Dominic West as Noah in The Affair.
Photo: Mark Schafer/Showtime
You can have your Kilgraves, Ollys, Negans, Allisons, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. (Okay, Allison’s been pretty great.) When it comes to compelling villainy, I’ll take a good old-fashioned frustrated writer with an entitlement streak. And there has been no more loathsome scripted-TV lead in 2015 than The Affair’s Noah Solloway (Dominic West), no matter which character’s point of view is being offered from week to week, segment to segment. (For those uninitiated, the Showtime drama/thriller unravels the far-reaching repercussions of Solloway’s adultery by offering alternating perspectives via a freewheeling timeline.)
At one point during a recent episode, Solloway concedes to his therapist, Marilyn (welcome back to premium cable, Cynthia Nixon!), “I am a terrible, terrible, fucking sick, bad guy.” True. And what’s why we watch you: for being a narcissist borderline sociopath whose midlife crisis is more like an atomic bomb that toxically curses anyone who ever made the mistake of being charmed by his harmlessness.
Over the first ten chapters of The Affair’s lurid second season — a quality no doubt meant to mirror Solloway’s own scandalous literary breakthrough, Descent — our former protagonist has committed the following transgressions against family and friends, at least if one takes the series’ volatile storytelling mechanism at face value: secretly shacking up with his mistress Alison (Ruth Wilson) at an upstate New York cabin while he and ex-wife Helen’s (Maura Tierney) divorce pends; altering Descent’s ending so that his doppelgänger murders Alison’s; transparently depicting the sordid lives of Alison’s extended family, friends, and community to sensationalize his book; hiding the unfinished manuscript from Alison so she doesn’t take umbrage with his creative license and stand in the way of his great success; seeking solace at his sister’s house, only to bristle at the suggestion that he’s unfit for full custody and tear off with his kids after polishing off a scotch and a beer; becoming a desperate, predictable egomaniac when Descent makes him a star; taking a swing (and missing) at a college-newspaper critic; mocking Alison’s mother for her New Age ways and then kissing her ass when it turns out she’s pals with Sebastian Junger; almost fucking his publicist — twice — while Alison’s at home, pregnant and alone; feigning superiority over Helen after she finally snaps and gets busted for a DUI; accepting a $50K gift from his (admittedly sleazy) best friend and ultimately casting him aside after achieving fame; leaving his phone behind while attending a Hollywood producer’s party with his publicist as Alison goes into premature labor; snorting blow and acting the fool at said party before skinny-dipping into a hot tub to watch two women make out — one of whom turned out to be his 17-year-old daughter; and, oh yeah, possibly killing Alison’s ex-brother-in-law in a hit-and-run.
Solloway is, essentially, a scandalized (and possibly more tragic) Nate Fisher for the white-people-problems era — an unsympathetic, disenfranchised yuppie who assumes we’ve all been anxious for his destiny to manifest.
That vehicular-manslaughter tack-on isn’t quite a footnote, nor is it crucial. Like any good pass-around novel, The Affair serves up a trite murder-mystery when the real meat’s in what happens between the sheets. The composite sketch we’ve been given of Noah Solloway over these past several weeks is itself a deconstruction of male mythos that courses through fiction and the canon that empowers it. In the aforementioned conversation with his therapist, Solloway can’t seem to reconcile having missed his window to live out his days reaching for goodness and greatness. He wants to emulate everyone from Omar Bradley to Ernest Hemingway, men who in his mind existed superheroically, with one foot planted in the humility of everyday accountability and the other, necessarily, unregulated. How else, he worries, will men continue to realize the whole of their potential and produce the great art that inspires others to transcend the mundane? (West, it should be said, has been terrific in a layered part.)
It’s a neat bit of rationalization, but also an unwitting condemnation of how so many men feel like they deserve more time to be selfish than mankind’s been allotted. It’s Solloway’s most humane reflection, yet still plainly paints him as the jerk — and that’s all in a scene told from his point of view.
Even if it appears that Alison may be responsible for her former brother-in-law’s death, and has been hiding more from her new husband than he ever dreamed of keeping to himself, the real bad guy this year in The Affair — in both literal meaning and postmodern literary intent — has been Solloway. Here’s to hoping he’s not yet ready to be a better man.