The tense, haunting Sundance Channel drama "Rectify" wraps up its first season tonight, and one big question continues to hang over the story: Did Daniel Holden, newly exonerated and released from prison after 19 years on death row for raping and murdering his teenage girlfriend, commit the crime?
The series, created by Oscar-winning filmmaker and actor Ray McKinnon ("Sons of Anarchy"), has been so mesmerizing, so beautifully written and purposefully slow-paced, as we've watched Daniel — who was just 18 when he was locked up — stumble back into a very different world, that at times most viewers have probably forgotten to ask themselves that question.
[Related: 'Rectify' Cast Defends the Show's Slow Pace]
Daniel was exonerated on a technicality (lack of DNA evidence), and though he later maintained that he was innocent, he originally confessed to the crime. Was he coerced into a false confession, a fairly common occurrence among younger defendants? Or did he really do it?
"Rectify" star Aden Young, whose Emmy-worthy performance as Daniel sees him swing effortlessly back and forth between moments of humor and heartbreak during Daniel's first week as a free man, told Yahoo! TV he thinks the question is moot.
"Primarily, from my perspective, when I look at the reality of Daniel's existence, here's a man who has spent half of his life growing up, and then the next half has been spent in a prison, in a box," Young says. "The sensational loss that he's experienced within that world of incarceration, within that neighborhood of death row, would be so absolutely life-changing that no matter what the event was, even if it was the most monstrous event like rape and murder, he would have changed so significantly within those years. Ray and I talked about the reality of Daniel's memories — they would still remain on that evening — and what the depth of those memories would be. As we began to discuss that, what was more interesting was the memories of the events leading up to that moment and the clarity that he would have sought in his reminiscence, in his reflection, in his study, his examination of what led up to that evening, in the minutia of every single decision that was made that led to that night.
"He would carry such an extraordinary burden of guilt that he ever invited Hannah to that river, to that place where she met her oblivion and met her horror. In some ways, Daniel is always going to carry that burden of guilt with him. That can never be erased. You can never escape from that," Young continues.
"The other part of me thought if he didn't do it, then he's been wrongfully incarcerated for 19 years. He survived five stays of execution ... it's always heartbreaking to know that if he hadn't done it, then he spent 19 years in a box for naught, for nothing. It was always heartbreaking to [think about that] as I began playing him, because in some ways, you're in love with the character, even if he might be villainous. You have to empathize with him, even if you know what he's done, for example."
Whether or not the question of Daniel's guilt or innocence is answered in the season finale, the network has ordered a second season of the drama, with 10 new episodes (tentatively scheduled to debut in 2014) that will have plenty of other storylines to explore, aside from the "whodunit" question, as Young puts it.
Daniel's sister Amantha (the scene-stealing Abigail Spencer), whose never-wavering belief in her brother's innocence was a major factor in his release, is in love with Daniel's attorney and is worried about Daniel's ability to readjust to freedom. Daniel's mom and stepdad both support him and believe he's innocent, but they also worry about his safety, as he has come back to a hometown that is leery of his return and his exoneration. The local senator — the prosecutor who convicted Daniel — is unhappy that his old case is now being questioned, and is determined to see Daniel back in the slammer.
And then there's Daniel's stepbrother, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), an insecure man who sees Daniel's return as a threat to his marriage, job (Ted Jr. and his dad run the family tire business that Daniel's deceased father started), and place in the family.
"Ray created something which I think is very different and unique to American television," says Young, who also stars as Dr. Frankenstein in the upcoming film adaptation of the graphic novel "I, Frankenstein." "The opportunity to re-examine it and to examine what continues in Daniel's existence and the family's existence and the town's acceptance, and in a sense to invite Daniel back into the fold ... I think that there are many elements there that should provide a certain intrigue [for Season 2].
"At the same time, I never actually saw it as a contained thing ... in some ways, it's just a moment. We [didn't know] if it would continue, and then if it does, great. I think there's much more to come about a man who has experienced the neighborhood of monsters and the embrace of angels ... America is a phenomenal organism. How it's changing is so remarkable at the moment. I would like to look at the world through Daniel's eyes, in some way to have him walk out into that and see what has changed so dramatically, and perhaps explore that element to the story of who we are as a people."
See what it's like on the set of "Rectify":
The "Rectify" Season 1 finale airs May 20 at 10 PM on the Sundance Channel.