Ruth Wilson and Dominic West in Showtime’s “The Affair”
It’s Family Week on Montauk and that means that everyone is completely fucked up and amoral! Alison’s mother is a narcissistic flake and her mother-in-law is emotionally manipulative! Noah’s daughter is a nasty piece of work, his wife’s a spoiled brat and his in-laws are soap opera villains! Oh, darling. Let’s fuck our troubles away, shall we?
Ah, this show. It’s a delicious end-of-the-weekend dessert of sexy dysfunction. It’s like the cable-drama version of one of those basic cable mental health porn shows about hoarders or people who are compelled to eat kitty litter or toilet paper. You get to sit on your couch and feel superior to everyone on your screen while at the same time being utterly hypnotized by their actions.
There were several interesting story shifts this week, which indicate that the show is aware of its need to evolve. Alison’s story comes first, for once, and we don’t think that’s insignificant. The format of the show determines that whoever gets to tell their story last is the one who gets to cast doubt on the story told by the first person. Because he’s always gone first, this has had the effect of making Noah seem a little more suspect than Alison, especially in the days before the affair got under way, when he wound up looking and sounding delusional in his own self regard. But slowly, the story has been lifting the veil on Alison, who is something more than merely a grieving mother. There’s a real darkness to the character and to the people who surround her that becomes more obvious each week.
Of course, the same could be said about Noah as well. Maybe. One feature of this type of storytelling is that we’re never going to get the full truth if we’re only seeing, say, Noah’s version of his homelife. Are his children and in-laws as monstrously amoral as they appear to be? Is his wife as shallow and complacent as she appears to be? Did he really convince his bitch of a daughter to be a good person by telling her to “stop doing bad things?” Or is he a somewhat sad middle-aged man who alternately blames everyone around him for his misery while trying to cast himself as the ultimate good guy in life? It’s possible – and even likely – that darker aspects to Noah’s psyche may yet be revealed, but for now, the worst we can say about him is that he’s the typical Average White Guy who thinks he’s owed more than the world gave him and casts himself as an unrecognized hero and genius in his own life. It’s all very typically middle class and unimaginative.
But with Alison, there’s some real darkness underlying her story, even as she’s the one telling it. Her scenes with her mother were truly revelatory, because it filled in the blanks on why she can be so emotionally withholding. But every time we see the Lockhart family together, they get just a little more ominous, no? How controlling is that Mother-in-Law to give Alison her wedding band in the middle of a family dinner attended by Alison’s flake of a mother? Why do we feel uneasy every time she has a scene with Alison? It seems pretty obvious there’s drug dealing going on in that family. If there isn’t, then we’re getting the ultimate in fakeouts, but clearly something illegal is going on and it’s not made clear who, besides Scotty (who we find out is the victim in the police investigation) is involved in that family. The very fact that Alison’s version of her life story feels so … held back; as if we’re not getting all of the facts, is the main reason she comes across so suspect. Unlike Noah’s take on his family life, which makes him look like the only moral one in the group, Alison’s own storytelling makes her seem a bit secretive and implies that she’s surrounded by criminals and people with tenuous grips on reality. Now that we know Scotty is the dead guy, and it’s likely he was dealing drugs and possible Alison was involved, then it makes it all the more likely that she’s the one not telling the truth. And this was the episode where that kind of distinction became important because for the first time, Noah and Alison told tales that completely contradicted each other.
It’s also interesting to note how fully committed both tellers are to their affair at this point. No one is trying to cast themselves as the victim or the reluctant one anymore. It’s likely that they’re overselling the misery in their lives in order to justify the affair itself, but they no longer seem to have any shame in their telling of it. Again, this reflects a likely truth in the stories themselves, because this is the point at which both of them got a little sloppy about the affair and other people start figuring it out or asking questions about it. Athena dropped the narcissism just enough to express her joy that her daughter is breaking a vow, Oscar clearly suspects both of them (and it’s almost funny how straight-up mustache-twirling villainous he becomes in both accounts), and even Helen blurted out her suspicions about where he goes and what he does. More than ever, we hope we start getting what this episode implied when Noah and Alison were told they could leave the police station: the testimony of the other people in the story. At some point, the need to hear, say Helen or Cole give their point of view is going to become overwhelming. We just hope the creators don’t drag it out before we get to that point.
[Photo credit: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME ]