Photo: Mark Schafer/Showtime
At first glance, you wouldn’t think of The Affair as being mainly a show about marriage. Narrated via flashback from what we soon discover is a police interrogation and switching perspectives every half-hour, the series seems like it’s trying to be James M. Cain by way of John Irving: A blocked Brooklyn novelist named Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and a waitress named Alison (Ruth Wilson) meet during the Solloways’ summer vacation in Montauk and forge a connection that leads to artfully elided tragedy. But series creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi (masterminds of the great and terminally underrated In Treatment) treat the noirish aspects as a means to an end. This show is less interested in procedural details than in examining the ways in which couples and their children grow over time, and then grow apart — and even more so the tendency of first-person experience to distort our recollection of facts.
The show’s alchemy stems from its skillful use of smartly cast actors whose poker-faced sincerity makes us take whatever version of this story we happen to be hearing as gospel. The hero seems to get along well with his wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and enjoy his kids even when they’re behaving in alarming or disturbing ways, so there’s no obvious explanation for why he’d suddenly strayed. Because we are used to seeing West, of The Wire and The Hour, as a twinkly eyed alpha who’s catnip to women even when he’s ruining their lives, we believe Noah would obliviously draw female attention pretty much everywhere he goes, and that his charisma is the cause of his flirtation with Alison, a depressed woman who seems to be psychologically and maybe physically abused by her husband, Cole (Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson, so submerged in whiskers and misery as to be nearly unrecognizable). And we buy that Noah, by all outward appearances a decent man, would be forever at risk of cheating, because he’s just one of those guys who reads as “available,” even though he’s in a committed relationship with a woman he adores and who adores him in turn. (It’s that Fatal Attraction thing: Who would cheat on Anne Archer? Michael Douglas, but only because men are weak and Glenn Close came on strong.)
Our understanding of Noah deepens once Alison takes over; we realize that his version of events isn’t reliable, and that hers may not be, either. It’s fascinating to juxtapose the two accounts of how the couple met and see each person’s version contradict the other’s. In Noah’s version of the tale, he has a perfectly understandable reason for going back into the diner where Allison made flirtatious eye contact with him. In Alison’s version, she found Noah handsome in a rugged-dad sort of way, but she was working and had neither the means nor motive to make overtures to a married guy dining with his wife and kids; it was Noah who pursued her, contriving a reason to go back into the diner after the family had already left, then coming on to her with a man’s version of the same kind of plausible deniability we saw when Noah was remembering the moment.
There’s a lot of this sort of thing in The Affair, and it drives home not just the extent to which we reshape personal narratives to flatter ourselves, but also how filmmaking tends to make subjective experiences feel like immutable truths. Whatever we’re seeing is reality, full stop. And when somebody else presents the same narrative from a different angle, and that’s visualized for us, we take that as gospel, too. In the social media age, people like to half-jokingly follow up a written report of an occurrence with “Pictures or it didn’t happen.” Well, The Affair gives us pictures, and whatever’s in the pictures is what happened, but then we’re shown a different set of pictures, and something else is happening. It’s Rashomon Goes to Montauk.
Napoleon was talking about history with a capital H when he called it a set of lies agreed upon, but he could have been talking about personal history, too. The Affair gets that; soon enough, we figure out that nothing it shows us is fixed, much less permanent, and that the title itself might not mean what we think it means, and we’ll just have to embrace the mystery.