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‘The Affair’ returns for its final season — and to drive its fans nuts

The Daily Beast

August 25, 2019

The fifth and final season of ‘The Affair’ begins on Sunday, with its mysteries, split perspectives, deep-and-meaningfuls, and crazy plot twists set to seduce fans one last time.

Fans of The Affair (hey everyone, here we go again!), will not want me to ruin what happens in the first three episodes of the fifth and final season of our favorite weirdo TV show, which starts tonight on Showtime. Only moderate spoilers follow, so just to warn you…

The strange thing about The Affair, right from the beginning of its serpentine odyssey, is that it recedes in the long periods between seasons to a half-remembered fever dream. Then another season of this intense, ridiculous (we know it’s ridiculous) delirium of a show rolls around. And we return to our TV screens, enslaved zombie addicts all of us.

Come Sunday night, Affair non-fans living with Affair fans, do not disturb us. Ask us anything while it is on and be prepared for growls and furious stares. Go to another room, rearrange a sock drawer, leave us alone.

The show, like most impossible people, knows it is impossible—as grand in its deep-and-meaningful meditations and big themes as it is in its bonkers melodrama. It’s the perfect combination of high and low, with Fiona Apple’s doomy theme promising the darkness of the ocean, which The Affair has directly plotted itself around ever since Noah (Dominic West) and Helen (Maura Tierney) stopped in at the restaurant Alison (Ruth Wilson) worked in… and the original affair began, long ago and oh so far away.

The sea was soon established as the foundation-tragedy of the show­—helping cause the death of Alison and Cole’s (Joshua Jackson) first child, Gabriel—and it later claimed Alison too.

The show both revels in, and winks, at its weariness-inducing twists and machinations. This is best reflected in Helen, whose magnificent pissed-offness at everything is the dark cloud that hangs over the whole show. It brings me joy every time her sour, over-it expression fills the screen.

Now we have reached the final curtain—and Affair fans, not for the first time, are faced with questions, some familiar and some baffling. And, as it has been since the first season with its unique splitting of perspectives and truth, it all comes down to who and what you believe.

For one, do not expect to see a resolution to the murder of Alison so soon. The last we saw of the character she was dead, found drowned in the sea. Whether she had been killed by Ben (Ramón Rodriguez) remains a matter of perspective and mystery.

Ruth Wilson is not returning for the final season, nor is Joshua Jackson. That means the final season of The Affair will be unfolding without two of its lead characters and actors. While so much remains unknown in the show on-screen, so it is off-screen.

Wilson has alluded to unspecified issues which drove her decision to leave the show, denying it was about pay parity with Dominic West (Noah). The reason for Jackson’s departure is unknown, but his absence will be felt. The brooding, forever tormented Cole played the show’s many freighted silences better than anyone else. His beard deserved its own Emmy.

Now, watching the show literally as a drama, this might not matter. Alison is dead, and Cole was last seen driving away from Montauk. So, OK, we can buy not seeing them again. But the show doesn’t feel properly over without them in it. We are also left with the not-small question of Cole’s wife Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno) in mysterious limbo—her character was treated shabbily, in this fan’s opinion—in season four’s immigration story arc.

The producers have cast Anna Paquin as Joanie, Cole and Alison’s daughter, in a segment of the story that shoves the story forward 20 or so years, and to a Montauk affected by climate change; that is, the train station—site of so many farewells and arrivals— is mysteriously OK, but its car park is pock-marked by puddles, and a lot of the streets look moderately flooded.

Joanie’s home is full of groovy technological innovations, but The Affair’s near-future vision lags well behind the far sharper imaginings of HBO’s Years and Years.

But be assured, Joanie is her mother and father’s daughter; she looks damn miserable all the time and totally inside herself. And, we are promised, Joanie’s presence and mission in season five will somehow tie up the mystery over Alison’s death.

Now, what of Noah and Helen, the couple split by the original affair? Well, novelist/teacher Noah is still an asshole (through anyone else’s perspective), and a sainted, wronged man (his perspective).

If you remember, we left The Daily Beast’s true Affair hero, Vik (Omar Metwally) with a scary-sounding cancer diagnosis at the end of season 4. Here at The Daily Beast we may have issued very loud commands like, “Do not kill Dr. Vik,” but what we ask of the Fates, or Showtime scriptwriters, is sometimes heard and sometimes not.

Suffice to say, this season sees Noah and Helen both negotiating new kinds of lives. Life and death are brought right up against one another. The excellent Sanaa Lathan returns as Noah’s partner Janelle, in a curious story arc that highlights the casual racism of well-off white people (very well-written), and yet ill-serves her character (characteristic of The Affair’s treatment of its subsidiary characters, who flare in and out of focus like fireworks).

The multi-perspective method works beautifully in the opening episodes’ centerpiece event. And stand by for Claes Bang as Sasha Mann, a movie star Helen gets involved with; he comes into the show—metafiction alert—as Noah’s book, Descent, about the original Alison affair, is made into a movie, with Sasha playing Noah.

Bang looks a lot like Clive Owen, which is confusing. But it’s fun to watch Noah unsettled by women ignoring him (how could they?) when approaching him and Sasha in a café. Whitney Solloway (Julia Goldani Telles), supreme brat offspring, has returned, newly adult and apparently mature; surely this cannot last.

Kathleen Chalfant, playing Helen’s scythe-sharp mother—alongside John Doman as her menacing husband Bruce—returns to doing what she does best, lacerating people and their weaknesses with a knowing smile on her face. Shouldn’t someone cast Kathleen Chalfant and Maggie Smith in something together? Like, now?

The inevitable question is: will Noah and Helen reunite, and bring The Affair full circle before the family stopped at the Lobster Roll that day? That would seem too soft and conventional an end to a series of unpredictable and hard edges. There is also the lack of Jackson and Wilson; it just feels odd not having them here to round out the journey.

The show also feels adrift in Los Angeles (come back to the dark and miserable east), and too in hock to jokes about the woo-woo New Ageiness of some of LA’s denizens, as with Sierra (Emily Browning), Vik and Helen’s neighbor who had sex with both Vik and Helen (separately) and is now having Vik’s baby.

This sunny, glamorous location underlines how unmoored the show began to feel when it forced itself forward from the tortured and claustrophobic dynamics of its two central couples. The soapiness of car crashes, accidents, betrayals, affairs upon affairs, crazy partners, and Brendan Fraser as a sadistic prison guard spun the protagonists off into further spirals. But still The Affair has kept its odd, askew heart, and commands our devotion.

Entering the final furlongs, we hope (probably against hope) for sightings of some of the series’ originals: Oscar (Darren Goldstein), the former Lobster Roll manager, and Cole’s terrifying mom, Cherry (Mare Winningham). Will Alison’s mom, Athena (Deirdre O’Connell), be seen again?

Of course, we’re in this to the end to see what spiked happiness and strange, contested endings Noah, Helen, and maybe even the so-far absent Alison and Cole are accorded.

Approach us with care on Sunday evening.