‘Rectify’ Creator Ray McKinnon on ‘Yolk’ And Breaking Free of The Past

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Photo: SundanceTV
Photo: SundanceTV

Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the final season of Rectify.

“I want these episodes to be really good,” Rectify creator and showrunner Ray McKinnon told Yahoo TV during a recent New York lunch to discuss the show’s fourth, and final, season. “That’s never easy. I’m concerned about that. I do have brief flashes of, ‘Oh, my god.’ It’s going to be very sad to say goodbye to these characters who I love so much.”

That mirrors the sentiments fans are feeling as the Peabody Award-winning season prepares to bow out after this final eight-episode run. McKinnon, who’s also an actor viewers know from Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified, offered a preview of where convicted, now freed murderer Daniel Holden and his family will end up, shared how his incredible cast made so many storylines possible, and hints at how Daniel’s legal woes will wrap up at series’ end.He also talks about the motivation behind Aden Young’s crushing, Emmy-worthy performance in the Season 4 premiere, as well as J. Cameron-Smith’s egg-sellent (sorry, but pun intended) act of revenge in this week’s “Yolk.”

In the beginning of the series, probably a lot of viewers really wanted to know whether or not Daniel had committed murder. After watching the season premiere, and getting the insight into Daniel’s personality, I sort of don’t want to know now. Did you intend that at all, to change how much we want the answer to that question?
Why can’t he get on with his life? Why is he so stuck? We thought about that, the writers and I. We’ve always intimated the fact that memory is elastic, and false memories can reside in the same place in the brain as real memories. We know now that eyewitness accounts are very flawed and that people, over and over, give false confessions. The psychological reasons for that aren’t fully understood because most of us rationally think, “Why would somebody ever confess to something they didn’t do?” Yet it happens over and over in our justice system.All of these different elements have been a part of the story. It felt time for Daniel to testify to somebody that he just doesn’t know anymore. What was interesting was Avery says, “Well, what if you never know? What are you going to do about that? Are you going to live or not live and stay stuck?” That’s the beginning, hopefully, of Daniel getting less stuck in his past. That’s a big part of the season, everyone becoming less encumbered by the weight of their own past.

Do you think his innocence or guilt is important at this point?
Part of what intrigued me about the story, of course, was how wrongful convictions happen or what it’s like for a man who has been on death row, life without parole, to be released. I was also interested in forced confessions and false confessions. The other part of storytelling is, usually we use stories to create either some insight or some framing, a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what law enforcement does. They’re like, “Somebody got killed. We need to find that person who killed them, and we need to convict them.” A lot of times law enforcement will focus on a narrative. Then they will try to prove the narrative. That’s how false convictions happen sometimes, not that [law enforcement] are evil people. They focus on the narrative that they’re trying to prove. I thought about the idea. Sometimes in life, we don’t know what happened or who did it. I read a statistic where, in some cities, fifty percent of murders don’t get solved. That’s an unbelievable amount. You think about the families of these victims, that they’re going to have to live with never knowing. In stories, we usually tell what happened. We probably should, most of the time. I thought about the idea of what would it be like if we never found out. That was part of the reason for going forward with this [series]. I can’t tell you at this point whether we will or won’t. Sometimes in life we never do.

Going back for a minute to when you were talking about victims’ families… in “Yolk,” we go into the family home of Hanna, and see that her murder and the aftermath have shaped her brother in a different way than it affects her mother. We see Hanna’s mom in her pantry. In many other series, I think that pantry would have been filled with junk food or ceramic figurines of some sort. You filled it with books. You’ve obviously made a conscious effort to do that throughout the series, to not stereotype southerners.
Yes, but what does that mean? That just means you’re looking deeper into a character’s psyche, into their emotionality. We’re all three-dimensional. It just requires thinking a little deeper about that particular character, as if they were a real person. It’s not really that difficult. I think what’s difficult in storytelling, when you only have a limited amount of time to explore a character, all these characters are archetypes. We’re all archetypes of a sort. Two-dimensional archetypes are stereotypes. What this show has allowed me to do is to further deepen my understanding of these characters and to reflect that in writing the characters for actors who inhabit them. Yes, we get to spend more time with the Dean family this year. That’s really exciting for me to explore them more deeply.

Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/Sundance
Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/Sundance

Teddy and Tawney’s relationship has taken some surprising turns along the four seasons. The path that they’re on currently and wherever they’ll end up… Is it what you always had planned for them, or was those actors’ chemistry a factor in their storylines?
No. (The network) said, “We want you to do six chapters to start.” I’m like, “Okay, well, I just don’t want to regret, walk away regretting, not making it the way I wanted to make it.” Then, beyond that, I didn’t know if we were going to do a second season. I had some vague picture planned, but it wasn’t until they said we want it to go another season that I thought more deeply about the event where Daniel assaulted Teddy and how that affected Teddy, the ramifications of that. The rage that built and all the things that followed that, and how that squeezed his relationship with Tawney. Then you think more deeply about Tawney, and it became very organic to take them down this road. It’s very exciting as a storyteller.

And I would say for Daniel, you had to have an actor that could hold the screen… they’re not everywhere. You have to have an actor that had to play all those different sides. Daniel, now for the fourth season, still holds the screen. I was very fortunate to find Aden (Young). He’s a world class actor. He is so right for this role. That was my good fortune, our good fortune. I think this final season, you’re going to see another side of him.

Did you feel like eight episodes for a final season was enough to do everything you wanted to do to wrap up the series?
Yes. It’s enough to send me to the hospital. Just the perfect, perfect amount. But no, we’re all guessing. It’s all a guessing game. Could you have told the story in eight, in 10? Yes, probably. In six? Probably, but that would have been tougher this year. We’re exploring a whole other area. Daniel’s in another life, and all these other storylines are coming home to roost. Yes, it feels like the right amount.

What do you predict fans will be feeling at the end of these eight episodes? Will they feel satisfied?I think different people will feel different things. I can’t fully predict. I can only be guided by what I feel and hope that others have a similar response, but I have no idea of knowing. I always felt that this show is looking at people’s lives and that those lives will go beyond when we stop filming them. I do feel like I’ve said all I need to say and explore with these characters. I feel okay about it. Hopefully [viewers] will, too.

Amantha, Abigail Spencer’s performance — she is really one of the great characters on TV right now, with that depth, especially as female character. She seems to be a little more open to things than she ever has been this season.
I think Daniel was the center of the storm and all the characters around him were being affected just by his presence. By him being removed, it allows each character the opportunity to look at themselves without having Daniel be such a focus. Since she was twelve, Amantha’s been like, “I got to get my brother out of jail.” When she got him out of jail, it’s like, “Now I got to put everything together so it will be perfect.” Then it wasn’t, but the relief of that, of not being able to make that happen, to kind of let go of that, allows her to just be. It’s fun watching that character do that. Abigail, she was the only one for me for Amantha. She just came in and owned it. From the very first reading. Again, you kind of have to have a little kismet to have a good show.

Do we see a little potential for romance for her, new romance, with her high school pal Billy (House of Cards star Nathan Darrow) showing up?
We’re all pigeon-like, so we tend to like to couple up once in a while.

The legal aspect of Daniel’s case, of how that’s folded into everyone else’s lives, Trey Willis, Sheriff Daggett … do you feel, in doing these last eight episodes, any responsibility that you have to wrap it up in some way, even if it isn’t definitely saying whether Daniel is innocent or guilty? What was the goal with that at the last season?
It’s a big part of the story. I feel like not to pay attention to that would be unfair to the people who’ve gotten this far. We were very aware of that. We wanted to play that out in a way that felt correct to everything that we’ve set up in Rectify. There is resolution. Hopefully it will be satisfying, if not explicit.

The amazing thing about all of these actors in the show is just how controlled they can keep their emotions as those characters.
Calibrated. You talk about … J. is a little more, I would say, outgoing than Janet. Did you know Janet was going to break [the eggs in Trey’s shopping cart] in “Yolk”?

No. You knew she wanted to do something to his cart. But then it called back to her having eggs in her kitchen that were broken, and it was a lovely, surprisingly tension-filled, scene. It was better than ten zillion more destructive things she could have done.
When we were editing the episode, I was telling the editors, “Don’t let Janet release her tension. You have to keep her taut the whole episode, because that’s the release.” I will miss J. Smith-Cameron. Good lord.

I love the moment, also, in the kitchen between Janet and Teddy. That relationship could form whole episodes, a little spin-off series. Is Teddy looking for a mother-son bond in that scene, or is he just surprised that she is so supportive of him?
He’s conflicted on how she became his replacement mother, and he became her replacement son, but it was always a … I always saw a shadow relationship. They both were careful not to upset each other and upset this false relationship, so they weren’t honest with each other, completely. Now, they’ve each lost their way with the relationship. He kind of wants her to be a mommy, but he knows that she isn’t. It’s very sad when he realizes that she won’t be his mother like she’s Daniel’s mother. He’s hopefully become more empathetic. He just wants to interact with his mom.

One of the other things I was surprised about after the first two episodes, and a couple of characters mentioned it, but only a few months have passed over the course of the series so far.
Yeah, I’m glad that people don’t think about time, really. That was the goal. I have a hard time not wanting to see what happens to them next. This is the biggest jump forward we’ve done in our series, time-wise. There’s a little bit of piecing together that’s happening. We’ll be spending more time here than anywhere else.

What has been your experience interacting with Rectify fans? It’s a very passionate group… do you find they ask deeper questions, maybe noticed things that you didn’t expect they would?
They are very astute. They want to be challenged intellectually, but they also want to feel things emotionally. They want to feel. That goes back to Greek tragedy days. People are still drawn to stories that make them feel sad, feel the tragedy, and the bittersweet sadness of the human condition. We want that reflected back to us sometimes, just like we want to just forget about everything in life sometimes.

I remember a few years ago, I was listening to all different kinds of music. There’s a particular kind of new age, for lack of a better word, music that’s partly inspired by the sadness of what’s happening to the earth. That’s very specific. When you think about what’s happening to the earth, it’s extraordinarily sad. It’s so attached to us in a profound and evolutionary way that we’re not even totally aware of. The music was very deep and sad. It made me think, “If I’m drawn to that and somebody needs to express that…” I was thinking about the show. “Maybe one day I can make a show and people will respond to this sadness.”

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