How Will They End ‘The Affair’? Showtime’s Adultery Drama Defies Predictability

The Daily Beast

December 11, 2014

There are just two episodes to go in The Affair, and many portents that things are not going to end well.

The Affair is all about portents. Regular viewers know to keep a cushion handy to grip.

In the trailer for Sunday night’s episode of Showtime’s intriguing, slow-burning drama, punches are shown to be thrown, there are cries of pain, lives being further storm-tossed, more revelations—all-round domestic anti-bliss almost guaranteed.

There is the small matter of the outstanding death of one of Pacey-from-Dawson’s-Creek’s super-hot, scary brothers. There is the ongoing significance of The End, the venue where the inquisitive police detective keeps returning to, the place Noah, Dominic West’s character, keeps saying he’s never been when we know he has.

And there is the central question of whether the two people having the affair, Noah and Allison (Ruth Wilson), will get together, or stay apart. The producers haven’t implied either scenario would be a terribly good idea. We are not rooting for them, and not not rooting for them. Every possible outcome—them together, them staying with their existing partners—seems only likely to bring misery.

Last week, just before willfully separating themselves from each other, they told each other, “I love you.” Then Allison went back to Pacey, and Noah went back to Nurse Abby from E.R.

Are couples actually watching The Affair? Is there anything more uncomfortable than being in a relationship, and watching The Affair? How do you watch it, even if you’re being utterly faithful, and securely, monogamously in love? With nervous grins, and even more nervous proclamations of, “I’m so glad we’re not like them”? Whatever else it qualifies for, The Affair is one of the most uncomfortable hours of television of the week.

The central conceit of the show is the first half hour of the show shows events of that episode through the eyes of one of the adulterous protagonists, and the second half the other. This shows us again and again that truth and interpretation are constant, uneasy bedfellows, as the same event is played out differently depending on whose eyes it is viewed through.

In different situations, Noah and Allison recall saying different things to one another, experiencing their time together differently. One can see an assignation end hopelessly, another can see it freighted with possibility.

This you can see as either intensely emotionally true, or a bit stupid, as two people really couldn’t see the same event as so markedly different as Noah and Allison have these past eight weeks—and my head-scratching frustrations at plot plausibility and much else have been well vocalized by Ginia Bellafante in her entertaining weekly New York Times blog.

The relationship, in its first extended phase—the opening seven episodes of the ten-part drama—takes place over the course of a summer in Montauk, Long Island. Allison lives there with Cole (Joshua Jackson), her husband. She is a waitress, he helps run the family ranch, and something more criminal.

Noah is from New York, a writer and teacher, married to Helen (Maura Tierney), whose cold, superior parents—his father is sneering, bestselling author—own a fabulous mansion.

Both Noah and Allison’s relationships with their significant others come with their own in-built tensions: the sense that Noah is a failure, unable to provide for Helen and support his family properly—he is also a frustrated, unsuccessful author. Allison and Cole have lost a child, his family is shady, and his mother domineering. Her boss at the diner she works in is a class-A creep.

Noah and Allison meet in a life-or-death moment; as they swing into town, Noah and Helen’s daughter chokes in the diner. The affair begins slowly, then careers into intimacy and depth as mutual desire and factors in their individual lives help push Allison and Noah together.

The affair has its own mystery, as much as the existing relationships have theirs; pain and pleasure is interwoven, and then, finally, at summer’s end heartbreak as Noah prepares to head back to the city. But, as fans have seen, the affair is exposed to Cole, and confessed to by Noah to Helen, and then Noah and Allison are brought together again. An end-point—the revelation of adultery, and its upsetting fallout—proved to be anything but. Power dynamics see-saw between all the main characters.

The Affair is original, and discomfiting, because unlike dramas that feature affairs, it does not place the focus on the damage done to, and maintenance of the existing relationships, in the eye of the storm of adultery. Even the most sophisticated dramas place the marriage as central, and the “other woman” or “other man” as the cuckoo in the nest, the complicating factor, the thorny element to be dispatched, surmounted.

In The Affair, “the others” are the existing partners and even the children that Noah and Helen have, much-loved as they are. The central relationship in the drama is the illicit one, although even then it is not the relationship we are necessarily being guided to wanting to be maintained in the denouement.

Cleverly, the writers have followed Noah and Allison desperately try to resume their home lives—he excuses his behavior on other frustrations, Allison is still mired in grief over the loss of her child—to then reunite Noah and Allison at her grandmother’s deathbed.

Yet even this traumatic event is subject to two different interpretations of Noah’s involvement in that crisis, and in her reading he tells her that he loves her. Somehow in the final two episodes, there will be further upheaval, a mysterious death, and that continuing strange split in the viewers’ minds of whom Noah and Allison should be with in the final reel. Even then, will that be left to a split interpretation? Please not. I’m not sure any, already wrung-out and confused fan could stand that being fudged, no matter how sophisticatedly.

In its different interpretations and the mystery over all its protagonists’ motives, The Affair posits all kinds of truths—some piercing, some labored—about relationships and the duplicities of not just husbands and wives, but also those evasions and omissions we deploy in our daily lives, coupled or not; the lies we tell ourselves, as much as the lies we tell others. Maybe that’s really why everyone, no matter their relationship status, is so uncomfortable watching The Affair.