Dominic West and Maura Tierney in Showtime’s “The Affair”
The shit has officially hit the fan. In fact, the shit hit multiple fans at once, blowing up the story and shifting the status quo considerably. One of the best things about this show so far is that it seems to know exactly when it starts getting formulaic and deliberately shakes things up. But there’s a nagging suspicion that the creators are letting the structure of the show get away from them a little bit.
When Noah and Alison were sitting in a room and telling their version of the story to another person, it was a lot easier to come to some sort of conclusion as to the rough outline of the truth. In other words, you took his version and her version, tossed out all the finger-pointing and self-flattering, and you felt like you had some reasonable understanding of how things played out. But with the police interrogations ended, the dual versions of the story get harder and harder to parse. It’s difficult to tell where the lies are when you don’t know who they’re telling the story to. Last week we said it was us, the audience they were addressing, but we wonder if we’re supposed to look at this from inside each character’s head. If that’s the case, then the likelihood is we’re getting even further from the truth with each episode. After all, everyone becomes the best liar in the world when they’re lying to themselves.
What are we to make of the fact that Alison presented herself as a little creepily stalkerish? What are we to make of the fact that Noah’s accounting of his coming clean to Helen resulted in a conversation entirely about Noah and his needs? Does that even seem likely? Does Cole’s weeping and hand-holding seem true to that character, insofar as we know that character? What are we to make of Oscar’s contradictory actions? Why reveal the affair to Cole after he essentially agreed to give him everything he wants? And are the parallels in each story indicative of something (the banged-up “irreplaceable” bannister of the Solloway home vs. the rotten-to-the core porch railing that needs to be replaced at the Lockhart ranch) or are the writers merely establishing repeating motifs in order to deepen the story? Because if it’s the latter, we reserve the right to call the conceit a bit too clever by half, but if it means something deeper, especially in light of the cop checking out their stories and finding out they don’t add up, then we’re more intrigued than ever. We wondered if there was a story to tell after the spouses found out, but it’s possible that the story has barely even started. Doesn’t it feel like there’s some sort of huge hole in the middle of this affair? Something important that we haven’t been “told” yet? With each week, the story expands while at the same time calling more and more attention to the idea that it’s all one big lie.
And yet, it’s really hard to shake the idea that we’re seeing deep and painful truths reveal themselves, even as we can’t quite figure out which parts of the story are actually true. Noah’s version of Helen seemed just a little too quickly understanding, but it’s hard to deny their conversations had the feel of two long-married people. “I always know everything that happens to you,” Helen says in hurt wonder, surprised that after 25 years, there turns out to be something hidden. Noah whines to her of his sense of inadequacy and failure, noting that “You were always waiting for the guy you married to … happen.” To which Helen (Maura Tierney, knocking every line out of the park this week) responded in such a stunned and truthful manner, “Only because you are.” Like Alison revealing herself to be a little creepy about boundaries, this was a moment that felt so raw and truthful that it momentarily wiped away the doubts the stories are designed to constantly instill in you. You can only expect the other person to be married to the person you present to them; not the person you wish you were. It’s not a spouse’s job to tell you who you are and it says a lot about Noah that he thought it was. Just as it says a lot about Alison that she initiated practically nothing in her life this episode, even as it all threatened to come apart, she waited for other people to decide for her what to do; whether or not to tell her husband; when to go home to Montauk after running away from it; when to stop taking her birth control. Never once did she say “I want to try again” or “I want us to continue” or even “I want this.” Even now, with seemingly no one to lie to and no more lies to be told, they are still both looking out at the world and expecting it to do right by them somehow. Noah wants Helen to make him better and Alison just wants Cole to make decisions for her. More than ever, you can see why they were both ripe for an affair and why the affair was probably a bad idea for both of them.