How Rectify Creator Ray McKinnon and His Sterling Cast Prepared to Bring the Groundbreaking Series to a Close

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How <i>Rectify</i> Creator Ray McKinnon and His Sterling Cast Prepared to Bring the Groundbreaking Series to a Close

As it enters its fourth and final season, Ray McKinnon’s Rectify has become what no other ongoing TV series is—a show that, every mystery and machination having been settled, soldiers on without gimmicky backtracking or a rehash of what has already been resolved. For that reason alone, Rectify is required viewing. Television’s only fully settled show chooses to resolve itself by dragging us kicking and screaming back to grace—which may be the most casually inventive series sign-off we’ve ever seen.

“It wasn’t supposed to end like this,” series star Aden Young, who plays convicted murderer Daniel Holden, says of his creative journey. “It was such a special experience, to live alongside such a smart, courageous man. It was like a dream.” Young pauses, then adds: “I love Daniel. I miss him.”

Talking to Young about his character, and about the show itself, is fascinating. Part Canadian, part Australian, Young’s speaking voice, when he talks about Daniel, goes softly, gently American. Southern American. Deep South American. Young also slips in and out of the first person singular when he talks about his character, giving you the impression that you might be having a conversation with Daniel himself.

“The first time I read Rectify, I immediately recognized that I could play Daniel. I could feel him, relate to him. All of us have made choices that haunt us. And we’ve felt that flash of rage—maybe in a bar fight or in traffic—when our frustration explodes or we give over to the mob’s rage of revolution.”

Young doesn’t have to say it, but he does. “We’re all Daniel Holden. Humpty-Dumptys who need to be put back together again.”

Rectify’s sublime, six-episode third season (Seasons One-Three are on Netflix) ends with Daniel Holden banished from his hometown of Paulie, Ga. to a halfway house for ex-cons in Nashville. En route, he and mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) visit the family’s long-forgotten seaside vacation retreat. It is here, as Daniel wades out into the crashing waves, that we experience the series’ most ethereal, satisfying moment. Indeed, it feels like the series has said its piece, and given up the proverbial ghost.

“We wrote every Rectify season like it was our last,” McKinnon confesses. “It’s never easy to ask life’s most basic questions, to ask an audience to explore their existence, in [an] hour-long TV show. And once you start in on that, I mean, how do you end it?”

Instead, McKinnon and his Rectify co-conspirators unapologetically stick to the existential search. And in doing so, they elevate what might seem like just another crime show or family melodrama to Terrence Malick-esque heights.

In its first season, Rectify explored the rebirth of Daniel Holden—released from death row on a technicality and returned to his longsuffering family. Season Two focused on Daniel’s burgeoning adolescence, his struggle to find his way and how that struggle affects his family. Season Three was about Daniel and his family learning what it will mean for him to live as an adult. Now, Season Four promises to deal with Daniel’s attempt to reconcile with himself—to be fully restored as a human being.

“We’re all, to one degree or another, faking our way through it,” McKinnon says, “Our responsibility is to hold on, to choose gratitude over fear.” Is McKinnon talking about Rectify’s overarching theme or is he musing on the actual crafting of the show itself? He shrugs: “You just gotta keep showing up, buddy. For both!”

“The nature of life is to be unsatisfied,” Smith-Cameron says. “Season Four gives us Rectify characters at their most satisfied. What happens then?”

Season Four’s first episode focuses solely Daniel’s new life away from Paulie, on his own in the city. (The second catches up with goings-on back home in Georgia.)

“The ocean scene, at the end of in Season Three, that was not the end of the story for me,” Young says— though it’s again unclear if the “me” in question is Aden Young or Daniel Holden. “I felt like, no. There’s still some gold to mine in them thar hills. Season Four gives us a chance to see Daniel’s attempts to manufacture a new wonder for his life.”

Adelaide Clemens, who plays Daniel’s friend and sister-in-law, Tawney Talbot, takes it a step further: “’Did Daniel do it [rape and murder his high-school girlfriend]?’ doesn’t matter anymore. What it means to be human does. Which for us as actors means we get to fine-tune our performances, to take them to such emotional depths. As an actor on Rectify, I have to be as vulnerable as I can.”

Smith-Cameron echoes Clemens’ sentiment.

Rectify gives us all the luxury to go to deep places,” she says. “Like a long, hot bath.”

Fans of the show will thrill to a scene in the first episode of the new season in which Daniel meets with his halfway house advisor, Avery (Scott Lawrence). The scene may be the series’ finest moment. Young’s performance is astounding, while Ray McKinnon’s writing here is some of the most achingly raw and honest dialogue you will ever see on television. There is humaneness, a complete lack of ironic detachment, and a simplicity to the language itself that is shocking.

Reflecting on the scene, Young is at a loss for words. He offers only this: “That scene, its Ray’s personal confession, I think. He’s pointing us all to the creative act, as a way forward. As the path back to grace.”

Like many in the cast of Rectify, Canadian Luke Kirby, who plays Daniel’s lawyer, Jon Stern, is known as much for his work on the stage as he is for film and television.

“Theatre is not a business of material riches,” he quips. “But what it does have going for it is, as an actor, you are forced to dig deep into the work. And that same spirit was always present on Rectify.” Kirby continues: “Rectify was the longest I’ve ever worked on something physically, contractually, imaginatively. And you’re there, chipping away at the scenes… into madness, exhaustion. Never feeling fully satisfied, but always feeling full. Everybody pushing forward every day with such creative determination. Sometimes it felt frustrating and confounding, but the process always came back to absolute honesty.

“Making Rectify never felt like we were making a product to be consumed and then forgotten,” Young adds wistfully.

Of his relentless creative process, McKinnon says that making Rectify reaffirmed that he needed “to let things unfold instead of forcing them, that if a scene doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. You gotta trust your gut.”

“The greatest lesson of Rectify for me was simple: Have faith in Ray, have faith in the show,” says Clemens, who while filming the first two seasons went to church every Sunday to put herself in the mindset of her character.

Young explains that his approach to Daniel hasn’t changed much, season to season. He’s built his character on the idea that Daniel imagines himself a ghost who has returned to haunt his family. And finally, in the show’s last season, the ghost comes to realize that he is not dead anymore. There is the possibility of a life to be lived.

“In the solitude of death row, there is an internalization of imagination that happens,” Young says. “But now Daniel must face the possibility that maybe I wasn’t executed, maybe I did live. He’s probing this world, trying to figure out if he can trust it. Can the ghost survive reentry into the material world?”

In the season premiere, Daniel stumbles upon a local arts colony, coming face to face with a possibility that may be too much for him to bear. Could it be that in art-making, our expression of what is internal, we touch upon something eternal?

“With Daniel gone, his family can no longer behave like people who just reflect him back to him. They have to re-form. Daniel has to re-form,” McKinnon explains. “And now, finally, maybe they can.”

Rectify, both in the making and in the watching, argues that the same possibility exists for all of us. That we can all re-form, that we can all be made more human—rectified, if you will—by choosing to accept grace rather than settling for fear and self-loathing. And in that, yes—as there is for Daniel Holden—there may be a hard-won hope for all of us.

The new season of Rectify premieres Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is Unbecoming, a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.