“I Want to Humanize All My Characters”: ‘Rectify’ Creator Ray McKinnon on the Final Season, Daniel’s Dilemma, and the Failure of the Criminal Justice System

"I wanted to draw attention to a group of people who are the last people anybody wants to give money for."

The first season of Rectify, which premiered on SundanceTV in 2013, examined one week in the life of Daniel Holden (the excellent Aden Young), a man who spent 19 years in solitary confinement on death row for the rape and murder of his high-school girlfriend, Hanna Dean. When new DNA evidence exonerates Daniel, he returns to his small-town Georgia home of Paulie, where local law enforcement are not convinced of his innocence.

From the first episode, it was clear that Rectify wasn’t going to be a show about crime. Rather, it’s about Daniel’s struggle to subsist in the world after so many years spent alone in a tiny white box, trying to convince himself that he doesn’t exist. At the end of the third season, Daniel accepts a plea deal that effectively banishes him from his home state, and he moves to a group home for ex-offenders in Nashville called the New Canaan Project. The fourth and final season, which premieres tonight, thus widens its scope beyond Daniel and Paulie; tonight’s premiere introduces Daniel’s new home and its inhabitants, who are all facing down life after prison.

Rectify is heartbreaking and deeply humane — undoubtedly one of the best dramas of the past decade — and in the crowded field of prestige drama, it’s distinguished by its quiet, contemplative tone. Flavorwire spoke with the series’ creator, Ray McKinnon, who is in town promoting the final season at the New York Television Festival, about his inspiration for the new season, the show’s existential journey, and whether or not Daniel is guilty of the crime that sent him away for nearly two decades.


Flavorwire: At first glance, Rectify appears to be a story about a crime and its aftermath. But as the series progresses, the crime itself and the drama with the police and the district attorney and the lawyers kind of fades into the background. The show is really about one man’s struggle to feel human after being stripped of everything that makes a person feel human for so many years. How did this story come to you?

Ray McKinnon: A number of cases happened where they were finally able to get DNA tested. You kept seeing, all over the country, these guys who had been in jail for life without parole or for extremely long sentences being freed and exonerated, basically, by DNA evidence. I’m interested in the legal system, why society needs closure, needs law and order and all of those things. But I was more struck by these men who were standing there at the press conference [for their release], and they looked a little shocked, as you would expect. All you ever heard was, “What are you gonna do when you go home?” And I thought about, what are you gonna do the next day, and the next day? That’s what started sparking my imagination. I was just wondering about them as human beings, as real human beings, and one day I just got this vision of this character, Daniel, standing on his hometown street corner.

That was the beginning of it becoming a fictional story in my brain, and it stayed there for a long time. I felt like it should be a television show, and I had been inspired by The Sopranos and Six Feet Under — the early part of that serial storytelling [boom] that made me think about story in a different way. It inspired me as a storyteller — the politics of marriage in the last season of The Sopranos was so in-depth, it was fascinating. You couldn’t do that in a two-hour story. So all that stuff was floating around and one day I decided to see if I could write it, and see what would happen — that character’s first day of freedom.

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I’ve read interviews where you’ve said you didn’t think the show would go past a first or second or third season. How far ahead had you plotted it out initially? Did you know the endpoint all along?

When the AMC networks bought the show, they wanted a bigger overview of it, so I created what’s called a bible. It plotted out an endgame all the way through the end, but that was mostly to show them you could have a longer-running story. When the Sundance Channel finally said they wanted to do six episodes, my only thought was, Don’t regret not telling those six episodes in the way that you want to tell it. Don’t try to please everybody. I’m old enough now and I have enough life under me to know that that would be my greatest regret. So that’s all I attempted to do the first season, and I wasn’t sure if we were gonna do another season — frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do even the first season, for complicated reasons. And each season I’ve never been completely sure that I want to do this!

You sound kind of like Daniel — committing to life, not committing to life….

It’s true. I’m certainly working out some of my own issues. But yes, once you cast these actors in these roles who are obviously so good, they further informed me, and it became more symbiotic than it would be had I been working in a vacuum.

The performances on this show are so incredibly strong, and I particularly like that we stick with the same core group of characters throughout the series rather than constantly being introduced to new people. To what extent did the actors’ interpretations of their roles shape the characters? I’m thinking particularly of Daniel’s sense of humor, and how that comes out when he’s with his mother and sister.

Probably a lot. I don’t think of it consciously. I’ve always been struck by badly drawn Southern stories, that the characters in those stories didn’t actually have a sense of humor. That has not been my experience, or anybody else’s that thinks about characters in three dimensions. So I always wanted these characters to have a sense of humor and understanding of absurdity — you know, depending on the intelligence of that character and the education of that character. Certainly [Daniel’s mother] Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and Daniel, from early on they had a bond partly based on their intellectual curiosity and their ability to see absurdity. And [Daniel’s sister] Amantha (Abigail Spencer), too, is really bright and sharp. So it kind of came naturally, and those actors, they really understand that and they play that.

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From the beginning, I was really struck with how singular Daniel is as a cable TV hero. He’s quiet, contemplative, and his appeal doesn’t stem from his ability to enact a fantasy of total power and control. That was really refreshing, to see a male character at the center of a show who is truly vulnerable. Was that a conscious decision, to put a softer kind of man at the center of a drama when so often the leading man is brash or physically dominant or “badass” in some way?

I don’t follow television that closely. Certainly I’ve watched some shows that I’m very fond of, but I was trying to figure out who Daniel was, not who he was in relation to other television shows. And this contradictory damaged human being started forming more fully, and part of that is this beautiful tenderness that he has, that we’re gonna see more of this season. Certainly Aden’s ability to play that kind of tenderness, along with a kind of darkness, all the elements — we looked all over the world to find him, for a long time. His performance has definitely informed me as to how I continue to write for him. As did Clayne [Crawford]’s, as did Abigail’s and J.’s and Addie’s [Adelaide Clemens]. They’re wonderful actors. I’ve never worked that way, where you’re continually informed by their manifestation of those characters.

As a side question, where did the name Amantha come from? I’ve never heard that name before. Do you get asked this a lot?

No, but some of the people who watch the show are really bothered by it. They are so bothered by it! God, I didn’t know! Sorry! Can’t you just kind of get over it? People are like, “Fix it!” But there was somebody that I knew named Amantha, and I didn’t think about it when I named her — again, when I’m working, it’s not a completely analytical exercise. It’s emotional, psychological, and I don’t want to understand it too deeply.

This interview must be a lot of fun for you, then.

It sounds really unsexy to go, “I don’t know.”

Daniel’s guilt or innocence has always seemed almost beside the point — and in this season’s premiere, he admits that he doesn’t even know what he did or didn’t do. Will we ever learn the truth, and in your mind, does it matter?

I’ve never been completely sure about what happened. That obviously has not been what’s intrigued me about the story. I feel like one reason there are wrongful convictions is because the prosecution feels the pressure to come up with a conclusion and restore order once again. It doesn’t matter if the conclusion’s an illusion, because order is an illusion. “This is the guy who did it — order has been restored and now you can go about your lives feeling good.” That’s what happens a lot of times in wrongful convictions. So I thought about that, and I also thought about how stories are framed. Generally they have a closure, a denouement, and I thought about that in real life, when we don’t always have a denouement. Life does go on, but we don’t necessarily have closure. So those ideas kind of pulled me through telling the story. And it’s an existential journey — these people on a day-to-day basis, hour-to-hour basis, trying to find meaning in their lives or some enlightenment or some unburdening or whatever we do. Or some doubling down on our resentments!

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I love the way this series dramatizes the passing of time. Being in prison, especially solitary confinement, and especially death row, changes the way Daniel perceives time. The show is often described as slow, and to my mind it seems to want to make its viewers stop and contemplate the passing of time in a way that you don’t often see on TV or film. When you’re writing and working with directors, or directing yourself, how do you visualize or manifest that idea? How do you make people feel time the way Daniel feels time?

Partly you’re talking about tone and how a story feels to you, and how you create that. You create that by making a thousand decisions that aren’t necessarily about time, but all those decisions manifest to a feeling or a tone or a sense that time is slowed down or time is sped up. It’s definitely been a conscious decision. That’s one of the reasons I was fascinated with Daniel to begin with — he’s like an alien who’s fallen to the earth and I got to experience the world through him, and now that you bring that up, I think why I was so fascinated by this character and why I wanted to write a story about him — there’s a lot of complex reasons, but one of the reasons was, I wanted to see the world through his glasses so maybe I could look at the world anew again or differently. And that’s probably part of the reason I write anything, is to expand myself or shake me up and help me see things in a different way as I get stuck in a new rut.

Do you feel like writing the show has changed you? Does it change how you feel time?

Sometimes. But, just like Daniel, I go back to counting — this date is coming up and that date is coming up, and this hour is coming up and you start making time have meaning where maybe it shouldn’t have meaning. It should just be. If Daniel’s going to survive in the world, is he going to have to start looking at the world and looking at time differently? Becoming human, becoming of the earth, you give up some of the wonder. It’s like being a child and then becoming an adult.

The third season finale, in which Daniel takes a road trip with his mother to the New Canaan House in Nashville, would have been an appropriate ending for the show as a whole.

I felt the same way.

But it feels fitting that we’re getting one more season of a show that’s about the need or the impulse to keep moving on even after the “story” ends. Was that something you thought about when you were crafting the arc of this season?

Well, that’s always the challenge. I’ve never done a television show; now I know why. It’s really, really hard. When they said we want you to do another season, after Season 1, I was at first mildly gratified, followed by extreme anxiety. And then I thought, well, I know what we can’t do, which is the first seven days of Daniel’s freedom. Now we have to continue and find a way to make it interesting without it being Daniel sitting and lying down in a baseball field. Those days are over.

I told the folks at Sundance and AMC that if we were gonna do a fourth season, this is what I wanted to do, which is not bring Daniel back because of some technicality at the last minute, and he’s gonna be in Paulie. That felt disingenuous, and also I didn’t think I wanted to explore him further in Paulie with the same players. It was really interesting to me what it would be like to put him in a different environment. Everybody in Paulie is reflecting through their own subjective lens how they feel about Daniel or what they want for Daniel, or what’ll happen, in Amantha’s case, if Daniel acts this way — their father will come back from the dead and the Teds will vanish into thin air and they can reform their family! So [I wanted] for Daniel to go to this place where people are reflecting more back at him what he really is rather than what they want him to be or what they think he is, and that would force him to have a clear picture and be faced with the decision of whether he will go further in this continuing dilemma of, should he stay or should he go?

I loved that first episode, the politics of him in that house and having trouble fitting in with the others because of his time spent in solitary confinement. I liked that we were getting to see other people who have been through something similar, and how they react to Daniel. Did you do any research or visit a house like that to prepare for this season?

In Season 3, when we were trying to figure out where Daniel was gonna go, we were researching these places, and there aren’t a lot of them. Most of them are non-profit and were started by somebody who saw a need and filled it. It’s really shocking how little support there is for ex-offenders. One was this place in Nashville called Project Return. Last summer I went there, and [producer] Marshall Persinger went there and they let us come in and see how they do what they do. A big part is getting jobs and getting work. It’s very moving, you could tell a story just about that group and the administrators and volunteers and ex-offenders — I mean, they have people come back with their first car, come back and said, “I bought a house.” These little miracles that happen all the time. It was very moving and inspiring, and so that was a big inspiration for this season for that storyline. And I wanted to, in an in-depth way, hopefully, draw attention to a group of people who are the last people anybody wants to give money for. The resources for them are just so thin. But these little miracles happen every day, and so I wanted to reflect that.

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This show feels implicitly political, but it’s sort of kept under the surface. Daniel isn’t a crusader for the cause of criminal justice reform, he’s just a guy trying to figure out his life. But I thought of Rectify when I watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, when one of the subjects says the opposite of criminalization is humanization — that we need to get back to thinking about people in prison as humans. I feel like there’s been a little more public awareness of this cause since the show premiered, and I wonder if that’s something you thought about as the series has progressed, or if you tried not to sort of politicize the story too much.

Well, politicized in what way — that people who have been convicted of something should be punished for the rest of their lives? Do we really believe in another chance? The system right now is almost designed for failure. If you’re a fiscal conservative, that makes no sense. If you’re a liberal humanist, that makes no sense. That seems like something that people could come together on. I just want to explore the human condition, and I want to humanize all my characters. I want to three-dimensionalize all my characters. Unless somebody’s a sociopath or a full-blown narcissist, then of course they’re capable of empathy and compassion and being a contributor to society if they have a snowball’s chance in hell. That’s what Project Return has proved, and I wanted to reflect that, for sure.

 

Rectify Season 4 premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.