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‘Rectify’ Finale: Creator Ray McKinnon on Daniel’s Evolution, the Legal System, and that Final Scene

Daniel Holden’s journey on the gravel road to redemption ended Dec. 14 with the series finale of SundanceTV’s “Rectify.” The drama has been praised to the skies for its slow-burn study of a haunted man’s struggle to reintegrate himself into small-town society after 19 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction.

Rectify” creator/exec producer Ray McKinnon, who is also an actor known for his work on “Sons of Anarchy” and “Deadwood,” spoke with Variety about the show’s evolution over its four seasons, the breathtaking skill of the cast led by Aden Young, and the deeper meaning he sought in telling Daniel’s story. The distinctive voice and spare poetry that McKinnon infused into “Rectify” rings through every answer.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on if you have not seen the “Rectify” finale, “All I’m Sayin’.”

How should we interpret the final scene? It’s left ambiguous as to whether what we’re seeing is a daydream or reality for Daniel, although it seems to lean toward fantasy.

Fiction is a different kind of truth, and however one experiences and interprets that is for themselves to decide. If they think about (the ending) a week later and it changes, it’s all valid. If it felt ambiguous to you, that’s probably exactly right for you.

Did you know when you started the series that Daniel would eventually be publicly exonerated for the murder of Hanna?

It was a possibility. What’s been so interesting in going on this serial journey with all of my collaborators is that I continued to be informed by the work of others. The striking example is that I knew some of Teddy Jr.’s arc early on. I didn’t exactly know how it was all going to play out, but Clayne (Crawford’s) manifesting Teddy and bringing him to life informed me further into Teddy’s arc. We were always being informed by these wonderful actors’ interpretations of the characters. As I continued to watch Daniel interact with these characters — and all of the characters who just kept loving him and pulling for him and trying to help him — I realized late in the game the one thing I didn’t want to do was give up on him and have him give up on himself. Once I realized that, there was no turning back.

Adding to the complexity of your story, at the outset, Daniel wasn’t sure in his own mind if he had committed the crime.

He did say in the pilot, “I’m going to seriously reconsider my worldview.” At the time I had a more specific idea of what his worldview was. I wasn’t sure how that was going to evolve. But it all felt perfectly right as we all headed toward this end. And it always helps to have Aden Young say your words. It makes you sound like a lot better writer than you really are.

What about the other key characters — did you have the broad arc for them in mind for the start? One of the most powerful finale scenes was the meeting between Daniel’s mother, Janet, and Hanna’s mother, Judy, while sitting in Hanna’s frozen-in-time bedroom.

Some of the bigger storylines, like Janet and Judy Dean, I always had in my mind’s eye if we went this long into the journey could those two come together as grieving mothers. Could we make that happen in an organic and believable way. We planted that seed even from season one. Let’s make Judy Dean’s worldview of who and what Daniel was as prejudicial and striking as we could and if we could take her down this journey and with the help of her son and the un-fulfillment of revenge and all of those things that happened along the way that led us to that scene in the bedroom. It’s risky to do that. When we were shooting it, when we were editing it, I said, “I buy this.” That really is the only thing I have to go by. Both of those ladies (actors J. Smith-Cameron and Robin Mullins) did such a wonderful job that day. It really was a magical four hours inside a dusty warehouse in Griffin, Georgia.

“Rectify” always let its actors do as much with the space between the words as with dialogue. Was that something you brought from your background as an actor?

I grew up around subtext. There was subtext in my family. There was subtext in my community. There’s always the things that aren’t being said. If we’re observant, we see this, we feel that. It’s what makes us more complex beings. There’s code and body language and all the things in human behavior that clues us in on what’s really in one’s heart and mind. The subtext for us was that it was always important to treat (the characters) like real human beings. How would real human beings react in this situation? Acting is a very artificial set-up. You’re trying to exhibit your most private emotions in this public space where there’s cameras and crew all around. You want to give all actors the best chance possible for them to succeed. One of the ways to do that is to let them know if they try and it doesn’t work, it’s OK. I’ll take care of them. I won’t leave them hanging out there. But don’t play it so safe to the point where you don’t come across something that is magical.

What were you striving for with the addition this season of the Chloe character played by Caitlin FitzGerald? How long had you planned for Daniel to have a serious romantic relationship?

She’s been a polarizing character for some people. I’ve felt like we needed someone whose strength to speak truth can also be abrasive. That’s the flipside of the coin. I felt that she did that. She had the courage to tell Daniel what she saw and what she felt. That was part of the reason for having her in the story. She wasn’t encumbered by the baggage of expectations of guilt or shame or judgment — all of those things people back in Paulie (Georgia) were seeing Daniel through that kind of lens. He needed someone to reflect back to her. We had a number of people in the New Canaan House who could reflect back to him a truer version of who he is and who he could be. She did that. I love her for it, and so does Daniel.

Did you intend for the series to be a commentary on shortcomings of the criminal justice system? “Rectify” is a fictional forerunner of “Making a Murderer” and its ilk.

This was tangentially always a part of this show. We had the time to explore that side of the story in a fairly detailed way. … If you’re telling on one level the micro (story) of a man being released from a box, on the macro you’re talking about the dynamics of family, the psychology of prosecution, the bigger legal justice system of America. I was intrigued from real-life cases about why prosecution at times has a psychological group-think that allows things to happen. They aren’t necessarily initiated by sociopaths but by arrogance or fear or stress or whatever the precipitators of bad decision-making or ignoring certain clues. That happens over and over in our justice system. We’re starting to as a society — two steps forward, four steps back — look at false confessions more scientifically and analytically. It’s starting to filter in to the justice system that yes, this is a thing that happens and it happens way more often than we think.

You made a point of showing some hopefulness for ex-offenders.

The New Canaan house (where Daniel lives in Nashville) is based loosely on Project Return in Nashville, Tennessee. They welcomed us with open arms. I was just so moved personally by what they were doing for the ex-offenders who come out of jail with very little prospects and resources. Yet there were so many wonderful happy stories – not without struggle — of people reintegrating into society. The sad part is there are so few places that offer any kind of services for people who already have a two strikes against them.

Now that “Rectify” is wrapped, what’s next for you?

I don’t think this is going to do any good for my career but I really do feel like I’ve said everything I need to say. I don’t know where I’m going to go. I’m going to read and watch and listen as my life has led me down different paths. I have no idea what paths I’ll be led down next. I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to express with others as much about the human condition through this story as I could. … Me and the great actors I had and all the producers and writers were given the opportunity to tell the story in a specific way. That also doesn’t happen every day. I felt very fortunate I found that little window to do this. I really appreciate all the taste-makers who played a huge part in keeping this show alive and going.

Anything else about the finale or the series overall you’d like viewers to know?

Whatever I wanted to say, it’s somewhere in the show.

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