May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
June 30, 2014
In the first season of Rectify, Daniel Holden was released from death row to a town with differing opinions regarding his innocence. One of the more unexpected responses to this conundrum was that of his devout sister-in-law, Tawney. We could quickly count appearances of the “bible study girl” in network television or date night cinema, which taken together may fit somewhere in the taxonomy of the manic pixie dream girl. This character often appears as little more than a plot device whose movements are dictated by a series of evangelical subculture cliches: Mild-mannered, dialogue dominated by church-speak, fashion-challenged, tone deaf, vaguely pretty, somewhat naive about stuff, etc…
These “bible study girls” are a conflicting lot in that we feel pity for them. Their isolation feels self-imposed. They seem to have missed out on something essential about life. But then at the same time, the “bible study girl” is often dropped into the narrative to deliver a crucial bit of wisdom or tilt a protagonist toward a third act. They are kind of a weak form of divine revelation packaged in all the gendered stereotypes we link with conservative Christianity. In allowing a script to nod toward a quasi-Christian morality while distancing us from its cultural baggage by dumping its ick factor on the “bible study girl”, the “bible study girl” lets a director/screenwriter have one’s religion cake and eat it too. They are a true model of servanthood.
And much like the far more observed manic pixie dream girl, their very personhood evaporates when the tropes disappear.
Except Rectify is doing something remarkably different with Tawney, who otherwise checks off all the “bible study girl” boxes. In Season 1, she was on a mission to save Daniel. She felt called to bind his wounds with Southern Baptist gospel and lead him to the cleansing waters of baptism. He became her great missional calling right there in Paulie, GA. The results were somewhat predictable in Daniel’s ecstatic spiritual experiences and the expected pass he later makes at her in a confusion of desire and self-actualization. This romantic confusion on behalf of the male in the equation is also something the “bible study girl” is sure to experience. All in a day’s work.
But then Taweny has a conversation with her husband in this Season 2 episode that turns the “bible study girl” trope on its head. She admits that she too was confused by her relationship with Daniel. She confesses that the lines between her desires also became a bit muddied. The evangelical moment is often posed on TV as an exchange of ideas that are either received or rejected, but true to form in Rectify, there is a lot more to it than that. In my experience, any exchange between two humans about fundamental conceptions of God, sin, and salvation are bound up in deep personal narratives. We often conceive of the Christian message as a package one person delivers to another. They open it up and: Suprise! The gospel ready for your use. No experience necessary. But it is much messier than this.
And as we now find, contradicting her TV stereotype, Tawney realizes this as well. In her attempt to save Daniel, their stories become intertwined – a process that often feels an awful lot like love. Daniel has a desperate need for human companionship, which he is having trouble comprehending. The rote language and symbols of the church sure feel promising, but he soon finds they are mere containers for something deeper, wilder, and more difficult to attain. Tawny, in a moment of true repentance and confession to her husband, reveals that she has a very similar problem. In reaching out to save Daniel she finds that she doesn’t understand even her own condition as well as she thought she did. She as well needs to be saved. She has been preaching to herself.
Would only more TV shows understand what it is like to share the gospel this well, intentional or otherwise. I hope that this character arc in Rectify keeps heading this direction.