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‘Rectify’ Creator Ray McKinnon Talks Endings, Inspirations and Challenges of Show’s Final Season

Rectify” fans, be forewarned: Don’t expect a neat and tidy ending for Daniel Holden when the SundanceTV drama’s fourth and final season concludes its run later this year.

Rectify” creator/exec producer Ray McKinnon made it clear during a Q&A Tuesday night at the New York Television Festival that he has no intention of providing a clear-cut answer to the show central mysteries: whether the lead character played by Aden Young is guilty of the murder for which he spent 19 years on death row before being exonerated by DNA evidence. What’s more, Holden himself wrestles with the question — quoting Jean-Paul Sartre in the process — in the fourth season opener. “Rectify” premieres Oct. 26.

“This story is about a man’s search for meaning,” McKinnon said.  “He’s an honest man,” he said of his “tragic and heroic” protagonist. “It’s always difficult for an honest man to make his way in the world.”

Holden’s quest has been an extension of McKinnon’s own journey in life. “I’m just trying to make sense of why I’m on the planet and why bad things happen to good people,” he said.

McKinnon said never set out to “preach” against the death penalty or solitary confinement. But the show has inevitably put a spotlight on what many see as inhumane aspects of the penal system. Judging by the fourth season opener, Holden is starting to come to grips with the amount of time he spent in solitary. “Hell is other people,” Holden tells a well-meaning counselor, noting that he read Sartre’s existential masterpiece “No Exit” during his incarceration.

Season four finds Holden relocated to Nashville, where he’s living a group home run by an organization dedicated to helping ex-convicts find jobs and successfully return to mainstream society. The storyline was inspired by the work of Nashville-based non-project Project Return. It was a risky creative move, given the richness of the conflict and setting of Holden’s tiny hometown in Georgia, McKinnon said.

“We decided to take our lead character out of our regular company (of actors) and put him in another world,” McKinnon said. “It’s a big risk. We have to create a world that is as rich and as real” as the previous setting. But viewers can rest assured that Clayne Crawford’s Teddy and other characters from Paulie will back in Holden’s life before the show ends.

Here are seven more things we learned about McKinnon and “Rectify” from the Q&A conducted by Bloomberg News’ David Westin at the SVA Theater.

  • McKinnon began paying attention to TV as an art form when “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” were in their prime. But he cited “Mad Men” as the “coup de grace” that drove him to create a TV show. After being blown away by the adventures of Don Draper and Co., he figured “maybe it’s time for a story like (‘Rectify’) that doesn’t have a lot of explosions.”
  • “Rectify” aims to probe what it really means to offer true forgiveness. “If a person has done wrong and he feels remorse for that wrong, does he deserve forgiveness? I think so,” McKinnon said.
  • McKinnon is a veteran character actor, known for roles on “Justified,” “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy,” but “Rectify” was his first time out as a series creator. Asked what he would do differently if he had the chance, McKinnon said: “I’d ask for more money… and not to shoot in the summer.”
  • McKinnon is humbled by the acclaim the show has received, nabbing a Peabody award, among other kudos. “I wrote a story that was better than me,” McKinnon said of the pilot. As the show took root, McKinnon admitted to hoping “maybe I would be better because of it.”
  • No, there won’t be a “Rectify” spinoff. “I think we’ve explained it,” McKinnon said of the story he wanted to tell in “Rectify.” But the general arena of guilt and innocence, crime and punishment remains fertile ground for drama. “Certainly there are many stories to be told about the criminal justice system,” he said.
  • McKinnon had been nursing one idea for the ending of the series, but as production moved along for the eight episodes in season four, he began to have second thoughts. “The more I thought about it that idea felt wrong,” he said. As the clock ticked down, he settled on an idea that “felt right in my heart and my gut.”
  • As for what’s next, McKinnon said he doesn’t know, and he’s happier that way. “I like not knowing what’s next. I have had this job longer than any other job I’ve had in my adult life,” he observed.

(Pictured: David Westin, Ray McKinnon)

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