‘Rectify’ Creator Ray McKinnon On The End Of His ‘Vivid But Intense’ Drama


Sundance’s Rectify — i.e., the best show nobody watched for virtually all of its run — just finished airing its lovely series finale. I reviewed the finale here, and I have an interview with creator Ray McKinnon — who, because the show was stuck in development hell for a while (including a period where McKinnon’s buddy Walton Goggins was going to play Daniel) before Sundance bought it, has lived with the show and many of its characters far longer than we have — coming up just as soon as I go to a Broadway show, present-day…

How long ago did you know how you wanted to end the series?

I guess two weeks before we shot it?

How did it come to you that this is what you wanted to do?

There are lots of different storylines, lots of different character arcs. Some were visualized, perhaps before I made the first episode of the show. I was interested to see if people can change their worldviews, and how that would happen, and would we buy that? And some of that happened in the last couple of episodes. Daniel’s ending really came out of the last season. I was there when we shot almost every scene of the entire series. So I got to watch Aden play this character, and got to watch him experience other people who were playing characters, put out so much for him, for his freedom, for his health, for his well being. And I just felt, toward the end of this season, it wouldn’t feel right — it would feel like a trick — if I gave up on Daniel Holden when he had finally begun the journey of healing in a real and tangible way. That was the major part of the ending that really came late into the game.

Was there a version you were thinking about earlier where things might not have ended so hopefully for Daniel?

The question still remains, and will remain after the show is over, can Daniel make his way in the world? If Daniel were a real human being, even as 408 ended, I’m not so sure he could. It’s still a long journey and there’s a lot to overcome. I do think it ends optimistically, that he has a chance. So (I chose) that version rather than showing definitively that it was too much for him to overcome.

How much closure did you decide you wanted to provide, both about what happened to Hanna on that day and what’s going to happen in the case going forward?

I suppose as much closure as I showed in the series. Real cases of this kind, it’s very difficult to undo on a legal basis what has been done. But the American system is set up that way so everybody doesn’t try to undo convictions and tie up the courts with tons of habeas corpus suits. If this ever gets untied, it won’t be easy and it won’t come quickly, and I think that felt genuine to what’s true in life.

Someone could make the argument that Janet watching Daniel disappear behind the door at New Canaan at the end of season 3 could have been the end of the series…

I’m with you! (laughs)

So what’s the most important you were able to accomplish in these additional episodes that you couldn’t have if that had been the ending?

Once the decision was made to go on further, and as I discussed that with the writers and the producers and the guy on the street, what was interesting and exciting about the season 4 Daniel was that he could be in a place where he was not being reflected back with all the baggage that all the people who reflected back to him had. He could perhaps begin the journey of seeing himself for who he is now in the present, and continue or begin the journey of whether he’s really going to do something to live in this world. That was the big storyline for Daniel this season and one that I was interested in doing. And for the other characters, it was, could they move on with their lives once the center of some of their universes was plucked away and they were faced with their own baggage? That was the bigger macro plotlines for those characters. And on the legal aspect, I knew that’s an important part of the overall story, and I was certainly intrigued to see how far the system and the men and women who are behind the system would push forward to seek the truth or seek some kind of rectification, which they continued to do. It’s still on some level a moral tale, and I wanted the sheriff to declare what kind of person he was, and I think he did, and I feel satisfied with that.

Daniel in the finale has meaningful phone conversations with Amantha, with Teddy, and with Tawney, but the only regulars from previous seasons with whom he physically interacted this year were Janet, Ted Sr., and Jon. Was it difficult to not have those old relationships and to not have him interacting with those people, or was it freeing in a way to not have to go through old patterns this year?

Some of the people who like the show were lamenting that he wasn’t with his familiar troupe this season, but I think it would have become very difficult to continue those interactions and have it remain fresh and involving. Just from a writing standpoint and an imagining standpoint, it opened a lot of new avenues for me as a writer and for my writers as writers, and the same thing with the people back home. I felt like it was really the only way to go. To keep him from interacting with some of those people in person during the season, we obviously had him interact with some — Janet and Ted and Jon Stern — but also we felt if we had him interact in person with all the characters from the beginning of the show, it would feel maybe a little contrived. This felt more organic and believable.

Given that Tawney and Teddy’s marriage has now come to an end, was there thought at any point given to the idea of letting her reconnect with Daniel beyond the scope of that phone call?

I’m a big fan of unrequited love stories, and I suppose when they become requited, they take on another life. It would be interesting to think about Daniel and Tawney, if they could or would move forward. I think that as in life, things happen and your personal journeys go in different directions, and that time passed. That was how I felt about Tawney and Daniel. When I saw them interacting via phone calls and watched those characters come back to life with each other, you see that there’s still a strong connection there. And probably always would be.

You bring back a bunch of characters like Kerwin and Foulkes in the finale. Was there anyone you wanted to bring back, or any story you wanted to tell in this final season, that you just weren’t able to, for one reason or another?

Not that I can think of. Kerwin was a decision I made when I was in Griffin, shooting. We’d talked about it at points in the writers room, but nothing was ever decided. I felt like I wanted to see him again. I wanted to visit with him again. I wasn’t sure how that scene was going to play out, I just sat in that rental house one weekend night and those two characters came back together. A lot of the way I approach writing, certainly some of it is analytical and a kind of intellectualism, but some of it is what my heart and belly is telling me. It’s more intuitive. That just felt right to me. A lot of the storylines and interactions in the last two episodes were more from that place. I’ve been living with these characters, some of them for a decade or more, and in a more intense way for the last four years, just about practically year round. A lot of them came knocking on the door and said, “Hey, brother, I’m coming back!” I said no to no one that knocked on that door!

Speaking of living with them for four years, how long does the show ultimately cover from when Daniel returns to Paulie until the events of the finale? Is it a year, even?

I’ve always said this to the writers and to the actors and everyone else, I really didn’t want us to be overly aware of time. I think less than a year sounds reasonable to me.

A lot of things happen, both physically and emotionally, over the course of that “less than a year” time.

One of the main reasons that this story kept nagging me to investigate it was because of the real life stories that I’d seen bits and pieces of in the news. And I wanted to see. It felt like being on some kind of hallucinogenic. It must be like being on a hallucinogenic trip to suddenly be released into the world after you’ve been in that hole for so long. And a lot can happen while you’re tripping. The trip was short, but pretty vivid and intense.

You said that you agreed with me when I said the show could have ended after season 3. Was there any hesitation on your part to keep it going for one more year? How was that decision ultimately made?

I think I was ambivalent from the beginning. I’m a little older now, and I had some idea of what would be required of me to be at least the instigator of all of this happening, and I knew it would be a difficult journey. I’m always afraid of failing and coming up short. Season 3 felt so sad, I didn’t know if it was going to work. I didn’t know if the final scene of 306 would work until we were shooting the Janet/Daniel scene at the halfway house. The first few takes, it wasn’t clicking, and then it clicked, and I’m like, “I think this is gonna work.” The last season, I felt some obligation to Sundance and AMC for all they had done for me in allowing me to tell this story, and we decided, “Let’s do one more,” so that’s what happened.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com

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