After a strange morning of waking up early and sneaking out of his house, like a teenager, Daniel is hitchhiking through his home town of Paulie without a clear destination. Air dancer to the left, street sign to the right. Both are framed by the car windshield that Daniel is looking out of when he spots them. Which should he turn to for direction? Despite the scepticism of his companion and driver, the Goat Man, for Daniel Holden the answer is obvious. The tyre store that the air dancer waves in front of is empty. Something, or someone, is keeping people away from this business, just as strongly as Daniel is being drawn to it. Are the people of Paulie, Georgia too jaded and distrusting of the air dancer's warning red hue, or is Daniel too innocent, seeing a red reminiscent of the falsely accused during McCarthyism? A lonely figure that becomes the central image of SundanceTV's Rectify's first season episode "Drip, Drip," the air dancer reflects a small, southern town set to boiling at Daniel's unexpected return and the consequences of being true to yourself in constantly tense conditions.

Recently released from death row after spending 19 years in prison for the rape and murder of his childhood sweetheart, Hanna Dean, the possibility that Daniel might be innocent is rejected by locals, but is a significant factor behind the air dancer's purchase. Eighteen when he was convicted, Paulie is the only home Daniel has ever known and the familiar site he turns to once released. While much has changed, what hasn't is the people who live there, including Hanna's family. A consistency in population that indicates a town not preconditioned for travel anyway, hatred for the Holden family carries over into an unspoken boycott of the tyre store his stepfather and stepbrother now run. Ted Sr., Daniel's stepfather, hoped the air dancer would convince the locals to give the shop a chance. Instead, its audience is the one man that's keeping them away. Seen through the eyes of Daniel's childlike wonder, the air dancer sighting can be tied to an overall fondness that people have for gaudy lawn ornaments. This is an enthusiasm that arises each holiday season, when the newest in outdoor decoration gets unleashed on eager neighbourhood markets. Inflatable blow-ups with hefty price tags, their appeal remains because of the joy associated with seeing Santas and ghosts on your daily commute. It's that which makes these displays an excusable investment: commercialism with a festive face.

Like inflatable reindeer, air dancers similarly try to cash in on this association between joy and balloons. By stripping the figures down to their simplest form for ready year-round use, no longer must people be limited to Christmas for these attractions. Tall tubes with lanky arms, strips of hair and a big smile, their uncoordinated waving is welcoming in a world where inhibitions often prevent us from acting the same. If their effect is more mixed in result it is because their purpose for being is seen as more duplicitous. Without the presence of a branded character or whimsical theme, there's less distraction from the ulterior, advertorial motive that places these figures largely near businesses, not homes. The owners of air dancers aren't offering free spectacle but the expectation – the hope – that, in return, paying customers will find their storefront more appealing than others. A fair form of competition, its unthreatening packaging only makes the betrayal of its existence worse. The air dancer wants something from those who look upon it and, for the already quick-to-suspect citizens of Paulie, Ted Sr.'s air dancer represents a want that no smiling exterior can disguise. It's a want that, for the gall of existing, should be punished.

Removing considerations of the air dancer all together, the real target is Daniel himself. The Goat Man is surprised at Daniel's decision. The street sign provides the chance for them to move forward and leaving Paulie gives Daniel a chance to move on with his life and retain some anonymity. Positioned in front of his family's store, where Ted Sr. set it up earlier that day, it's the new air dancer, not the shop, that motivates his decision. After the Goat Man drops him off, Daniel tells Ted Sr. that, even before his life changed, he never saw himself working there. From in the car the Goodyear sign is hidden behind the street sign and a tree, so as not to be one of the choices. Still, everything else – the street sign, the tyres, right down to the fact that he's in a car – is telling Daniel that he should keep moving. It's emotional, not physical, direction he seeks but, in his case, the two might be too intertwined to be separated.

His stepbrother, Ted Jr., offers a glimpse at the other, town perspective. Unlike Daniel, for whom the air dancer becomes a kindred spirit, Ted Jr.'s first response is to ask his dad how much it cost. A practical man, who deals in facts (street signs) over ideals (the air dancer), he doesn't understand his father's logic. Ted Sr. would rather look to old school forms of self-promotion than pander to Paulie's shunning of his stepson. Ted Jr. has never warmed to Daniel, and now the personal costs to his income inflate that dislike further. Ted Sr.'s purchase is ultimately, and probably knowingly, in vain but is a price he is willing to pay to keep his moral high ground. Ted Jr. only sees the doomed effort as a waste.

The question is whether Daniel's efforts to stay in Paulie are just as wasteful as all the time he's lost in a cell. Paulie may be his home but no one, including himself, comes out unscathed if he remains. Choosing to stand by the air dancer is meant as a peaceful act of resistance against a town that wants him gone, but it's really no different than Paulie actively ignoring the air dancer. It's a trap in the form of a decision, feeding into contradictions that keep them at a permanent standstill. Air dancers (Daniel) are free to swing around – all uncontrolled body and lashing arms – but they are also contained by the location and weight of their motors (Paulie). Even if, like the air dancer, Paulie's fears are full of hot air, the cycle continues without one side folding. Folding may be unfair here but it's not failure. The failure is confusing air dancers for a lifestyle choice.