Ray McKinnon on the End of Rectify: ‘There Is No Definitive Interpretation’

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Spoilers ahead for the series finale of Rectify.

After four seasons on Sundance Channel, Rectify aired its series finale Wednesday night, giving viewers some sense of closure as to whether or not Daniel “did it.” But it was never really about that. Show creator Ray McKinnon recently joined the Vulture TV Podcast to talk about the various pressures he felt bringing the show to an end. Listen to the conversation on the December 20 episode of the podcast, and read an edited transcript below.

A big question on the show that audiences wanted to know was “Did he do it?” We’ve talked about this before in a previous interview, and I think we’re both in agreement that that’s not the primary area of interest for the show. But you did kind of make an attempt to answer that in the finale.  
I did. I made an attempt to answer that. What’s your interpretation of what you saw in that episode?

Here’s what I got: I felt like it’s never concrete but it is suggested that he didn’t do it. Would you agree that that’s an accurate representation?
Well, it certainly seemed, from the version that I saw, which I think was the final version, that, yeah, that would be the interpretation I would get out of it. But as in life, there are some things we shall never know and there’s still great mystery in life. Sometimes that mystery doesn’t have to be resolved. I feel like the show is what it is and it left some things maybe not totally clear in different people’s subjective interpretations of the meaning. I couldn’t argue against that. I don’t know that me explaining what I mean at the time when I wrote it versus how I feel about it now versus how I’ll feel about it ten years is … you know, there’s no definitive interpretation. And I think in some ways that even includes mine.

I must say that I really am very, very grateful that you stuck to your guns on this point. My feeling was I felt like you maybe gave the audience a little bit more in that direction than perhaps you had originally intended to, but at no point did you spell anything out, and you never allowed the show to become about that. And I was afraid that you would.  
Doing a serial story, you begin to accumulate both collaborators and people who have some ownership in the story, and that’s everybody from the actors to the writers to the audience to the critics. You start feeling a kind of pressure and an expectation of different people, and that’s not invalid and that’s something that I didn’t close off my mind and my ears to. However, at the end of the day, as I’m in that room by myself with that computer and the key strokes, I have to ultimately be true to what is going on in my head and my gut, and some of those things that, because of the collaborative nature of the story and because what I was being given back by particularly the actors — it evolved. The story evolved. The show evolved. As I believe it should. Because you can sometimes stick to your guns and the guns are not aiming in the right direction. So I certainly felt pressure with the last episode to … there were lots of expectations floating around and I could hear them, and I felt that, but ultimately I just had to go somewhere and be quiet and try to be true. And then once I realized that and I found what I felt was true for the final episode it was … well, I wouldn’t say it was effortless, but I never looked back.

As you headed into the final stretch of episodes, it seemed to me that the big question was not where we would get an answer about whether Daniel was guilty of the crimes that he went to prison for, but rather, what would become of these characters as a result of the fallout of his being released from prison? And Daniel, of course, being at the center of it, there’s this question of: How does a guy who has gone for nearly two decades with no freedom adjust to having it? But also the other characters as well — maybe redemption isn’t the right word, but it seemed like there was more hope and more light in this last season than there had been at any point leading up. 
I haven’t thought of it necessarily in those terms. I didn’t think of this story and this last season as one of redemption as much as I thought of it for everybody, including Daniel, as moving beyond some traumatic event or beyond some life-changing experience. They have to figure out a way to come to terms with it, to unburden themselves of the weight of it, and that weight was represented in many different ways. In Janet specifically, she kept everything from her past because she couldn’t let go of the past. The metaphor of her cleaning out the attic and the garage were, you know, part of her sometimes difficult unburdening.

That was a powerful scene.
Yeah, yeah. I think we can all identify with it to some degree. How we’re attached to things and how those things have meaning because of who gave them to us or how they were, what experience we had when we were around them. Jared was a great tool for his mother because he didn’t have the kind of baggage that the rest of the family had, and was able to help give her strength and guide her to her unburdening.

But back to your question on the redemption, or perhaps the optimism, of this season. As I got deeper into the characters and into the show and to the philosophy of life, even though we all know, or most of us do, undeniably that we’re going to die, we’re going to cease to exist in this realm — we continue to live in this realm with some optimism and that’s part of our human nature. Most every character, and certainly Daniel first and foremost, was able to tap into something that he hasn’t felt in a long time, and that would certainly be optimism.

You’ve been a writer for a long time, but have you ever spent an uninterrupted stretch of this length living inside the world of the same characters?
Oh, no. This is the longest job I’ve held in my life. I had to be a semi-adult some of the time, I had to show up places daily and pretend to be a figure of authority or let them know that I was as unqualified as anybody. But yes, it definitely was the longest, and that kind of chronic immersion certainly forced me to have a different kind of endurance and patience that I probably don’t have in other work experiences.

I was really struck by — this has always been true of the show, but particularly this season — the monologues. And the long scenes of dialogue where one person is talking and the other person is mainly listening, which I almost feel are stealth monologues. You really went deep with that. Particularly with Aden Young who has consistently given what I thought were very difficult extended soliloquies, and I almost felt like I was watching a show within a show when he was speaking about his experience and his memories.
That’s very astute. A lot of my writing is not necessarily analytical — it feels more visceral and intuitive. But certainly one becomes informed over time of what actors can handle, what material, and for some actors that would have been too much for them. Aden’s an extraordinary actor, both in his ability to tap into emotion and his technique and his work ethic. There was never a time that I gave him more than his talent and craft could handle. That’s a very fortunate thing to have when you’re working in a long form like this. And many of the other actors — almost all of the were in that realm as well. But I’ve worked as an actor on a couple of television shows, and the writers do write to the actor’s abilities sometimes.

The whole subplot with Daniel and Chloe, particularly in the beginning, seemed an instance of the show coming to terms with what it was doing as a show. Here’s a guy who is admiring artists and he’s being drawn to artists and he’s discovering the power of self-expression.  
You know, you think about Daniel Holden as an 18-year-old and you think what he might have become had this traumatic event not happened and happened to him. And you feel like he would have been, and still is, on some level, a seeker, and that’s partly what artists are, they’re seekers. They’re continuing to try to explore their own existence and express themselves through their art forms. Its no wonder that appealed to Daniel. But it also challenged Daniel because any time he would feel some kind of possibilities of the future, he would also feel the pain of the past, and that was his conundrum. So he chose not to feel or hope for a future, and therefore he couldn’t feel the great disappointment of the past. Eventually, through Chloe and others throughout the seasons, he found the strength and had enough love from others to really begin the long journey of trying to heal somewhat from his past.

How’re you feeling now that the show is concluded? I mean on a human level. Are you happy with it? Are you glad to have it done? Do you wish you had another season?
Well, I go walk the dog and bring the garbage cans back from the road and just do a lot of everyday life things, and I’m not bored with that. It’s been a nearly all-consuming four years and that’s the way it had to be, for me, and I think for most people who are trying to hand-build with others. I was very ready to, as I say sometimes, get off the soap box, or stop being the preacher and go sit down and listen and be quiet for a while. I was really ready for that. The day it was over, I felt both relief, and on some level, a satisfaction with what I’d be — with the opportunities I’d been given and what we all made out of that.

I had a great fear of failure as younger person, and any time anybody intimated negativity or criticism, it was a great excuse for me to give up. So it was a long journey for me to come to the point where I was able to and willing to put my stuff out there for criticism, both positive and negative. And part of that journey had to do with, you had to have a kind of faith. You had to have a belief and a belief in others or something greater than you, for your purpose here. I know that’s played a huge part in me being an artist, because if I just depend upon my own belief in myself, it will ultimately fail me. On reflecting the human-condition level, and in part of what Rectify was, and part of that reflection being set in a small, Southern town, and trying to be somewhat true to that place, faith, and religion, my hope was to portray that in a more dimensionalized way. It wasn’t the main story. It was just a part of the fabric of the story. Tawney certainly was the touchstone for that.

In Tawney’s story, particularly, there are moments where I sensed that the show was drawing an analogy between the community-building of faith and the community-building of art. In the sense that people are telling each other their stories, and that’s how empathetic connections are made. Particularly the stuff between her and Zeke. I found that whole sequence tremendously moving. Throughout the run of the show, it seemed like she lost her faith and then she gradually gained it back, to an extent, through her interactions with Zeke. 
Yes, that is all true. There are so many great story lines to try to service, and even though we had four years, obviously we didn’t do a lot of shows — it seemed like a lot to me, by the way. We could’ve done a story where Tawney was the lead character of the show. Or Teddy. Or Janet. Or Ted. Or certainly, Amantha. So we had limited times to tell very complex stories. On the macro of Tawney, I’d always hope that I could show someone who had a certain, perhaps, less mature kind of faith, and have that faith rocked and challenged. Then through her journey, she could come around and have a deeper kind of faith. That was always the hope. And this year, we talked a lot about that in writers room. And we created this story line between her and Zeke. It was a really challenging story line, because you have a guy in a bed, and through the help of the actors and the writers and the editors, I’m glad to hear that for some people, it resonated.

Well, it was very moving for me. I felt like I understood myself a little better after having watched this show.
That’s very kind of you to say. I’ve jokingly said that this was a very expensive form of therapy for me. Don’t tell Sundance and AMC that. But I’m sure most of what I’ve written has been partly for me to have a deeper understanding of the human condition and, certainly, individually, my own condition. This was the greatest and best opportunity to explore all of that.

McKinnon on the ‘Answer’ at the End of Rectify