Note: This interview with Aden Young about the season-two finale of Rectify (obviously) contains show spoilers up through the season-two finale, which aired last night.
Was Daniel’s confession real? Rectify star Aden Young, who plays the former Death Row inmate, isn’t sure. In last night’s second-season finale, with his freedom hanging in the balance, Daniel pushed back hard on allegations that he raped and murdered his girlfriend 20 years ago before ultimately saying he did it. Vulture talked to Young about whether even Daniel knows what happened, and why he believes Daniel might still be guilty.
It seems like Daniel finally remembers what happened the night Hanna died. How long have you known or suspected that he did not, in fact, kill her?
Well, who says that he didn’t? [Laughs]
That was my hopeful reading.
No, Daniel’s in a predicament. His family’s falling apart because of his reemergence into it. In so many ways, he’s being pulled toward finding another way for them to be free of him. He feels, in some ways naively, that the best thing to do is just to take the deal and move on. And how he tries to word what he sets out to say can become something else. I want viewers to at least ask more questions with regards to Daniel’s guilt or innocence — you at least get the feeling that he’s not guilty of any sexual wrongdoing, but that there might still very well be the possibility that he’s guilty of the crime of murder. I don’t know. I mean, I hope that people will be able to make up their own minds because I certainly can’t make it up for them.
Have you always been playing him as someone who’s unsure of his guilt or innocence?
Once again, it’s a difficult question to really answer. I’ve looked at Daniel as a character who emerged from a block of ice that he lived in for so long, and he learned particular languages — ironically, a language of survival in [prison] that doesn’t suit him very well for the world outside. And in that change of behavior you might bear witness to the idea that this man is capable of being a monster. At the same time it does allow for the possibility that he went into the ice box because he was a monster — I feel that that’s a more intriguing avenue to approach Daniel from because it just happened that way. It was a strange experiment. When [series creator] Ray McKinnon and I began, I asked if he was going to tell me if Daniel’s guilty and he said, “Do you want to know if Daniel’s guilty?” That became a philosophical question that we were able to translate in some way what his experiences were, based on what we knew of him, as opposed to what we were going to stamp on him in terms of his guilt or innocence. So, it became a more intriguing way of looking forward at the character, as opposed to taking what could’ve been a night of pure madness and making that a character.
Do you think by the end, he’s come to any of his own conclusions about what happened that night? Do you think that at least in his own mind he knows what happened?
I think that Daniel’s someone who lives very much in the now. In order to escape the past he’s got to forget the anxiety of the future and deal with what’s happening right in front of him. At that moment, perhaps there’s some clarity to some of the fog that descended that night and has remained there for 20 years. But I think there’s also a reality, once again, of “freedom is in front of you.”
Do you think Daniel went into the plea deal planning to confront the senator, or was that something that happened in the moment?
Well, I haven’t seen the finale, so I don’t know what the cut is. But Ray and I worked very hard on it in its preparation and its writing to assure an echo of what occurred 20 years ago had to be in that room. This boy who’s now a man was experiencing something that he was unable to process during the trial, and he didn’t have the access to that trauma that was right in front of him with the photos and the senator for so long. And now as a man he’s being anchored back to that past. So that echo needed to be there.
The senator doesn’t budge.
I think Daniel in some ways expects that. He’s had to deal with this man before. He realizes what he’s up against, and he realizes that things are going to be leveled at him that aren’t going to be coming from any moral ground. Whether he’s capable of holding his own ground during that confrontation is another thing because of the trauma that it elicits from him — to be able to look at Hannah’s body again, but also to process the confusion that he’s lived with for the last two weeks since returning from the dead, and quite literally this time, and being confused about what occurred that evening. The clarity that one finds in isolation is very different from the clarity that you seek when the information is given to you, especially if you’re experiencing any sort of intoxication like [laughs] Daniel has been. He’s desperately trying [to find] a way to excuse for his behavior, not only 20 years ago but in the two weeks prior.
At the end, when he eventually does confess, it feels like he’s conceding. He’s giving up and telling the senator what he wants to hear. I know you’re saying it could be a real confession, and you want viewers to decide to allow for both possibilities. Do you feel like you played it both ways? How did you read it the first time in the script?
Strangely enough, I played it two ways. I pulled Ray and all the directors aside and I said, “Look, we put so much into this story. Let me just have a run at it.” It was a big ask. It’s a nine-minute scene, and we shot countless takes of it. It was one of the longest days of my career, a harrowing day. I think if anyone bought shares in Johnnie Walker that day, they were doing all right. And so I just tried one, and I took it in a different direction where Daniel was essentially giving them what they wanted to know so that he would be scot free of it all. And the manipulation and the surety that came over Daniel that I felt at the end, that I fooled them all, was just so demonic almost that it really scared me. Ray and Steve came up to me and said, “Sheesh, I don’t know if we go that way.”
This season, he’s been trying to figure out what happened. Taking mushrooms, listening to his original confession, choking the pillow.
I can imagine that it might be very different for somebody to experience that tragedy of what occurred in that solitude, but when he sees that that night had a ricochet effect, not just in his family but in the town, in the way that they view their security and the way they view him as a threat to it, and the possibility that vacating his sentence is a moral disaster and a safety disaster. Daniel is wanting to move forward with his life regardless of what has happened in the past. And the only way to move forward is to find what it was that evening that made everyone in this town such a different person.
Why do you think Daniel doesn’t more aggressively try to position George and Trey as potential suspects? They seem plenty guilty to me!
Daniel’s come back in his freedom and he has to play chess. He has to move forward. He understands the weaponry that these people have who want him gone. And every move he makes is a chess move. So don’t think that he’s not opening up because he doesn’t think about it. That’s not the right move; in order to move the rook into the right position, he needs to make this move first.
There are several cliff-hangers in the final moments of the finale. It looks like Ted wants to press charges after all.
I think that’s very much the indication. Ted is finally going to admit what happened to him and hopefully he doesn’t embellish it, which he very well could do. And if that’s the case, then Daniel’s got another future in front of him altogether. It may be that those chess moves didn’t work.
Jared also appears pretty shaken that Daniel has agreed to the plea deal, and winds up visiting Hanna’s house.
I think he’s consumed by the idea that this girl that Daniel may or may not have killed was his age. That’s a tragedy, and it makes him question what is good and what is bad in people and so that’s why Jared’s story is so important to tell in the story of the family. It is very much the first taste of the world away from the cushioned couch, so to speak.
The episode begins with Daniel and Tawney waking up together. Maybe there was an opportunity there for them to leave together, but he tells her about the incident with Ted. Is he just that selfless?
I think he understands that in order to take control of one’s destiny, you have to admit to the scenes of the past. He might not be a godly person but he certainly understands the battle that morality plays in everybody. And he sees that Tawny’s future has been written by an event that he very much perpetrated. And perhaps in the confession of that he will allow her to review what has occurred between the two of them, them being Tawny and Teddy Jr., as something that perhaps would not have occurred if Daniel hadn’t done what he’d done. He knows that she can’t just go off into her own life without the truth. So he let her know that. Because he’s very much guilty of emasculating Teddy.
The show was just renewed for a third season. Did you and Ray count on getting picked up, or did either of you think last night’s episode could have served as the series finale?
I’m very grateful that they’ve picked it up and we’re going to go again. But in what you’re given, you try to give life to that moment onscreen and you hope that that will be as fulfilling as possible. And it might keep people wanting more or it might get people to ask questions of themselves and their own ethics and their own realities. You’re just trying to develop what’s in front of you. Shooting the finale, that was all I could think about. And I don’t know what next season will have in store, but I certainly know that Ray has some plans.