An actor recognizable from his appearances on such TV shows as Deadwood and Sons Of Anarchy and from performances in films such as Take Shelter and O Brother Where Art Thou? (as well as the Oscar-winning short “The Accountant,” which he also wrote and directed), Ray McKinnon branched into television production in 2013 with SundanceTV’s Rectify. The meditative tale of a Georgia man (Aden Young as Daniel Holden) released from prison after 19 years on death row, the show hinges on Daniel’s reaction to the changes that occurred while he was away—as well as the way the outside world reacts to his presence. After a first season that kept its focus tight on Daniel (while keeping the camera lens open wide enough to catch some dazzling splashes of Georgian sunlight), season two used its extended episode order to rope Daniel’s family members and the local law enforcement into the main action. That trend climaxed in a season finale that shed light on one of the show’s smaller mysteries, while leaving its biggest—who killed Hanna Dean?—unsolved. In the wake of the finale, The A.V. Club spoke to McKinnon about the implications of the episode, the show’s recent third-season pickup, and why fictional works don’t have to adhere to the letter of the law.
The A.V. Club: What did you want viewers to take away from the two accounts of Hanna Dean’s death that Daniel gives in the finale? In one, he discovers her body; in the second, he’s her killer.
Ray McKinnon: It’s funny—we finished the sound design of episode 10 at 12:30 a.m. on a Thursday, I think two, maybe three weeks ago? And I’ve thought so little about the show since then that when [the Sundance representative] mentioned episode 10, I was like, “Oh, now what happened in episode 10?” [Laughs.] “Oh, that’s right!”
Oh my goodness, I’ve created a problem for myself and every character in the show. [Laughs.] So you mean whether her did it or didn’t do it? Whether he was coerced or not coerced? Can I ask you what you went away with?
AVC: It seems that what Daniel tells the district attorney and the senator before sending them out of the room is what he’s been trying to say this whole time—he’s been trying to tell the truth that he knows. In that moment, he realizes that’s not a truth that anyone in the room—aside from his attorney—will ever want to hear, so he more or less recounts what he said in his original confession.
RM: Right, along with some nuggets from Trey. My feeling on what anybody intuits is that it’s their subjective experience with the show. And once it’s out there, in some ways it’s out of my hands, so I don’t get into the business of trying to dictate or to coach others into what I think they should believe because that’s part of what fiction does. It leaves some of it up to the beholder, and hopefully what we’ve done here—not just in a plot narrative, but in the characters and the characterizations and the narrative of the characters’ own lives—is to leave some mystery, and some unknowingness.
But specifically with this “Did he or didn’t he?”, which has always been hanging over the head of Daniel and the family and the town and the viewers: I guess, in an ideal world, it’d be great if people went away from that episode with different takes on what the truth is. Some come away with “He did it,” and some come away with “He didn’t do it,” as you’re saying. And perhaps there’s the idea of are there really such things as forced memories that become like real memories? And is that a part of it?
That’s kind of a meandering non-answer, I guess. But I am interested in storytelling that we’re conditioned to, and I think one of the reasons that storytelling became part of the human experience is we’re always trying to make sense of a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. And storytellers can do that for us—but there’s also the idea that, as in real life, things don’t always become completely known. And maybe that’s a part of where we’ll wind up with the story. I’m not sure yet.
AVC: Sundance announced this week that there will be a third season of the show—
RM: [Jokingly.] Why am I always the last to know? Good grief. I’m sorry, you’re going to ask.
AVC: When did you find out that a third season might be a possibility, and did that influence how the second season ends?
RM: I did not know before we plotted out the finale or the last movement of the second season. I didn’t know if we were going to do another. It didn’t influence that—I was trying to find something that was, I don’t know, properly fucked-up enough [Laughs.] to leave us all with. This is what we landed upon, and it felt good in theory. It really wasn’t until we were in the last stages of editing that I felt like it worked for me. Whether it works for others, I don’t know, but it was something that I still wasn’t sure if this take on the state of affairs would work in the way the tone and the aesthetic of this show and what this show has already established. For me, I was relieved when I felt like it did work. When I was able to sit back for a moment and become a kind of audience member, it seemed that everybody on the show was left unsatisfied—except, perhaps, for the senator. And I’m not sure about that, even. But everybody in the show leaves this season very unsatisfied, and perhaps that mirrors the audience in some way.
Once I heard about Sundance wanting to do another season, there’s that five seconds of, “Oh, that’s such good news,” immediately followed by, “Oh shit. Now what?” [Laughs.] “What do I do, and what do we do?” So that’ll be the feeling for the next year. But I did enjoy those five seconds.
AVC: Had it ended with this episode, did you at least want Daniel to come clean with Tawney about assaulting her husband in the tire store?
RM: It wasn’t because of any fear or meditation on the fact that it would be the last season—at a point, it just felt like the right direction to go with Daniel and where he was, and where he was with Tawney. It felt like he needed in some ways to be heroic, because in so many other ways he was not being heroic. As difficult as this was for him, to testify to his deed with who he testifed to, I felt like he needed to do that.
That was on the plan for a long time, when we were breaking the season. Some of the best-laid plans for this season didn’t play out in the way that I thought they would, as we were going further into the season and being hopefully fluid enough to not stay with something no matter what. In this case, it still seemed like the right thing to do.
AVC: What were some of those best-laid plans that didn’t pan out?
RM: Oh, now. I don’t remember. [Laughs.] Honestly.
I think an example of something that I didn’t foresee being such a guiding factor in this season was the ramifications of Daniel’s act against Teddy in episode five of last season. That was something that refused to go away in our psyches as writers, just as it wouldn’t go away in the psyche of Ted Jr. and wouldn’t go away for Daniel.
AVC: Do you foresee the ramifications of Teddy’s own assault against a delinquent customer?
RM: That’s a very good question, and something that, because of the demands of the present being “How do you pull off season two?”, hasn’t been given a great deal of thought, but it certainly will get a good looking-at as we plan out season three. Or, as with some things, the customer won’t want to deal with it—he’s too embarrassed—and neither does Ted. I don’t know. Right now, all things are possible.
AVC: Stephen Gyllenhaal directed both the season premiere and the finale. Was it important to you to have that sort of directorial continuity in the season?
RM: Not consciously. Stephen and I have known each other a long time—I worked with him as an actor years ago, and we could work well together and collaborate well together, and I think that we had a shorthand to work with, and it just was a good fit for both the first and the last episode. It just worked out that way.
AVC: There’s a recurring motif of emptiness in the finale—an empty courtroom, Hanna’s empty bedroom, the empty chair next to Daniel in the backyard—and that echoes the image of Kerwin’s empty cell that makes up the last shot of season one. Was there a desire to reinforce the notion that Daniel will soon be gone from these places?
RM: We definitely talked about the symbolism of the empty rooms, and what that can mean. Stephen and [director of photography] Paul Sommers and myself, we all felt—and have for the whole show—that the visual is a big part of the show, and a big part of the storytelling of the show. That was definitely designed with some purpose.
AVC: If the judge signs off on the plea deal, Daniel will be banished from all but one county in Georgia. It’s such a medieval punishment—how did you learn that this was still a punitive measure used in parts of the United States?
RM: As we were talking about the possibility of a plea deal and what that actually would mean in the real world, we talked to some lawyers in Georgia and other places and realized that, for Georgia, banishment still is a part of the deals that are made between defendants and prosecution. Just recently I read that in the county I’m from, one of the parts of the sentence was banishment for life from that county. But banishment from the state—we did find it was unconstitutional to banish someone from an entire state, so that was the loophole, to just have him in one county. So it was based upon real research, which we try to avoid as much as possible.
AVC: Why’s that?
RM: Not really: I just think that the show is a fictional show, and we want anything to be possible in the way that fiction can be. Which means if a man wants to spend a quiet evening off with the goat man for no good reason, then he should be able to do that. You just want to try to avoid things becoming too conventional, and I think sometimes if you over-research, it becomes more of a scholastic exercise that can inhibit the wild mind from taking a detour. We did do our research, but I also want to encourage everybody to think outside the storytelling box, which is a challenge when you’re dealing with a show that is partially about dealing with a man’s guilt or innocence.
AVC: George’s body is finally discovered at the end of the finale, by a group of three boys. Is there any significance to that number? Is it meant to reflect the only three people who know what happened to Hanna: Daniel, Trey, and George?
RM: Man, you watch things too closely!
AVC: It’s part of the job!
RM: Good grief! [Laughs.] Absolutely. The answer is yes. The dynamic of three!