered. The creator of Rectify, Ray McKinnon, told me he and his writers understand that the aftershocks of sexual assault can reverberate slowly: “It wouldn’t be something, [that] in real life, that a person would get over easily, if ever.”
Rectify departs from shows that revel in the splashier sides of sexual violence, like Game of Thrones, which has inserted rape into storylines that, in the novels, featured either consensual sex or no sex at all. Another HBO show, Westworld, is centers around a futuristic theme park where female androids are at constant risk of rape. Meanwhile, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead has used sexual assault to amplify the hellishness of its post-apocalypse, including in one scene where a biker gang threatens to rape the protagonist’s pre-teen son to death.
Though he’s miles away from his old jail cell in season four, Daniel is still unmoored by the horrors of prison. Unlike many survivors on TV, Daniel’s assault continues to impede his ability to relate to other people, particularly women, as well as himself. In the first episode of season four, he tries to tells his counselor, Avery, about the isolation and loss of agency he feels: “If I am dead, then why do I feel so goddamn lonely?” Outlander’s Jamie Fraser is perhaps the only other major male TV character whose rape factors significantly into his storyline, but Jamie is eventually healed by the love of his wife, Claire. Jamie’s capacity to enjoy sex, even after a torturous assault, testifies to his strength and manliness on the show. On Rectify, Daniel receives no such comfort. He is capable only of nervous, furtive attempts to connect with unavailable women, including his sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens). In the fourth season opener, he finally connects with a woman who isn’t a family member and begins to cry, in part, from the magnitude of it.
Certainly, other shows offer psychologically resonant portrayals of survival. Jessica Jones features its heroine’s flashbacks to her assaults and shows her practiced attempts to calm herself by repeating the names of the streets she lived on as a child. The Americans’ cold-hearted heroine, Elizabeth Jennings, slowly warms to her husband as she comes to terms with her own teenage rape. Even Game of Thrones gives the young Sansa Stark a chance to confront the man who sold her to her rapist, with her telling him, “I can still feel what he did in my body.” But Jessica Jones eventually gets to snap her rapist’s neck; Elizabeth beats the hell out of hers; and Sansa watches calmly as a pack of dogs tears the flesh from her batterer’s face. The imperative given to women who are labeled as “survivors” is to take their power back and move on—to prove they can be valiant and formidable against any kind of horror.
In some ways, Daniel is freed from the burden of representation, of needing to affirm how tough and stoic his gender can actually be. He is alternately withdrawn and prone to eruptions of violence—and not a righteous violence against his attackers. His target becomes his brother-in-law, Teddy, who represents a kind of uncomplicated masculinity he’ll never enjoy. Daniel’s reactions to Teddy’s taunts about “conjugal visits” are rooted in a visceral sense of shame that many male survivors feel, the show’s creator McKinnon said. “Daniel makes a decision to tell [Teddy] in the most provocative way,” McKinnon added. “He wanted Teddy to feel uncomfortable, to feel dirty, to feel some of [his] shame” by spelling out the graphic details of his attacks.
Daniel’s wish to make Teddy “feel some of his shame” culminates in season one’s fifth episode, which features one of the show’s few scenes of actual violence. When the two men are alone at the family tire store, Teddy mocks Daniel: “When you said it doesn’t do any good to fight back ... what I wanna know is, did you fight back, or did you just relax and enjoy it?” And then, suddenly, Rectify upends Teddy’s expectation of safety as a man. As Teddy stands in front of the gurgling coffee maker in the tire store’s tiny breakroom, Daniel grabs him from behind, wrestling him to the ground in a choke hold. In the very next episode, Teddy comes to on the cold floor with his pants pulled down and coffee grounds piled atop his bare bottom.
This attack, which is filmed at a distance, is clearly meant to sicken the viewer. But whenever Rectify has been unsettlingly explicit, it has done so to illuminate something darker and more real about living in the aftermath of abuse. Though Daniel does not rape Teddy, the nature of his attack is blatantly sexual, and its intent is clear. Daniel wants to make Teddy feel vulnerable and humiliated, to remind him that, at the right time on the wrong day, he too could find himself unable to fight back. This scene is inspired, in part, by McKinnon’s readings on sexual assault in prison: “You know, it’s ... human for someone who has been assaulted in prison or some other arena to act out ... particularly if they are male. That happens every day.”
Daniel isn’t portrayed as disposable like many of Law & Order: SVU’s victims of the week, and he isn’t like Jessica Jones, who ultimately protects other victims. He is, as McKinnon says, “a complex … damaged human being.” You could argue that Daniel gets to be “unlikeable” in ways that even characters like Jones or Jennings aren’t allowed because he’s a man. When female survivors lash out, their violence must be directed solely toward taking revenge against their attackers; they aren’t allowed to simply be angry, and to deploy that anger in messy, even unfair, ways. Daniel Holden, however, has no hope of real retribution; he walks around in a fugue state punctuated by moments of rage. And since this sort of fury is more commonly associated with men, there’s less of a need for the story to contextualize or justify his violent outbursts.
Teddy’s reaction to his assault is similarly opaque, particularly because he subverts “the good survivor” narrative. A “good survivor” reports his attack right away, cooperates with the authorities, grieves with loved ones, and eventually accepts that what happened to him wasn’t his fault. But on Rectify, there’s no Lt. Olivia Benson to say things like, “You survived the abuse, you’re gonna survive the recovery.” When Teddy’s wife, Tawney, catches him washing the coffee-ground stains off his pants, he makes up an excuse rather than admitting he was violated. He’s frantically performing in order to meet the standards of all-American masculinity, becoming fixated on the tire store’s success, starting fights with clients, and pushing Tawney to start a family. But it’s not a sustainable approach to recovery.
Teddy’s story offers a different, but no less sensitive, exploration of gender and sexual violence. Daniel’s attack, McKinnon says, “ultimately ... broke Teddy down in a way that he had to start dealing with himself.” Stripping down Teddy’s defenses gives him a sharper understanding of his own male privilege and of consent. In season three, during a joyride with his teenage half-brother, Jared, Teddy recalls being Jared’s age, and asking out a girl “with a reputation, I guess you might say.” His voice is sorrowful as he tells Jared that kissing is “as far as she wanted to go … but I had my mind set on doin’ it.” Teddy tries to defend his actions, but he sounds conflicted: “I didn’t force her or date rape her or whatever ... I just kept at it ... finally, she just gave up a big ol’ sigh ... and let me have it.” Then he advises Jared to never, ever do what he did: “Those guys who make you feel like a pussy because you ain’t got your cherry popped, they’re just a bunch of assholes.”
The power of Teddy’s personal reckoning shows just how much Rectify differs from shows that use assault as a backstory for “unlikeable” characters like House of Cards’ Claire Underwood or Scandal’s Mellie Grant. Teddy’s trauma makes him, if not more sympathetic, then at least more complex, while also making broader points about rape culture. On Rectify, catharsis doesn’t come after 45 minutes, or even at all. Sometimes there is no justice, only the quiet loss of one’s essence and dignity—followed by the hard-fought, uncelebrated decision to, as Daniel’s counselor encourages him, try and live again. This isn’t necessarily the experience of every rape survivor, but it’s certainly one that is underexplored on TV.
It is telling that the show that most actively resists the Game of Thrones approach to sexual violence and focuses on a male, not female, survivor. This is in part, perhaps, because male bodies aren’t as overtly sexualized or commodified as women’s bodies; a combination of treating women as objects of fantasy and as symbols has helped create a culture that can be genuinely callous to their suffering. But Rectify is nonetheless a crucial step forward for television and will hopefully be a guide for other shows. Daniel Holden’s numbness, grief, and rage, have breathed depth and meaning into that checklist of PTSD symptoms found on rape crisis centers’ websites. And, for McKinnon, these feelings will echo on even after Rectify’s final credits roll: “I’m sure long after we quit filming our characters will still be dealing with their issues.”