'Rectify' Showrunner Ray McKinnon on Daniel's Confession, Solving Murders and Life's Prisons

Rectify Still - H 2015
Curtis Baker/SundanceTV

Rectify Still - H 2015

"Obviously, I'm very pleased. It beats cleaning carpets."

That’s not the answer one expects when asking a showrunner about getting picked up for another season. But then again, not every showrunner is Ray McKinnon and not every series is Rectify.

From the mind of the Georgia-born actor (Sons of Anarchy, Deadwood) turned filmmaker turned showrunner, the slow-burning Southern Gothic drama centers on Daniel (Aden Young), a man freed from death row after 19 years, only to find life on the outside perhaps even more difficult.

Although the acclaimed series has never found a large audience, it has amassed a fiercely loyal fan base, which is why SundanceTV committed to a fourth season a day before the season three premiere. During a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, McKinnon sounded as humble and surprised ("It's all so strange…") as he did grateful for the acclaim his show is still receiving. THR also spoke with McKinnon about Daniel's admission, his banishment from Paulie and why the show may never resolve the murder.

When you created this show, did you envision making it this far?

No. I was just really curious about this story and it had been in my head and belly for some time, and I just wanted to see if I could write the initial episode. Everything that has happened beyond that is surreal. The first time that the initial offer [a six episode first season] was made, I couldn't quiet grasp the ramifications of that. You know, I guess I'm still shocked that I’m doing what's called a television show.

Rectify is such a challenging show. How do you sell a slow moving, somber series to a network?

When I first thought of the story, I knew it couldn't be a movie. It needed to be longer. I didn't think there was a station or a network that would do it, so that's one of the reasons that I never wrote it. It wasn't until Mad Men showed up that I thought, well, maybe there is a place for this. There were similarities in taste and tone. It is what it is, and I wasn't interested in trying to make it something different. But usually if a person has a hunger or desire to tell a story, that also means that they have a desire to see a story like that. You have to think that you’re not the only person in the world that is thinking that way, and if you are, then you’re really in a lot of trouble. So other people were attracted to it and had a hunger for this kind of storytelling, and it’s certainly not a lot of people, but I’m gratified for the ones that do have hunger for it. 

On to season three: During the premiere, we find out that again Daniel is a convicted murderer, by his own admission. How does that change the dynamic of the show for this season?

When we first began the story, every character projected their perceptions and their feelings and their hopes and their dreams, you know, all that’s positive and negative of their own psyches, onto Daniel. Amantha, in particular, is a distilled taste of that because she projected this hero-martyr older brother -- that once he got out all will be right with the world. And it's really gone wrong for her, causing a lot of hurt. She has to find out who she is, as opposed to living through the hopes of another person or through another person who was more of a projection then who he really was. So, this confession affects everyone, including Daniel. In some ways, it really allows all of them to move forward from where they have been, in a stasis, because he wasn't convicted and they weren't sure if he was going to be retried again and now, in some ways, it's over.

On some level you've created a show about a man who gets out of prison and simply enters another. And in a lot of ways that prison sort of extends to almost every character on the show, people who are stuck and, as you said, are waiting for things to happen.

Well, I think we all on the planet Earth put ourselves in boxes and put fences around ourselves or prisons or whatever the metaphor is. And some of that, society does that to us. Our family does it to us. And we do it to ourselves. I think we can all identify with that through these characters. To watch them, through small ways and great, break out of that and to shed that skin or that prison or box or whatever, it is something we all can identify with and understand. Most of the time it's very hard and we don’t break out of those chains, or prison, without going through a lot of pain first and all the characters, at various times of their journey, definitely feel the pain. 

Speaking again of being trapped, let's talk how doors and windows are used in Rectify. I can't think of another show that, visually, so tightly locks in its characters. For example, in this season’s premiere, look at how you re-introduce Daniel: He enters the front door of his house and stops and there's a cut to a long shot. Camera is now across the house, two rooms away. He is now framed by both the hallway arch and the front door behind him, and he’s like just a little spec, just a trapped insect. That's something you do all the time, with so many of the characters. Can you talk a bit about the visual strategy?

Well, we talked from season one onwards about frames within frames. We frame pictures and paintings and we frame stories and framing is the rectangular, the square, the sharp lines. 90 degree angles are human made and nature deals more with circles, so that’s interesting. We like the metaphor of being enclosed. The frame, in the most radical sense, is the frame inside the death row. So, hopefully, there are a lot of levels which it is working on and we continue with ways to do that.

Another interesting frame you created this season is a countdown clock. Daniel has 30 days until his banishment from Paulie. So, is this whole season set in Paulie or are we going to venture out?

I can't tell you that! 

Well, talk about the idea of the 30 days. It does give him more time in Paulie…

Well, it was interesting in the writer's room and the corners we painted ourselves in at the end of season two. Does he basically comply with all of the terms of the plea deal? Do we snatch him back and keep him in Paulie, or does he go and the plea deal get rescinded or does it go forward? So we decided early on that we would find out that the plea deal went through in the first literal minute of the show. … Now that's what's going to happen, but will something snatch him back? I don't know.

Last question: What is the most interesting thing to you - the mystery of the murder or the effect on the people of this town?

I think some people would say that I'm not even concerned about the mystery of the murder at all. (Laughs). ... The tension is whether we will ever find out what truly happened. Hopefully, it's not frustrating the audience being genuine with that, because that’s what happens in real life. Think about The Thin Blue Line, a wonderful documentary. You never resolve the murder of that person and maybe Rectify won’t either.  But how people will react to that tension and the belief systems based upon that horrible act and whether those belief systems can change regarding whether Daniel did it or not is the most intriguing aspect to me.

Rectify airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.