About a decade ago, actor Ray McKinnon became fascinated with several stories he’d seen about death-row inmates who had been freed because of DNA evidence. “I just started wondering what their lives must be like the first day they got out,” he says. “And then I really thought: ‘What’s the second day like?'”
That question inspired Rectify, one of the most emotionally affecting dramas about the criminal justice system on TV. The series, which premiered in 2013, tells the story of Daniel Holden, a Georgia man convicted of rape and murder, who spent half his life in solitary confinement on death row – only to be released by DNA evidence and suddenly finds himself plunged into an alien world of freedom and choice. Each member of his family reacts differently to his homecoming: His sister Amantha, who worked for years with her lawyer boyfriend to free him, welcomes him with open arms; his mother and stepfather seem wary; his stepbrother is jealous. Moreover, his old friends and neighbors have a hard time accepting his reintegration into society; a state senator even rigorously pursues getting Holden back in jail. By the end of the third season, to avoid being retried he agrees to be banished from him home state and plead guilty to a murder he doesn’t remember committing in exchange for his freedom.
The fourth season, which premiered on Sundance this week, will be its last, and McKinnon and the cast agree the time is right. “I knew from the beginning that Ray had only four or five seasons in mind,” says Aden Young, who plays Holden. (For the record, he speaks much faster but just as carefully as his character.) “I didn’t know until just before we started shooting that it was, in fact, going to be the end. But it’s not the end, as such.” Young laughs. “We’ve just stopped shooting the characters.”
The series’ swan-song season opens with an episode dedicated to how intense it is for Holden to struggle with living in a halfway house in another state where he knows nobody. “We shot the first episode in seven days, and at the end of that I thought ‘My God, what am I in for?'” Young says. “But then they said, ‘Well, you’re not in the second one,’ so you have time to get back to being human again.”
That equally heartrending episode focuses on his family in a timeframe concurrent to his and how they spiral and attempt to keep themselves together in his absence. “Ray felt like he was taking a risk by doing that,” says Abigail Spencer, who plays Amantha. “That’s why we do Rectify. That’s why it’s on Sundance. We don’t have explosions and car chases.”
From its conception, McKinnon envisioned the show as a character-driven drama. He’d previously acted in Sons of Anarchy and Deadwood, among dozens of other roles, and he’d won an Oscar for his 2002 short, The Accountant. So as he developed Rectify, he pictured Holden’s struggle the way an actor would: by feeling it out. “The [series’] first episode was really my imagining of what things must be like for him,” he says. “Later, I researched the effects of solitary confinement and read a number of books about people who’d been exonerated and freed and what their lives were like, and I talked to a couple of ex–death row inmates who were freed based on DNA evidence.”
“It’s a very different sort of storytelling from your usual soap opera,” Young says. “This is more a visitation of these characters’ lives in a profound moment that changed them all. It’s an intriguing story to tell.”
On set, McKinnon has kept things loose with his actors, which pays off by making the characters feel real. Spencer alludes to an “unspoken language” with the show creator, and Young says he and McKinnon share “a certain shorthand.” He explains the process by highlighting an episode in the first season where Amantha knocks on his door, just after he’d been released. He doesn’t want to come out; the camera shows him naked, playing with feathers from a pillow. “All the script said was ‘Daniel is in his room,’ and that was it,” Young says. “There was no stage direction whatsoever as to what I was doing. I went to Ray and I said ‘What can we do with these moments to really bring this boy back to planet Earth, bring this man back to experiencing life on the outside?’ And that’s where that feather dance began to evolve. That particular episode gave us a shorthand.”
The interactions between family members often supersedes the show’s mystery element: If it wasn’t Daniel, then who killed Hannah Dean? As precocious Amantha backslides, parting ways with her lawyer boyfriend and taking a job managing a dollar store in her hometown, and as the rest of the family recalibrates (actor Clayne Crawford’s portrayal of conflicted stepbrother Ted Talbot, Jr. has been one of the most compelling character transformations in recent years), it’s easy to forget that everything takes place over just a few months. On the show, as in real life, the chance of a killer coming forward in a short timeframe is negligible.
“Here was a man who is completely damaged by the world, by the neighborhood of death row, by the horror of hell,” Young says of Daniel. “There was a possibility that he was innocent and there was also the possibility that he was guilty and just couldn’t remember the reality. … That gave me a desire to want to be very truthful in the role, to be very raw. I know that even though we were making entertainment, our truth or our fiction was going to be measured against the truth of people who’ve been through this situation and have lost people to state-sanctioned murder. I didn’t want to sensationalize it.”
The approach worked. Damien Echols, a man convicted of murder who was released from death row after 18 years and rose to prominence as one of the West Memphis Three, has praised the series for its authenticity. “I’d say Rectify is a powerful and realistic show which more than holds the viewer’s attention,” he wrote in a 2013 Huffington Post op-ed. “But will I be watching it in the future? No, because it’s all a rerun to me.” (“To have people that have had real-life experiences, that in some way they recognize a part of their own humanity in Daniel and the characters that we’re portraying is very gratifying and humbling,” McKinnon says.)
In many ways, Rectify anticipated the recent spate of wrongful-conviction–themed entertainment such as Making a Murderer, Serial, The Night Of and Conviction. And in politics, the show’s dogged state senator whose life goal seems to be placing Holden back behind bars foreshadowed Donald Trump’s continued condemnation of the Central Park Five. Young, Spencer and McKinnon chalk these coincidences up to zeitgeist and merely being a few steps ahead of the curve. “I think more and more we realize how fallible our system is because it’s run by humans who are innately fallible,” McKinnon says. “It’s interesting to explore different sides of law and order and crime and justice and look at just different aspects of it. … I always say if I’m thinking about something usually a lot of other people are, too.”
What he hopes people take away from Rectify is an understanding of the complexities that come with Daniel Holden’s situation for everyone. The show presents a slice of life, a glimpse into these characters’ everyday struggles. And when it ends later this year, it will be in a way that allows the stories to continue – just not onscreen. “A lot of storytelling has a moral and has a conclusion and is definitive and that’s not the way life is,” McKinnon says, “so I was interested in the idea that life does not really have a conclusion. It continues to go on and that’s been part of what drives me telling the story from that regard.”
“I feel like we probably could’ve stopped telling this story after each season, really,” he adds, “and the characters would’ve kept living their lives. Knowing this was the last season, it did allow me and my writers and actors the opportunity to figure out a way to say goodbye and let it go and it’s very challenging. But for me – and then hopefully to the audiences – it’s a fulfilling way to say goodbye.”