Rectify was an unconventional television show, moving slower than most dramas and at times eschewing a central mystery—Did Daniel Holden (Aden Young) rape and murder Hanna Dean?—that other shows would base their entire runs on. The show, created (and frequently written and directed) by Ray McKinnon, ended its own run on Sundance TV tonight, and viewers are no closer to learning if Daniel is guilty or innocent. In a phone interview prior to the finale’s broadcast, The A.V. Club and McKinnon discussed the pressure of finding an ending, getting to see favorite characters one last time, and the impossibility of pleasing everyone.
The A.V. Club: Is this the ending you always had in mind?
Ray McKinnon: I’m not sure that I ever saw myself doing a television show for four years. This was the longest job I’ve ever had. So, on some levels, it’s hard to imagine being a semi-adult for that long of a creative time. Some of the reasons I was intrigued by both the real-life stories of people who had been exonerated after years of being in prison and some of the fictional ideas that I had early on, yeah—some of those absolutely played out. Certainly not on a specific level, but the more macro level of what I’d hoped for.
Also, in this kind of collaborative art form, I was continually informed and inspired by the people who were around me. Most particularly, the actors. I was on set for almost every scene of the entire series, so I watched and acted and collaborated with all these actors that manifested these characters scene after scene, line after line, season after season. And that can’t help but affect your creative direction of where your characters are going and where the story is going. That’s a convoluted way of saying “yes” and “no.”
AVC: Getting to know everyone who worked on the show so well, how has it been for you to both move on from working with those people—and also to move on from writing these characters?
RM: [Joking.] So happy I never have to see these guys again.
It definitely feels like it’s time. And whether it feels like it’s time because it is time and because if you’re leading toward the end of something then your mind starts planning the end of something, and so it feels right… I think we were very fortunate in knowing that there was going to be an ending, but also you had that pressure in knowing there was going to be an ending. You have people going, “What are you going to do with the ending?” So, you know, I’m glad it’s over, but the people who worked on the show—starting with the actors first and foremost, who will always be in my heart—and I’m sure I will always see them as long as I’m above ground. And I will always love them. It was a great collaboration, these characters in this story. And I loved them just because you can’t hang around people for that long and not feel affection for them. Especially this group.
AVC: In the last couple of episodes there are a lot of apologies given. There’s a lot of people telling one another, “I’m sorry.” Are those the most important words people on Rectify can say to one another?
RM: Yeah, I don’t know if I’m aware that that’s what is happening. Definitely different people are coming to terms with their lives, and coming to some kind of terms with one’s life—unless you’re on Walden’s pond by yourself—one has to deal with people and human interactions. Part of this season was about unencumbering the past. And I think one way to unencumber oneself from the past is having a heart-to-heart with people who are encumbering you, whether they are aware of that encumbrance or not. I’m sure that had to come out in some form or another—if it’s not an apology or an understanding.
AVC: In Janet and Amantha’s conversation at the beginning of the episode, Janet mentions to Amantha that she always expected her daughter to leave Paulie—and Janet wishes she could have left as well. Do you think they would feel the same way about Paulie if the whole town hadn’t turned on them in the wake of Daniel’s trial?
RM: Well, I’m sure it would have changed greatly how they experienced that world and how they feel about it now. So, yes, most definitely it would have been different. I think some of what they experienced was through their own warped lenses, and kindnesses were diminished and slights were magnified and that’s also a part of our nature, unfortunately. I think a lot of how Amantha was able to withstand the slings and arrows of the town was to put up a shield around her against everyone. I think she realized that shield, in some ways, pushed away people who weren’t against her. And she had to come to a reckoning of that.
AVC: Last week’s episodes ran about 80 minutes with commercials, and the finale went for 90. As you were wrapping things up, did you realize you needed a little more time? Or is that something that Sundance came to you and said, “If you need more time, you can take it with these episodes”?
RM: No, that version didn’t happen. [Laughs.] As I was in Georgia shooting, we were filming and I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do. And I was being torn by these characters and people were saying, “I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do for the ending,” and I was feeling all that pressure and then I just tried to be honest and true to the way I approached it. And once I figured out the final recipe and moved forward with that, I realized that to really give these four-year arcs their due—I don’t know how others would feel, but for me, we had to have the time to do that. And that was something that I went to Sundance and explained to them. And they graciously granted that. And I am so glad they did because these characters deserved that.
AVC: What made you want to include the story about the tire store closing as part of the end of the series?
RM: Well, again, on the macro level of unencumbering, one of the weights around the necks of some of the characters—it was also on some levels a security blanket—was the tire store. Janet and Teddy specifically. And also I’m interested in the idea that there are times in our lives when outside forces can affect your life without you affecting those forces, and the idea that someone can come in and make an offer for your store and challenge you with having to think about that, think outside the box that you’ve been living with—it’s a great plotline and a great device to explore the human condition.
AVC: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think season four contains any flashbacks to Daniel’s time in prison until the finale. Was there any particular reason you wanted to hold those flashbacks until the finale?
RM: It felt like after Kerwin was executed, and we brought him back in the beginning of the second season, and then we had Daniel dealing with the aftermath of Kerwin’s absence through that in season two, I never felt the desire to go back to that world once he started moving deeper and deeper into this world [outside of prison]. We discussed, perhaps, coming back because I know lots of people loved Kerwin—and so do I—but it really wasn’t until I was writing episode eight and we were two weeks away from shooting that I was like, “You know what. I want to see Kerwin one more time before I leave these people and so that’s what I’m gonna do. And somebody is going to pay for that! Life is good today!” But that was the impetus for that and it was great to have him re-manifest in our story and have Johnny Ray Gill come back and visit us one more time. And that’s how that decision was made.
AVC: In addition to that, you got to have a larger-scale reunion with that montage at the end of the episode. There are so many characters and so many people we’ve known from Paulie who we get to see one more time.
RM: Yes, yes. And on one level, for some time, I wanted to see what Roland Foulkes would be up to. So certainly, I thought about him for a while. But then the other characters that showed up, it was that kind of glue of that town, of that village, of reconnecting to these people and seeing once again how much the ramifications of that fateful night and what happened after that fateful night affects so many different people in a community.
AVC: Are you curious at all about what happens next to these characters? Would you want to write about the new investigation into Hanna’s death and how that affects the Holdens and the Talbots and the Deans?
RM: You know, I’m sure if I sat thinking about it for a long time, I would become interested in it and I’d want to know. But I feel like it’s been a four-year obsession and partly because it’s had to be an obsession for it to be something that was worth making in the end. I need to be quiet for a little bit and sit in the schoolroom as opposed to being on the soapbox. I think I’ve explored that. I could continue to explore this just like you’d push that beautiful rock up the hill, but I think maybe I should just be quiet for a while.
AVC: It was evident early on that Rectify was never going to confirm the identity of Hanna’s killer, nor would it offer a definitive answer to the question of Daniel’s guilt or innocence. But there will still be people who watch this finale and come away frustrated that they didn’t get an answer. What would you say to people who feel this way?
RM: Well, I looked into an algorithm that could please everyone and leave everyone walking away happy and the digits were so long—it was such a huge algorithm that I don’t think it’s been developed yet.
At the end of the day, I think I wasn’t this disingenuous to what I’d set up and there is a statistic that I read in the last few months—and I know statistics are dangerous, but this one struck me—that in some cities there are up to 50 percent of murders that go unsolved. That’s an extraordinary number. And it also makes you think of all the real-life families that are dealing with the idea that they will never know what happened to their child or who did it. They might know what happened, but not who did it, and that happens all the time. And I think in some ways, I wanted to reflect that more than the expectation of storytelling where there’s kind of definitive closure. And that is a reason we tell stories too, and that at times you get more closure and understanding that often times relaxes us. But what can you say? You can’t please everyone. You’ve got to please yourself, I guess.