“The Affair” Returns and Opens Things Up a Bit

Posted on October 05, 2015

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Maura Tierney in Showtime’s “The Affair.”

Last season, the show’s first, saw “The Affair” establish a conceit that fascinated us – and apparently the rest of the show’s audience: an extramarital affair as told by the two people who engaged in it, except each participant tells a slightly different version of the story, flattering themselves in the process and mostly blaming everyone but themselves for their actions. It was helped along by some tremendous performances, mostly by its four leads but also among the supporting cast. But by the end of the season, that conceit was showing some strain and we found ourselves frustrated by the idea that we can’t ever know a version of the story that makes sense because the two versions we got were deliberately contradictory. After a while, it becomes hard for an audience member to remain engaged if they feel like everything they’re being told is bullshit. It was the “unreliable narrator” concept doubled, which is a hard thing to maintain in a story that’s being told in one-hour increments for weeks at a time.

Additionally, the story was saddled with very soapy “murder investigation” and “family drug ring” subplots that wound up taking the story in very conventional (i.e., cliched) directions by the end of the season. What started off as a fascinating rumination on the unreliability of memories and first-hand accounts was virtually indistinguishable from an episode of Knot’s Landing by the finale. All the subtlety of the first few episodes was nowhere to be found in the last few.

But we were too invested in the idea of the show to write it off, and judging by this season’s premiere, we think we were right to keep the faith. We can’t make predictions that the show won’t go off the rails at some point very soon, but for this initial episode, it felt like there was a slight rejiggering of the concept and an attempt to scale things back down to believable and relatable exchanges. In other words, welcome to the party, Helen. You have no idea how happy we are to see you.

The one thing it seemed that almost everyone agreed on at the end of last season was the need to open up the perspectives a bit and allow other characters to tell their stories. Viewers were practically begging to hear from the spouses, Helen and Cole, to offer their versions of events, because Alison and Noah’s version tended to paint them as one-dimensional villains or simply uninterested in the emotional well-being of their partners. Helen in particular was a very likable character who didn’t appear to deserve the pain Noah was putting her through. This was helped tremendously by Maura Tierney’s soulful, contemplative performance of Helen, which made her seem like a real person simply because it felt like everything that came out of her mouth was only a tiny fraction of what was going on inside her head. That “inner life” quality that Tierney does so well was brought to the forefront of this episode and the entire series benefits from it. The scene of her sitting on the edge of her bed and staring at a blank spot on the wall was so loaded with emotion and exhaustion that it almost seems impossible that it was entirely wordless.

Helen is an interesting character because it would be so easy for her to be portrayed as a cold wife and a spoiled brat. And while the episode touched on these qualities – in both versions of her; her own and her ex-husband’s – it does her the service of treating her like a fully rounded person, which makes the show so much more interesting. We can understand why she’d turn to Max for comfort (God knows WE would) or vapes her way through a day filled with small humiliations and heavy silences. Her mother’s a monster (in both versions of the story) her children are displaying a range of psychological issues in response to the collapse of her marriage, her husband’s an adolescent, her friends are catty bitches and she feels completely adrift in her own life. It’s virtually impossible not to feel for her when Maura Tierney fixes her pursed lips and dead eyes on a scene, wandering through her life in a state of perpetual shock.

On the flip side, it’s hard not to see Noah as an incredibly selfish man who clearly sees himself as a perpetual victim to everyone in his life; his wife, her mother, their children, and even his editor – but not the angelic and uncomplicated Alison, who says little this episode but is framed in a glowing dusky light while she waits on him and asks little of him, like a perfect doll of a woman. Everyone is mean to poor Noah except Allison, who understands his genius and strokes his ego. Of course this is far from the reality of the situation, but when you put those scenes in context, it’s hard not to come away thinking he’s just one big man-baby who thinks the world owes him something. In retrospect, it’s somewhat sadly hilarious that we’re supposed to believe his ten-year-old son gave him a bloody nose or that his children hate him not because he abandoned them but because of his mustache-twirling mother-in-law’s machinations. At the end of this episode we had two people; one who blames everyone in the world but himself for his problems and one who blames one person and one person only for hers. It’s easy to see how wrong and misguided Noah is in the retelling of his life, but it’ll be interesting going forward to see how Helen comes to terms with her version of events. Certainly that last scene, with her showing up to save Noah, in a development that almost brought tears to our eyes because it was so well set up, demonstrates that there’s a lot of nuance coming down the line. We weren’t sure we were going to be as interested in the story this time around, but it turns out, when you make the focus the characters and not all the salacious subplots, the experience of following along becomes much more rewarding.

 

 

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