'Rectify' Creator Discusses Series Finale: "I Didn't Necessarily Want to Explain Everything"

Ray McKinnon discusses the Tawney-Teddy Jr. relationship, Daniel's guilt or innocence and the joys of fiction.
Courtesy of SundanceTV
Aden Young of 'Rectify.'

[Warning: This article contains spoilers for the series finale of Rectify.]

SundanceTV's acclaimed drama Rectify concluded its four-season run on Wednesday night with a finale of uncommon and appropriate grace.

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) continued to face his PTSD but was left with hope for his own future and happiness, perhaps for the first time.

The rest of the family came together over the sale of the tire shop and shared a dinner.

And even if justice wasn't wholly done and answers weren't concretely given in the murder case that set the entire series in motion, it was reopened, and more hope was offered.

If you haven't watched Rectify, none of those spoilers will ruin any part of a show that was about a uniquely paced journey and not a concrete destination or whodunnit revelation. The finale was perfect because even if it included epiphanies and spiritual breakthroughs, it was much more about the well-earned connections between characters and the quiet, ephemeral, emotional beats, as well as the performances of an ensemble headed by Young, Abigail Spencer, Clayne Crawford, J. Smith-Cameron and Bruce McKinnon.

Rectify is the only show to appear on my Top 10 list for each of the past four years, and creator Ray McKinnon got on the phone to discuss his own journey on the show.

In the Q&A, McKinnon explains why it was important to address the murder case without sacrificing all ambiguity, why he was gratified and also scared about the arc of the Tawney-Teddy Jr. relationship, the power of fiction not to wallow in the literal and the importance of Caitlin FitzGerald's Chloe in Daniel's destiny. McKinnon, whose slow, contemplative cadences share a lot with Daniel Holden, also praises the actors for their contributions to the world of Rectify and shares the big lessons he took from this experience.

There's a line in one of the last few episodes: "Destination gives us direction sometimes." How often did you feel that having the destination of a series finale gave you direction, and how often did it give you panic attacks?

(Laughs) I think the latter more than the former. Some of the storylines and some of where we ended up with the characters was a direction that I'd seen very early on, usually in a more dreamy, vague way, but some of the direction that we ended up on really ended up late in the process of the show and in experiencing myself the final season as I sat watching every scene unfold. But I think the expectations of finishing the story or leaving our characters behind as we go on to other things and feeling some of the pressure of that from people who have ownership in the show now — that's everybody from the actors to the producers to the fans and the critics — yes, I would feel that, feel some kind of panic or anxiety. But ultimately, when I just tried to be true and go back to what you always hope to do as an artist, which is to be honest and true to what you've already been creating, and I found those destinations, then I felt really good to just move forward and write it.

I know you've said in the past that you could have left the show basically where we were at the end of the last season, with Daniel leaving town and moving into the halfway house. When you looked at the end, how did you decide you needed a character like Chloe as a general destination or aspiration for Daniel, and what was it about Chloe specifically that made her so important to how you wanted to end?

When it was decided to do another chapter of the story and we were going to explore Nashville, first of all we went to Nashville and did some research. We went to a place called Project Return, which helps ex-offenders find work, and that was very, very inspirational. We also went to an artists' co-op in the town, and I was inspired by that. It seemed like a place that Daniel would be drawn to. As far as Chloe, one of the big things left undone with Daniel's arc is, "Will he really start doing the hard work of healing himself?" The first season, it was all too surreal, to even know if he existed or not. The second season, he dealt with some of the external factors of the town. The third season, it was learning to let go of the people he was going to leave behind and dealing with legal aspects. So when he went to Nashville, it felt like the first time since he'd been freed that he was not being reflected back from others with all their expectations and their judgments toward him and all the weight of the past that they brought when they interacted with him. He was dealing with people with somewhat of a clean slate for him and Chloe, being as important as anybody, who basically reflected back to him without a filter what she saw and what she thought, and she spoke her truth to his present condition. That character, I guess on one side could be abrasive, but the flip coin of that would be a person who wasn't afraid to tell her truth, and part of her truth to him affirmed his inner feelings that he was damaged, but that that was OK, that that would have been normal under those conditions. Then she even went further and helped push him toward his beginning to get better and other complex things.

She helps push him in the direction of the therapy he's finally getting in these closing episodes, and that therapy provides an opening for these monologues and memories that were such a great showcase for Aden. I know it's a big question, but could you reflect a bit on Aden and the role he played in helping Daniel evolve into the character he became over these four years?

You know, you're working originally and writing a pilot and the first few episodes before you see anybody playing the part. I'm working more from my own imagination and from research, and a lot of me is going into Daniel and other characters. Then all these wonderful actors come and animate these characters, and that's the thing with serial storytelling, that parts of them become part of that character, and also somebody like Aden, who's such a gifted, crafted, conscientious actor, you watch him go deeper and deeper into the character and also be able to handle really difficult material that in another's hands could make us all look really bad, particularly me. A challenging three- or four-page monologue, it was challenging for him, but he had the talent and the craft to pull it off. There were times throughout the show that I would start doubting the writing, my writing, and then Aden or Clayne or Abigail or J., they would come in and you'd go, "Oh. So this is what happens when really good people say your words. They don't seem so bad."

This is a show that's always thrived in silence, too. How often were you able to cut swathes of dialogue because Aden or the rest of the cast was able to sell things with reactions or looks?

Sometimes that was the case. Usually that happened before the script, because I'd talk with the writers and then with the actors, and it's like, "Let's find the meaning in between the lines," because we're often not saying what we need or what we're feeling. I think usually that was the process of creating the scenes, both in the writing aspect and then in the rehearsal and finally the performance aspect of, "What's really going on?" Sometimes we'd go, "Yeah, we don't need those lines." Other times they would say those lines, but what they were meaning was something different.

Watching the penultimate episode, the Teddy Jr.-Tawney scenes just crushed me in ways that I never would have believed if you'd told me in season one that we were heading in this direction. Did you always know that what felt like such a toxic relationship in the early going was heading in a direction this redeeming and spiritual?

No, no. Again, with kind of serial storytelling, it's a very collaborative and dynamic relationship between you, the characters and the actors. I'm glad that I didn't have an idea that I was going to stick to, come hell or high water, because what happened was that I kept getting further informed, and so did the writers and the actors as we saw these different scenes continue to manifest and the actors inhabiting those characters continuing to deepen. I was curious to see if a person like Teddy, especially after Daniel's assault on him in season one, that really was a precipitator, and either Teddy was going to have to transform himself or he was going to continue to live in that kind of pain that he was in and become totally unbearable. There were times where we weren't sure which way he was going to go. And he had a breakthrough. Then once he had that breakthrough, it's like, "Will he continue down that path or will he regress?" And I thought, "Well, what would happen if he continued down that path of growth?" And then it affects Tawney and that relationship dynamic. In some ways, Teddy started growing more than Tawney and then Tawney had to [grow], so it was an ongoing, ever-changing relationship that ultimately ended up in that last scene in episode seven, where you kind of have to feel where these characters are. It was really intriguing to me to see if these two people, who have gone through so much and who have grown so much, it's often the case, it's like now they can have a natural, loving relationship, even though their marriage is over. That's what happened, and I love seeing that. I love experiencing both of those characters in that place.

I like how you're describing this as a living, breathing process where you're testing out what you can do with the characters. Did you have any fears as you were getting toward the end about sticking that final dynamic? Because if that reconciliation doesn't work, it could leave such a bad taste.

Always, yes, I'm still worried, yes. It's a long journey to get them to that place, and where it feels disingenuous to all of us as audience members of the story is when it doesn't feel like they have earned that reconciliation, that they've gone through the gauntlet enough to get there. We all tried to set it up in a way that, at the time they got there, it would feel both surprising but also believable. 

And so much of that destination relies on character evolution that's very realistic within the story you're telling, but maybe not as literal growth that people could have in a few months of real time. For you, what have the pleasures been of being able to be figurative about these things, being able to be theatrical in a medium that is usually so literal?

Well said and well thought. It's become such a quote-unquote "literal" world, where every story on the news has some beginning, middle and end, and so much of our storytelling is based on real life that the appreciation and need for true fiction and what fiction can do, metaphorically and symbolically, and for hyper-realism or for the playing out of the unconscious, we as human beings still have a need for that and that kind of storytelling, and I'm gratified that on some level the audience that we have really was attracted to this story and all the different avenues that we went down. Long live fiction!

When it comes to the aspect of the story that's the most literal and concrete, Rectify isn't and wasn't a murder mystery to me, but that was always something that was in the background. As you saw the finish line coming, what was your thought process on exactly how much or how little to close the door on the ambiguity of that side of the story?

It's something we talked about in the writers room, and I felt pretty strongly that we had started a story about a murder and the ramifications of that, and we didn't want to frustrate the audience by not addressing that. At the same time, I didn't necessarily want to explain everything. So I was trying to walk that line, which is paying service to that aspect of this story without it becoming completely, absolutely clear, and that was always the trick.

There's a version of the show that ends with or includes a flashback to what really happened with Daniel, Hannah and the rest. I don't think I would have wanted to see that version of the show. Did anybody suggest that to you, and did that version have any allure for you at all?

(Laughs) Oh, you know. Lots of different avenues get explored in the writers room, and that's part of the reason to have a group-think on different avenues to go down. Part of the reason I was drawn to this story, part of the reason I have been drawn to telling this story, is that in life we don't always get the answers. I think in story, a lot of the time we do. I think that's part of the reason why the idea of story came around, to give our fellow humans perhaps a deeper understanding or some kind of comfort and a closure or a denouement or whatever. That's usually valid, and it's a device of storytelling that's a part of story, but I just always felt that maybe part of this is the mystery that will never be completely solved, just like in life.

In the finale, Amantha has what may be the grand epiphany of the series when she announces, "Nothing will rectify what's happened." Given the title of the show and all, is that a pronouncement that you've always had in your mind or maybe on a chalkboard somewhere?

Certainly to make things right, to rectify something, has been offered as a theme of the show, and I think for me, just going through the journey with these characters and the plot lines of the story, and you see the devastation and the damage that's been wrought because of this singular event for so many people on all sides of the story, that I had that epiphany, that you could not truly rectify, you could not make things right. You just have to somehow figure out how to move beyond it to a point where you can hopefully, at times, find that unbearable lightness of being. I think a lot of our characters will find that.

Why was it important to have that line come from Amantha in particular? She's always been the show's bluntest and most directed character. Why did the realization need to come through her?

I don't know if I thought about that consciously. I've often said that Amantha, I wish I had her courage to be as fierce as she is, so sometimes I use her to speak parts of my truth. She just felt like the right person to speak to that. Now that I'm thinking about it, who's the one who wanted to rectify things more than anyone? Who's the one who thought, "If I get my brother out, if I get him back with my mother, life can be lived happily ever after"? And what she finds is that that's not what happens, because human beings don't act the way you want them to. Then she gets faced with herself and her own life and that was her journey, so I think that epiphany is her saying, "Not only will it not be rectified, but you know what? I can accept that and I can move on and create a life for myself."

As a last and big picture question: What are the takeaways that you have from this Rectify experience regarding your own storytelling instincts and the capacity of the TV medium to hold those stories?

I feel like sometimes all things come together and this alchemy happens, and you go down this path that you're partly driving down and you're partly being drawn down without your knowing it. And that was a big part of the experience of this whole story and the people who were involved with it. That's not something that can be recreated. Every endeavor is going to have its own, hopefully, kind of alchemy. What will I take from it? That it's never easy, and in spite of the fact that we did it one year and a second year and a third year and we did one scene and another scene and another scene, it's a difficult and worthwhile journey, and telling this story leaves no guarantees that another one will be any easier. And that's OK. That's just the way it is.

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