“Rectify” ends its finely wrought third season Thursday, and it’s probably not wise for fans to expect another three seasons of the Sundance TV drama.
“I think we’re getting near the end” of the story of former death row prisoner Daniel Holden, creator Ray McKinnon said in a recent interview.
Theoretically, the award-winning “Rectify” could go on forever: At its core, it is a contemplative and compassionate examination of the nature of wrongdoing, connection, redemption and atonement. Given that “Rectify” does such a fine job of reflecting and exploring the complexity of human nature via distinctive characters that have only grown more compelling over the course of three seasons, the show could simply continue to observe those lives indefinitely. It’s not as though the stories McKinnon is telling are losing their flavor -- quite the opposite.
But “Rectify” is artisanal TV at its finest: McKinnon obsesses over every detail of the show, from the writing to the production to the editing. One of the many astonishing things about the show is that, despite that ferocious attention to detail, the end result does not feel strained in the least. “Rectify” is spontaneous, supple and spare; it’s a drama that truly breathes and is willing to spend time simply watching people look at their surroundings and contemplate their next moves.
Thanks to McKinnon’s distinctive and unified vision, “Rectify” is able to incorporate bleak, sly humor with casually incisive conversations and emotionally intelligent characterization even as it explores tough emotional terrain. The Holden family and the small town of Paulie, Georgia, have been deeply destabilized by the release of Daniel, who’d been convicted of the murder of a young woman, and each quietly momentous reverberation builds logically on top of the last one.
Lately I’ve begun to think of Daniel as both an unexploded bomb in the middle of a room and a bomb that has actually gone off and rained down destruction. His family is, of course, glad he’s no longer in jail, but everyone steps gingerly around him, even as they try to fix the damage that has already been done. Daniel’s conviction broke his family members in fundamental ways, and his incarceration also introduced or nurtured a darkness within him, and yet there’s nothing nihilistic about this drama, which is shot through with bittersweet optimism. Through Aden Young’s performance, the viewer is always aware of the sense of wonder within Daniel, and thanks to the extraordinary work of every member of the cast, it's easy to understand every character's yearning for a better, more authentic life. “Rectify” regards that yearning as an accomplishment in its own right.
Daniel doesn’t want to inflict any further damage on those around him, but his presence disturbs his small universe more than his absence ever did, hence his understanding of a legally mandated banishment from Paulie. But everyone in "Rectify" feels out of place: His sister would like to fly under the radar in Paulie, but her quest to save Daniel has marked her in ways she didn’t anticipate and she’s struggling to find her place in the world. Daniel’s step-brother Teddy was introduced in Season 1 as a confident, superficial good ol’ boy, but Season 3 revealed that the damage inflicted on him by Daniel, the scars from his past and the damage he’s caused in his marriage are all inextricably linked in ways he was not prepared to acknowledge.
Daniel and those around him all try very hard not to hurt each other, but doing so is almost inevitable given their circumstances and the unpredictability of life. The measured sympathy “Rectify” brings to each conflict and conversation makes even the smallest moments resonate with meaning, which is one reason the show ended up on my Top 10 list two years in a row.
I spoke to McKinnon about the roots of the show, which has already been renewed for a fourth season, and why it might end sooner rather than later.
“Rectify” is so good at creating a mood or atmosphere that allows the viewer to enter into the emotional state of the characters. As the creator and writer, what do you think are the factors that allow those moments to arise?
Fear. “Is this going to work?” I’m interested in the human condition. I’m interested in what my purpose is on the planet. I don’t fully understand what motivates me or what I’m guided by, but this story started coming to me a decade ago, and it wouldn’t let go. Eventually I wrote it and I wasn’t sure I could write it. I truly wasn’t sure, and I didn’t know what it would be. But it came forth and it was an amazing experience unto itself, regardless of whether anything had ever happened to it. It was a very special experience.
And then to have others read it and say, “It’s not as bad as some of the other crap you’ve written” -- in a much more tactful way, usually -- I felt like that I was on to something. Then I kind of let it go for a lot of reasons. Then it came back with an order for six episodes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. I knew it would require a side of me that would have to come out and be extroverted and try to galvanize a lot of disparate people and have a unified vision. I knew that’s very difficult to do in any circumstance.
It’s a long-winded way of saying, you have to listen to your heart and your gut and your art brain and try to make decisions all along the way that somehow create an alchemy that allows that to happen. Some of that is a lot of decisions and a lot of craft and work, and some of it is an alchemy that happens when you find these different people, with Aden at the top, to play these characters. So there’s a little pixie dust on it. But it’s continuing to say, “Are we reflecting back truthfully human behavior and the human condition through this fictional lens?”
Your show allows these spaces to hang between people. It’s not afraid of those silent moments that contain multitudes. Was it something you had to really work at — to let it breathe like that? Or was that the approach from the start?
You’re always fighting convention. For me, I’m older. If this would have happened 20 years ago, I don’t think I could have done this. It came at a time in my life when I wanted to listen to my own truth and I wasn’t as swayed by fear of rejection or the power of the machine or whatever. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do it, and that gives you some freedom. The thing I didn’t want to do was regret being truthful to myself. So I continue to try to listen to that part of me that goes, “This doesn’t feel right. Why?” That’s constantly what we’re doing.
And it’s the right time in the life of television for this to happen. It was the right network for this to happen. So I wanted to do six episodes and not regret it; I didn’t know what would happen after that, and that’s how I approached it. I was really deeply gratified and surprised that it resonated the way it did with people. However, you know, if I have a hunger for something, I can’t be the only one.
One of the most distinctive things about the show is that it’s very much of the South and portrays Southerners in a non-caricatured way. And that’s one of the great things about TV right now -- getting to see so many different places and worlds and people.
Right. I’ve seen so many stories set in Great Britain where I felt like I was being allowed into a world and culture that I wasn’t privy to before. We’re not so self-absorbed that we only want to see our particular culture.
I’m bored with me and what I already know.
Absolutely. I want an escape, and there are different kinds of escapes, and they don’t always have to be fluffy. I mean, “Mad Men” was a great escape for me. I just completely got lost in that world when I watched that show.
There have been a lot of shows that have explored ideas about masculinity and what is expected of men -- or what they think is expected of them -- but I think "Rectify" has been able to get at those ideas in some new and interesting ways. For instance, at first it was easy to classify Teddy as a certain kind of guy, this guy with almost too much bravado and confidence. But the show has been brilliant at dissecting the emotional costs that he and other men have paid as they’ve tried to live up to what the culture expects of them versus what they actually need and want. Was that an idea you wanted to explore from the beginning?
I don’t think I’ve analytically or articulately thought about masculinity among these characters in that way. It was intellectual, but it was also intuitive. I knew for Teddy, I always felt like, if the show went on, we were going to subvert your expectations of that archetype. With all the characters -- they’re all archetypes, but they’re also complicated human beings. They’re paradoxical; they do things both cowardly and heroic. And that’s Teddy.
It’s been really interesting to explore a character like that, and to have an actor like Clayne [Crawford], who you knew could handle whatever you gave him. He’s a very courageous actor. All of these actors, they don’t get out of these episodes unscathed. Their brain stem doesn’t know that they’re not in pain. It’s a tough journey for them. Aden will come in some days really happy, because, who wouldn’t want to be happy? And I’m saying, “Buddy, you really got to dig deep.”
Is it hard to think of the next move for Daniel? What should be next for his arc?
Yeah, it’s a challenge. Every scene is a challenge. You can go watch a scene play out and think, “They’re saying the words, but that is not the scene that it needs to be, and I’m not sure what that scene needs to be, but we haven’t found it yet.” Every day is a struggle to do this show. And I don’t have experience in any other show, but I’m not satisfied at all.
You’re not satisfied with what you’ve created thus far?
There are moments maybe that I’m like, “That’s almost exactly what I’d thought about.”
What are some of those?
The Teddy monologue at the end of the second episode of this season. The only thing in the plan was that Teddy was going to drive over to where Tawney was, and he was going to watch her. I hadn’t planned what that was going to be, but this story came forth in my imagination. Teddy started telling it and it was so exciting to start writing the story. That wasn’t even going to be the end of the episode, but when I finished it, it felt like the end of the episode.
I was so excited about it, I called Clayne and read it to him over the phone. He always takes my calls and he always claims he loves me reading scenes to him. We shot it and worked on it and worked on it and worked on it in the editing room, and it wasn’t there yet. We kept working on it, and then it came forth, and I was very pleased.
That was a great, great scene. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve seen TV treat sexual coercion or sexual violence in an irresponsible or unrealistic or unhelpful way. But I don’t think in that scene, Teddy lets himself off the hook at all. He’s thinking about all the mistakes he made with Tawney, and with the woman in that story. But to me that speech was not about self-pity -- he had reached a place where he could understand more fully how his actions affected other people. It was really powerful.
What happened to Teddy in the first season when Daniel assaulted him -- in some ways, that’s the beginning or a pivotal point for Teddy’s pain quotient going up. The higher that pain quotient went up, the more other painful parts of his life started coming forth. And the thing about grief is, Teddy is grieving the breakup of his marriage or what he thought of will be the breakup of his marriage, and with that grief comes other grief. The grief of the loss of his mother. The grief of what happened on that date that night. In some ways, all of the things that are painful for him are starting to come up. But it gives him hope, and it gives me hope, that he can grow and become a better version of who he is.
It was so heartbreaking when Janet acknowledged that she had not really been there for Teddy all these years, in some fundamental way.
They had a shadow relationship. It was, “I’ll be your pretend mother and you’ll be my pretend son, and we won’t ruffle each other’s feathers.” That was their relationship. I don’t know if it will happen, but now they have an opportunity to go deeper than that. But first they had to get to this point of fracture.
It’s a tough life these people have.
It makes me happy when these people get sad. I don’t know why [laughs]. We all need a reflection at times of our human condition, and part of our human condition is sadness at the temporary nature of being on the planet, and loss and all of the things we go through. Do we want to see that all the time? No. But I have a need to have that reflected back to me by someone else, through their music or their books or their movies. I felt like, hopefully [others] had that same need.
I’m intrigued by the fact that so many scenes take place in doorways, or framed against doorways.
We frame some aspect of the human condition in stories. There is a frame for stories. Taking that further, this is part of why we have the wrongful convictions -- people need something with a beginning, a middle and an end. A narrative, closure, a framing of it. And that’s not the way life always works. When you think of rectangles and squares, those are mostly man-made devices, whereas nature is more round and circular. So that’s a part of what we do. Also framing helps further create the idea that there are three dimensions to what we’re seeing.
So much of “Rectify” is about observing human behavior and the struggles of these complicated, imperfect people, and theoretically, that kind of study of human nature could go on forever. But you’ve gotten a fourth season. Do you think it goes far beyond that?
I’ve said this before, I think two seasons would be perfect.
Two more seasons?
No, just [the first] two seasons. I think I should have quit then. [laughs] No, I think we’re getting near the end, from a story standpoint, and from me not wanting to be so absorbed. Both of those reasons. Certainly, you would think in an existential drama that these characters, the day after we wrap, that they’re going to continue to live their lives, and that’s the nature of it. I’m sure I will miss them greatly.
Is there an ideal length for “Rectify” seasons? Will you stick with six episodes as opposed to the 10 of Season 2?
I don’t know. I haven’t talked to anyone about that yet. I just know how demanding it is for me. I know how this sounds to someone who makes 22 episodes, but for me, 10 was just too much, because of the way I make this show. I’m a part of everything, all the time. With six episodes, it’s like making three movies in a year. That’s the way I approach it.
One of the ideas I think about when I think about “Rectify” is the idea that maybe we can never atone for the wrongs we’ve done, but we can learn and we can empathize. Does that sounds right to you?
That is certainly -- again, back to the human condition. That’s a part of the human condition. That is a part of what separates us from the rest of the animal planet. Yes, I think we can atone to some degree. These words that are part of almost all religious teachings -- a lot of wise people thought about them. Yes, it’s possible to, if not atone, give back more than we take. Do better from here forward. Try to do better.
This conversation has been edited and slightly condensed.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Teddy is Daniel's brother-in-law. That was incorrect; Teddy is his step-brother.
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