What On Earth Is ‘The Affair’ About? Season One’s Baffling Finale
If you were hoping for resolution, or even basic explanations, in Showtime’s The Affair, the first season finale only set things up for an even more baffling season two.
Fans of Showtime’s The Affair became used to the conceit that the show was split into two half-hours—the first the perspective of the couple’s illicit relationship provided by either Noah Solloway (Dominic West), the hot, compulsive swimmer and frustrated writer from the city, married to Helen (Maura Tierney); or by Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson), the waitress, devastated after the death of her son Gabriel, who was married to Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, newly bearded and lumbersexualized, and here called Cole.
But listen, producers of The Affair, just before you head into the wild shores of prepping season two, with apparently more perspectives (please no, not until you’ve sorted out the mess of two of them), the split perspective only really works as a storytelling tool if it reveals subtle but telling differences on the part of the couple—for instance the different parsing or interpretations of conversations; the difference in how one adulterous partner remembers a moment—one as loving, the other as cruel for example. It’s a great storytelling idea, if the two stories somehow knit together, rather than violently contradict one another. (Warning: spoilers up ahead.)
What doesn’t work is two partners remembering key incidents totally differently, suggesting one or both are total liars, and then denying the viewer the equipment to deforest the truth. Then your TV show becomes a demented parlor game, and almost pointless to watch—unless there is a third observer or perspective which reveals the truth. Lord Grantham’s dog on Downton Abbey would service such a role excellently.
As it was, The Affair ended its first season last night with me contemplating hurling my television out of the window.
In Noah’s interpretation of events, he went to pick up his daughter Whitney from the Lockhart family home where Alison’s brother-in-law, Scotty, lived. Scotty had gotten Whitney knocked up.
We saw Cole’s mother, the scary Cherry, beg everyone just forget about it, that no criminal charges for underage sex be sought against Scotty, seeing as everyone there had made mistakes. But just as the Solloway family was about to leave Noah saw Scotty, punched him, and strangled him.
Cole (Joshua Jackson) fired a gun, and then, in front of Helen, wondered why on earth he shouldn’t kill Noah for having an affair with Alison? The last scene in his half-hour was of all key parties in suspended torment and agitation, Noah the despised focus, Cole’s gun cocked. Snap to black.
In Alison’s version, she is wearing not the sexy dress Noah imagines her in, but something plainer. Cherry and Scotty are both absent from the Lockhart home, and the confrontation occurs between Cole, Noah, Helen, Alison and Whitney inside, with Cole pulling a gun on Noah, waving it around, Alison saying to kill her instead, then Cole putting the gun to his own temples and then finally being convinced not to shoot.
These are two wildly different versions of events, and if The Affair’s excuse is that these versions are the ones Noah and Alison has told the poor, underpaid Detective Jeffries investigating Scotty’s murder, then at some much sooner point, he would have had them both in taking lie detector events, because their stories are consistently disparate.
The cliffhanger was Noah’s eventual arrest for Scotty’s murder (after he tried to pay off a mechanic who had fixed his car), and this presumably months after everything else, because he and Alison are suddenly pictured living the Manhattan high life, him having become a super-famous writer.
So, he and Alison did get together, but we don’t know why and how.
According to co-creator Sarah Treem, all of this jumping around and bizarre plotting will be explained in season two, which will interrogate the past, and then how the present leapt into the future. But her and her team’s job is done: whatever else it is, The Affair is the most compulsively irritating show on television. Viewers don’t mind not knowing exactly what happened, but with The Affair we really don’t know what of anything we’re watching is true.
For one, this finale didn’t build out from the amazing cliffhanger of the penultimate episode: what did happen when Noah, Alison, and Cole came face to face on the train platform when Alison was leaving for good, and Cole saying they should take off together, and Noah coming to be reunited with her? That scene should have been played out. Wouldn’t Cole have been angry then? Wouldn’t someone have said something to someone else?
Instead, Noah suddenly became a man-slut in the city—good news for fans of Dominic West’s pec-tastic body in wet swimming trunks, at least. His swimming led him back to meet the woman he had gently smiled at in the first episode. He fucked her, and anything else with breasts; his fine, firm ass buckaroo-ing magnificently.
Noah’s dalliance with a fellow teacher led him to a disciplinary process, a kind of adult educator detention, which led him to write the book that made him famous and rich. In a neat line, his agent, beginning a bidding war, promised: “Michiko Kakutani will flip for this.” When his agent asked if he missed his wife, his mind flashed to an image of Alison.
Then Helen, in the second, believability-defying sequence of the episode, took him back after rightly telling him what an asshole he was. Sure, they have children, and sure her feelings were conflicted but this did not make sense in the way it was written and played. Going from “I hate you so much, I’m going to divorce you, you asshole,” to “I want you to come home” in a blink see-sawed us all on the precipitous cliffs of nonsense-ville.
Alison, meanwhile, had gone to a yoga retreat with her hippy-dippy mother. When she returned to Montauk, everyone hated her, but as she clung to Noah after Cole’s gun meltdown, we were shown the vision of what happened next—that the affair participants ended up together, until the police swooped to arrest Noah.
Whitney’s view of her father was that he was a sociopath and hypocrite. His son wouldn’t touch him. Helen’s mother called him a “useless asshole,” and he told her she and her husband Bruce were “toxic.” This might be true, as well as Alison’s friend telling her—after Alison remembered a look she shared with Noah as so meaningful she wanted their relationship to get back to it—that Alison couldn’t, that it wasn’t “real.”
Her relationship with him had failed, Alison told Cole, because he reminded her of their dead son. It was he who hadn’t been watching him properly when he drowned. If The Affair has been brilliant at anything, it’s been at showing the flashpoints of hate, alongside the flaring of love, between couples.
But its problem, as well as the madly divergent viewpoints of Noah and Alison, is that it’s stuck between genres. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a mystery—who killed Scotty Lockhart, and why?—or an intellectual meditation on relationships.
The finale was split, as every episode has been, between police procedural, and Noah and Alison struggling to either be together, or stay apart. The Affair doesn’t know if it wants to be high-minded and emotional, or a whodunit—the TV equivalent of the person who says they want a kale salad, then snaffles all the Doritos.
When things reached the ludicrous crescendo of the finale—when neither story made sense—my heart sank. I love this show, but it is showing signs of becoming a tortuous, domestic Lost, where truth is forever foggy, and storytelling itself becomes the show’s subject, rather than the vehicle by which we enjoy the program.
In many ways, The Affair is a brave, intriguing original. Unlike any other show or film, The Affair has placed an adulterous relationship as its focus, not the thing to be ejected in favor of marriage. Unlike any other show, no relationship is idealized above any other. We don’t root for the central characters. It is their lies and duplicities, their stranger inner worlds, which are evoked; their subverted attempts at doing the right thing, their selfishness, that is so watchable.
However, when Sarah Treem says we can expect more perspectives in season two, that while Noah and Alison will be together, Cole and Helen will also feature centrally, I don’t rub my hands with glee, imagining all manner of new, tricky metafictional sleights of hand, I reach for an Aspirin.
The Affair needs clarity, not more fog-banks. We need to know who killed Scotty and why. At the moment, we don’t care because—brutally—he wasn’t on screen that much.
Most critically, the split perspectives of Noah and Alison need to marry more elegantly. At the moment, we might as well be watching two different TV shows yolked together. And will this become four, if Cole and Helen have theirs added too? Aii-eeee.
Obviously, Dominic West can carry on swimming as much as he likes.