Catching up on “The Affair”

Posted on November 02, 2015


Ruth Wilson and Maura Tierney in Showtime’s “The Affair.” 


Let’s talk all things Noah/Allison/Helen/Cole, shall we? We’ve got some catching up to do.

The Affair is such a quiet show; one that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to feverish water-cooler-style conversations the next morning. We’ve been watching it religiously all season, but because of the glut of recappable shows on the weekend (and also the fact that it’s, y’know, the weekend), we haven’t had much chance or cause to do weekly reviews. We’ve found that this is a show that really works its way into your head, which means trying to slap up 900 words on the latest episode within 12 hours of its airing isn’t always going to yield the most interesting results. It’s days later that things start pulling together for us. We need the time to come to some sort of conclusion about the episode and what it was trying to say.

So here’s what we think the show has been saying all season, now that we’ve given ourselves several weeks to think about it:

People are innately selfish.

BAM. Your minds are probably BLOWN by that revelation, amirite? Okay, fine. It’s not the most original thought in the world, but The Affair isn’t exactly telling a highly original story. In fact, it’s the basic-ness of the story that helps to make it so interesting to us. Aside from a murder investigation that we suppose is needed to give the story some forward momentum, most of the problems that are facing most of the main characters are highly relatable. Marriages that turn cold. Dead children. Sick children. Children that you’d like to strangle because they’re so awful. Horrible in-laws. Parent issues. Money and class issues. Siblings who embarrass you or enrage you or who understand you too well for your own comfort. Self-image. Stalled career plans. Some of this stuff is so broad that it could apply to almost any adult’s life and some of it is specific in a way that still manages to resonate because it feels like something universal. Not everyone can understand the pain of losing a child or the frustration of trying to become a successful author, but everyone understands loss. Everyone understands a desire for validation and success.

What interests us most (and to be honest, slightly scares us) about the show is that it’s all so open to interpretation and each person’s interpretation tends to say something about them. It’s easy, for instance, to dislike Noah because he so readily embodies so many cliches about entitled middle-aged white men, but we’ve found that we tend to be slightly more … we don’t want to say “forgiving” of his actions so much as sympathetic to why he does them. But in a lot of discussion of this show, it’s harder to find people who are willing to take, say, Helen to task for being so rigidly judgmental or Allison for being so passive. A huge part of that comes down to the gender of the viewer, of course, and this show more than likely has a predominantly female viewer base. Like we said, it’s easy to hate a guy who leaves his wife and kids for a younger woman, but we tend to think (and the show’s creators have backed this up in interviews) that no one in this story is completely innocent or completely guilty. Life happens on a continuum; sometimes people do good things but quite often, those same people do bad (for lack of a better term) things. What The Affair does is try and put all of these actions into the mix to show the range of human actions and reactions. And at the end of the day, what it shows us, over and over again, is that people constantly depict themselves as people at the mercy of the world around them. It’s never their own fault; it’s always someone else’s.

So last week gave us Helen, quite possibly the most “innocent” of the four adults at the center of this story, briefly turning into a right horror of a mother to her kids (who are themselves quite the little horror show) because Noah was awful to her, her mother was awful to her, her kids were awful to her, Max was awful to her, and even random ladies in shops and style salons were all awful to her. She’s the most put-upon white lady in Brooklyn, according to her. Shit didnt happen to her because she screwed up on the scheduling or because she’s spending too much time wallowing in her pity or because she’s day-drinking and doing too much pot; it’s because the world is mean. “Why did you do this to us?” she asks Noah, as a series of her own bad choices and mistakes causes her life to fall apart. Is she “bad” for having a drunken, drug-fueled breakdown after all the shit Noah (and apparently the rest of the world) has put her through? No. But by the end of the episode we felt like there was at least a little bit of an understanding as to why Noah fell out of love with her. Of course Noah’s actions and decisions are his to own, but we think the show has done a very good job of subtly showing Helen’s rigidity and snobbishness without making her seem unsympathetic.

Joshua Jackson as Cole in The Affair (season 2, episode 5). - Photo: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: TheAffair_205_0365

Is Cole a bad person for screwing around with some guy’s wife or for hating rich people or for having some serious shadiness in his business dealings? Well, maybe for that last part a little. But even so, despite the criminality and his caged-animal performance, which always seems likely to erupt into violence, it’s just plain difficult not to feel for the guy. Not just because his wife left him for another man, but because he’s constantly buffeted by people who are trying to get something out of him, whether that’s a sleazy brother who wants his money or a desperate housewife who wants a pearl necklace (the cheap, easy kind) from him or even a soon-to-be-former wife who wants him to make her feel like she’s worth something. In Cole’s world, everyone’s working an angle, which is why he’s so disconnected from most people.

Does Allison deserve to be fired because her boss got a woody? Does she deserve her other boss looking at her through narrowed eyes and barking orders at her because she’s decided she’s a slut? Is it right for Noah to have turned her into some sort of insatiable succubus in his manuscript? No, no, and no. But when she showed up and asked the clearly downtrodden and depressed Cole (who was sporting a shiner she didn’t even bother asking about) to sleep in bed with her, we couldn’t help blurting out “She’s an asshole.” Which maybe is harsh, but in that moment, we couldn’t really support what she was doing. It was just too hard to watch.

No, she’s not a slut but she clearly does have a sort of passively teasing quality that she uses on men and then backs away from. Even before the scene with Robert and his moving pants, we noted how ridiculously inappropriate it was for her to show up for her new job in Daisy Dukes with her bra exposed. She was a nurse and she definitely knows better. That doesn’t make her a bad person, nor does it mean she should have expected Robert to get a hardon or to be fired over it, but you have to wonder exactly what she was thinking. And we wouldn’t have pointed this out (because if it’s taken the wrong way, it sounds like we’re saying she was “asking for it,” which is absolutely NOT what we’re saying) except she noticed it when she caught herself in the mirror and realized how skimpy her outfit was, which prompted her to start asking herself if she was a slut, which she answered by running back to her ex and asking him to sleep with her. All of this is presented passively, as if she were merely at the mercy of the world when in fact, all of it comes down to choices she made and then tried to back away from. Of course the man who left his wife for her is going to see her as a sex goddess. Of course a middle-aged man is going to get a stiffy if you kneel on the floor with him in a skimpy outfit and talk intimately with him while massaging his upper thigh the whole time. Of course your lover’s wife is going to be a bitch to you if you show up on her doorstep after helping to blow up her marriage. Of course your absolute wreck of an ex whose heart you broke is going to eagerly jump back into bed with you to comfort you and tell you you’re perfect. But none of this is examined by her and no revelations are forthcoming. Like everyone else in this story, she makes choices and acts as if she had no choice at all.

But even if this was the week where Allison looked the worst (and last week may have been Helen’s lowest moment), there’s no denying the stunning selfishness and petulance of Noah Solloway. Even as we sympathize with some of his frustrations (it’s hard not to as middle-aged white male writers, after all), it’s impossible not to see what a shitheel he is. He’s not a villain for wanting to leave an unhappy marriage, nor is he one for falling in love with someone else and wanting to spend the rest of his life with her. After all, it’s not like he has a history of sleeping around or anything. This does appear to be a true love match between him and Allison, fucked-up though it may be. And he truly does want to remain a father to his kids, which is vaguely admirable because much lesser men would have merely given up on them. But as his sister (who we LOVED) pointed out, he’s not pursuing custody so doggedly because he wants to raise his kids, he’s doing it to get back at Helen. Which, when you consider how much he’s already screwed her over, as well as the horrifying impact it seems to have had on his kids, causes all sympathy to fly out the window. Sure, it’s tough being a in a cold marriage or having a stalled career, but like everyone else in this story, he uses the problems in his life as justifications for every bad action and decision he makes. This, more than anything else is the one through-line for the entire story and why it’s so engaging. People are innately selfish, but instead of being dark and nihilistic about it, The Affair presents this idea in as humanistic and forgiving a manner as possible. Everyone is flawed, everyone hurts in their own way, and everyone tries to blame the world for their problems.

It’s almost comforting, in a way.


Photo: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME


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