‘Rectify’ Season 3: Ray McKinnon On Why Six Episodes Is Just Right

'Rectify' Season 3 Interview: Ray McKinnon

SundanceTV’s “Rectify” has garnered critical acclaim and a loyal cult following over two seasons, and fans of the unique drama will be pleased to discover the first two episodes of season three are as strong as ever.

In the show’s timeline it’s only been a few weeks since Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was released from death row after almost two decades in prison, though the question of whether or not he killed his high school sweetheart remains up for debate. At the end of last season, he re-confessed to committing the crime, under pressure from the zealous politician (Michael O’Neill) who originally prosecuted him.

That turn of events has left his family, including mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) reeling. While his antagonistic step-brother Teddy (Clayne Crawford), is deciding whether to press charges against Daniel for a separate assault — a matter complicated by his estranged wife Tawney’s (Adelaide Clemens) affections for Daniel.

Variety spoke with the show’s creator Ray McKinnon about what to expect in season three, which (like the first season) will run for just six episodes, why keeping Daniel a mystery is important to the show, and how much longer he feels the show (recently renewed for a fourth season) can sustain.

What was on your mind to explore in season three?
It’s a continuation of the series itself, “Can a man who spent nearly 20 years in a box become a part of what we consider the normal world?” I think that’s the challenge for real life humans incarcerated for long periods of time, particularly under such strict conditions — can they acclimate?

Who fully understands some of Daniel’s reasoning for his decisions? I think if we do we might become a little less interested in him, because like some human beings he’s contradictory and paradoxical and confounding at times. That continues. But he did agree to a plea deal at the end of season two. Season three will be about whether that plea deal goes through, and what happens if it really goes through. To complicate matters is the arrival of (the corpse of) George Milton from the murky depths.

Part of what season three is about is what action the judicial machine will take and what conclusions it will come up with. Wrongful convictions are based upon someone in law enforcement trying to create a narrative that makes sense to a crime. We have a chance to explore that in a unique way this year.

Even if the audience won’t fully understand Daniel’s reasons, it seems like his family will be looking for answers after his re-confession. How do you balance characters trying to understand Daniel with your own desire to keep him a mystery?
I think what the people who care about him are beginning to realize is they had this ideal of who Daniel would be when he came out. In the first season and into the second they’re projecting onto him what they think he is. That’s the case for people who love him, like Amantha and Janet, and people who don’t, like Teddy. Everybody’s projecting something on Daniel. Tawney’s projecting something on Daniel. Daniel didn’t ask for that. They’re beginning to realize it’s not consciously that they were projecting that, but they understand that he is not what they thought he would be. Now they have to come more to terms with what he is and see him for what he is.

For some they see how damaged he is. He’s a damaged person. Whether he did what he’s accused of doing 20 years ago or not, he’s still a very damaged person. How do they deal with that? And what will Daniel do about that? Will he get help? Will he get better? Will he become a member of society? And what does that mean? That’s a fraught proposition unto itself.

Janet in particular seems to feel that conflict between wanting to give Daniel space to himself but also wanting to protect him.
It’s tricky, because an intervention, you would think, is required. But people don’t always respond well to interventions. Daniel can be very sensitive and tender and in touch with other people’s feelings and emotions, but when he feels like he’s cornered he can lash out. I do think Janet understands on a deeper level how damaged he is, and she’s going to be a little more active. That’s part of her journey, and perhaps on a deeper psychological level trying to make up for what she feels are some of her shortcomings when she raised him and perhaps when he was in prison.

Are there certain characters or aspects of the story you wanted to explore more in season three? Daniel’s half-brother Jared takes on greater importance in the first two episodes.
It’s fun to explore Jared some. There’s a lot of great characters you could do an entire show around. I wanted to explore a little more how the judicial machine works, on a psychological level and also some of the procedure, but hopefully in a different way than it’s normally explored. I want to continue to explore the complicated relationship with Ted and Tawney, on their own personal journeys separate and together.

It’s been interesting to think of Ted Sr. and Janet, because they had this life that had Daniel more as a ghost. That worked for them. It worked for Ted. Now Ted’s having to deal with something far different, something more than he bargained for or agreed to, and I think he’s going to be challenged more. It’s going to be interesting to see what he will do. The plus and the minus of Ted is he’s in some ways “steady Ted,” but in some ways “closed-off Ted.”

That sounds like a lot storylines to play out but you only have six episodes this season, after 10 last season. Did it feel like enough?
It always feels like it’s enough for me. This is the only show I’ve ever done. I can’t imagine doing a TV show with 21 episodes. Even if I did one with 13, I would really have to do it differently than the way I do this show. I would have to delegate more. There’s just no way. I look at it like making three movies in a year. To me that’s a lot. But when you think six episodes versus 13 or 21 it’s not a lot. But I approach (the episodes) as mini-movies and that requires a lot of attention. I have more than enough to do with six.

At the end of last season you said you don’t see the show continuing for too much longer. Do you still feel the same?
I think you could end it this season, but others would disagree. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m — not bored, that’s not the right word — but not as excited about the story and the characters. I certainly don’t want the audience to do that. So I don’t think it should go very much longer.

Did you write the finale of this season as if it could have been a series finale?
I don’t know if I did or I didn’t. These lives — unless they all die, which would be a real disappointing ending — will go on. And I think for all of these characters, starting with Daniel, however the end ends it will be the beginning of the next day. After the show ends, if Daniel is still alive, he’s going to have a next day. We just won’t see it. I imagine it will still be compelling. Maybe we’ll just have a camera on him all the time.

So far the events of the series have unfolded over a very compressed period of time. Do you foresee that continuing as long as you’re making the show or would you want to take these characters further along into their own futures?
That’s certainly a possibility, if I can get over the idea that I continue to be interested in what’s going to happen next in this world, as opposed to jumping ahead a couple of years, or a year, or whatever. But yeah, that’s an interesting device and you see it more on television than ever before. I think if it served the story better than staying closer to the time it’s in then I think yeah, it would be worth exploring.

Without spoiling anything, Teddy has a fantastic scene at the end of the second episode. I want to ask about creating a character who would be easy for many people to judge, without judgment.
He reminds me of people I knew growing up. Those people are more complicated than just what you see on the surface. (As a character, Teddy) is an archetype. Daniel is an archetype. They’re all archetypes. What we’re trying not to do is to make them stereotypes.

(Teddy) is such an archetype that has been stereotyped both in real life, in the news media, and also in fictional work. We place him over here in a box. What was interesting was to watch him step out of that box and not be disingenuous to who he is. That continues to be what’s exciting about exploring Teddy and what’s challenging. On top of that, Clayne is such a wonderful actor, he definitely inspires me and our other writers to continue to explore him.