‘Rectify’ creator Ray McKinnon looks back on season 2

Before he was the creator of one of TV’s most beautiful and emotionally powerful dramas in Sundance’s “Rectify,” Ray McKinnon was a character actor. And because I’m so used to watching his long, scarecrow-like frame pop up in films and movies, I never thought of “Rectify” protagonist Daniel Holden – a former Death Row inmate whose conviction is overturned, and who is embodied by an actor (the terrific Aden Young) with no physical resemblance to McKinnon – as an avatar of his creator. Even when I interviewed McKinnon before “Rectify” premiered, I was looking at the man who had played Reverend Smith on “Deadwood,” Linc Potter on “Sons of Anarchy,” etc.

Yesterday – in between the great news that Sundance had ordered a third season of “Rectify” and the airing of tonight’s season finale (my review is here) – I got on the phone with McKinnon, who was vacationing in Europe. And without his distinct physical presence in front of me, all I could focus on was the voice on the telephone, and the resemblance – in phrasing, in cadence and in the rich and buttery Georgia accent – between McKinnon and Daniel Holden was uncanny. It was a brief interview, and McKinnon was admittedly not in much of a “Rectify” headspace (so we don’t go into much detail about the finale), but as we spoke, I began to imagine a version of “Rectify” created by Daniel himself. And I realized it would not be that much stranger, more elliptical, or more philosophical than the version McKinnon has now made for two seasons. And so I spoke with Daniel’s creator about the renewal, the expanded focus this season on Ted Jr. (pictured above), how long he expects the series to go, and more.

The season finale ends with a lot of things up in the air, in terms of Daniel’s case, how far Carl is going to pursue the investigation and the implications of Ted Jr. seeking assault charges against Daniel. How confident were you when that was written that you would be coming back for a third season?

Ray McKinnon: Oh, I don’t know. (laughs) I didn’t really think about that. Honestly, I was just trying to get through the second season, somewhat alive. We knew we were painted in a corner, so I’m not sure that them asking us back – that’s the good and the bad. Because we’re like, “Oh, no, no. Now what? What do we do?”

You’re on vacation now. Have you given any thought yet to how the story’s going to work in season 3?

Ray McKinnon: A little bit. Before I finished season 2, I thought some about that. I really haven’t thought much about the show at all since we finished the sound design on episode 10. It’s amazing how you spend so much time focused on it, and you’re so obsessed with it, and it was really so easy to just completely let the show go. When (a Sundance publicist) said I was going to talk about episode 10, I actually had to think for a moment: “What happens in episode 10?” No, I didn’t think about that. There were a lot of things left open, if they brought us back, we would try to figure out a way to confound expectations if we can.

Sundance has said they haven’t decided yet how many episodes season 3 will have. You had 6 in the first season, 10 in the second, and 10 seemed to give you more room to play with things. You got to do something like Daniel’s trip to Atlanta, which I can’t imagine you having room for in a 6-episode season. Was it more freeing to have more episodes to play with, or more challenging to come up with enough material to fill 10, given the way you tell these stories?

Ray McKinnon: It was probably a little bit of both. We were under schedule pressures this last year that we weren’t under in the first year. I found myself rewriting scenes at 3 o’clock in the morning the night before we’d shoot the next day. That puts a lot of stress on production, a lot of stress on the actors. But at the same time, it sure makes things more exciting. So yeah, it’s all of the above. It does allow you to head down roads, but whether it’s 6 episodes or 10, you’re always trying to defy convention, and that’s never easy, no matter what the amount of the episodes are, because convention is the first place your brain takes you a lot of times, especially when you’re under time pressure – or the expectations of others. The difference between the first season and the second season, and the second and third, will probably be, the first season, there were no expectations, no one had heard of the show or knew anything about it, and everybody has an investment now to the show they didn’t have before. There are those who are fans of the show, and you feel those pressures sometimes. My job, and my collaborators’ jobs are to go down roads that are both right and hopefully less traveled.

Daniel finally starts interacting with Trey towards the end of the season, and one of the questions my readers had was about how concerned Daniel actually is with finding out what happened, versus trying to make this all go away. Trey says a number of things that Daniel lets slide without telling anyone else about.

Ray McKinnon: We’ve said from the beginning, the minute that Daniel starts thinking like the rest of us is probably the time we’re going to be least interested in him as a character, and perhaps the show. In many ways he continues to be an enigma and a paradox, and he doesn’t always behave in the way that “normal” people would do. That includes his thinking about the past and dealing with it in a more rational way. Will he have to do that in season 3? Will that be part of his journey, to be forced to go down those roads that he didn’t want to go down? We’ll see.

Was that obtuse enough?

Enough, sure. In terms of confounding expectations, I certainly didn’t expect the season to devote so much time, and so much sympathy, to Ted Jr., and to deal as much with the coffee grounds incident. How much of that was planned when Daniel did that to him in season 1?

Ray McKinnon: When I was in the writers room with a group of people who were pretending or imagining what life would be like for all of these characters, an incident like that, which is very provocative, in real life would be as bizarre as it was on one level. On another level, it’s an assault and it’s life-changing. It almost told us that it wasn’t going away, and it kept coming back. And so I don’t think there was anything premeditated on my part to extend it – just as I thought more and more about the event, it just kept coming back, just as it does to the psychic chagrin of Ted Jr. I’ve always seen him as a complicated human being, though a made-up one. I’m not surprised that it’s had a complex set of ramifications for him. They were fascinating to investigate with that character. I think all the writers got excited when we thought about Ted and how that one single event would continue to affect his entire being.

I want to go back to what you said earlier about having to rewrite pages the night before. You’ve been on some shows where the creators have had to run things that way, most famously David Milch on “Deadwood.” How has it felt to you suddenly being on the other side of that?

Ray McKinnon: I feel the actors’ pain. (laughs) I don’t think I wrote anybody a three-page monologue 45 minutes before we shoot like I found in my lap once. The great part for me as an actor with David Milch was whatever came to you was going to be wonderful, and it’s what you lived to play. Hopefully, the actors (here) felt some of that. But I don’t know how he does it. That’s not my favorite way of working, but he’s the man.

Finally, do you have any sense yet in your head about how much longer this story can go, whether it’s the third season? Five seasons? Ten seasons?

Ray McKinnon: Oh, lord. I don’t think it’s a show that should go on for too long, frankly. Probably, I’m not supposed to say that. But it does feel like it has a life. I can’t tell you how much that is. But it won’t be 10. Would it be 5? I don’t know. That’d be tough to say.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com