This is a story about the stories we tell ourselves. Or at least, that’s what we first thought.
After last week’s hypnotic opening, we assumed this was a tale told by two different people with two different perspectives, demonstrating that everyone has their own version of the truth and that people misremember their own histories – and usually to their benefit. We still think that’s largely the case, but this episode injected a slightly more blunt idea into the story: someone is lying.
But quickly, before the deep dive into What It All Means Territory: All four principals are giving really fantastic, subtle performances. We’re in love with the extremely clever ways little background bits of information are slightly different in each tale and how almost all of those bits, no matter how seemingly inconsequential (like the amount of money Noah spent on jam), tell you something about the teller. The scripting is beautifully tight and believable, the costuming is spot-on, and the show looks gorgeously sensual at every turn. So far, there’s not one wrong note. Everyone’s delivering the goods. This is seriously quality television.
In a way, we suppose a murder mystery is inevitable for a story like this. If it was just about two damaged people misremembering their own mistakes, it might get a little too up its own ass, if you know what we mean. We weren’t, at first, in love with the idea that deliberate lies were being told, mainly because we’re fascinated by the inadvertent, self-flattering lies we all tell ourselves, but it does add more of an element of urgency to the story. Instead of wondering if the truth lies somewhere in the middle, we’re trying to figure out which person has something to hide. And while that tends to bring the story down from its loftier heights (from the philosophical to a whodunnit), at its heart, it’s still a show about the nature of truth and how difficult it is to parse out what “really” happens in people’s lives when you rely on them to be the narrators of their own tales. If it’s done well, the murder mystery aspect can serve as another tool to illustrate that basic idea rather than the hook upon which the entire story hangs.
After we watched the episode, it turned out that we each thought a different person was deliberately lying, which staggered us because we had no idea while watching it together that the other one was coming to a totally opposite conclusion. Tom, thinking he’d just watched an hour of Noah flatter himself, whine about his life and then aggressively go after a version of Alison that seemed to come right out of a jerk-off fantasy, was shocked when he turned to Lorenzo and was met with “There is a LOT of crazy under the surface with her.” This of course led to outraged debate and an immediate re-watch – which left neither of us budging from our original take. So even with the murder mystery angle, this still manages to be a deeply affecting story that practically forces you to wonder about your own prejudices as you try and interpret it.
The show isn’t going for perfect balance, though. Noah’s autobiography is just a little too self-flattering and renders everyone else a little too predatory or unpleasant to be believable. His version of his life casts him as a put-upon man with a wife who’s not terrible, but doesn’t excite him, children who don’t listen to him, a career that’s going nowhere, and a father-in-law who’s a total dick. It almost seems like a parody of upper middle class white male anxieties and problems. If this story was being told straight up, with no narrator or flashbacks, we’d find it almost silly how cliched it is. But it’s Noah’s version of his life, and the silliness or stereotypical quality of his complaints tell you a lot about him. His banality is practically his defining feature and he can’t even come up with a self-flattering portrait that’s actually interesting or original.
Alison’s self-flattery or victimhood is a little harder to parse out, mainly because, unlike Noah, she’s dealing with the aftermath of a heartrending tragedy, which means your sympathy automatically goes to her. We think it’s pretty deliberate that you are meant to accept more of her version than his. In Alison’s version of her life, she’s constantly defined by her loss, against her will, by well-meaning people even as she’s constantly rebuffing or simply receiving constant disrespect from the men around her. She tends to cast a version of her husband that seems like a fairly decent guy, even if he’s a bit impatient with her fragility. Everyone from near-strangers to acquaintances to family members want to define her by her grief or use her as an avatar of their own grief. The world, to Alison, is exhausting because it constantly tests her and asks so much of her. It’s easy to sympathize with her but we think her complaints about her life are, in many ways, just as stereotypical as Noah’s.
Now, far be it for us to define the anxieties and complaints of middle-class white heterosexuals everywhere, but the way he sees himself as under-appreciated with a life full of indignities and small humiliations, and she sees herself buffeted by other people constantly disrespecting her or forcing their shit on her is like an amalgam of all the complaints heterosexual middle class married men and women tend to have about their lives. “Everyone takes me for granted” vs. “Everyone expects me to handle everything.” Are we wrong here? Certainly, no one should be taking our word about the state of the average heterosexual marriage, but in the broadest sense, these are like the Ur-complaints of husbands and wives, boiled down to their essence. And we think that’s quite deliberate; partially because it allows the viewer to identify with one or the other character very easily and partially because, despite all the philosophical trappings and larger questions at play, we think the show is making a point about the banality of adultery and how sometimes it really doesn’t matter or can’t be explained why people engage in it.
In addition to all these themes playing out, there’s also a very heavy class-based anxiety underlying both sides of the story. Just as the show uses what looks like a pointless affair to ask questions about truth, memory, and the Ur-anxieties of middle class Americans, it also uses the old “townies vs. summer people” conflict to examine broad questions of class and class expectations. From the horribly, almost laughably awful classism of Noah’s in-laws to the cynical, almost grifter-like dismissal of tourists by Cole and his family, there’s a lot of distrust and resentment in the background of both members of this affair that informs the affair itself. Certainly, Noah’s version of Alison seems to have no small amount of class snobbery attached to it. He not only calls her a disaster but envisions her as slutty, flighty and unreliable; the dangerous working class woman threatening his entire life. On the flipside, Alison casts Noah’s family as desperately unhappy and amoral aristocrats. We could spend all day pointing out the enticing differences in their stories, but we’ll just note one of the more telling: Helen, Noah’s wife, looked frumpy in his version of the party, wearing a shapeless dress that gave her a little pooch, unkempt hair and virtually no makeup. In Alison’s version she’s wearing enough jewelry to choke a princess, with perfectly lacquered hair, a gorgeous dress, full makeup, and a dismissive attitude toward the help that mirrors her mother’s.
But in a way, it doesn’t matter what the truth of the story is, because the differences are the story. What you need to know about the characters is all right there, willing to be picked up and examined, so long as you don’t take anything they’re saying at face value. In Alison’s telling, Noah is always intercepting her somehow; her line of sight, her conversations, her attempts to make a quick thousand bucks by spilling a drink on Bruce. In Noah’s telling, Alison is always teasing him, invading his life unexpectedly or making him question his own sanity. Each person casts the other one as predatory. That’s got to be a big part of the point. One of the questions hanging in the air of this show is “Why?” Why did you have an affair? Everything in response to that is a version of a shrug, some mumbling about their own unhappiness, and finger-pointing at the other person for instigating it. The banality of adultery.
[Photo Credit: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME]