Massive amounts of spoilers for The Affair lie ahead.
Toward the end of The Affair’s season-four finale, Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and his first ex-wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), have an emotional conversation in which Helen confesses that she doesn’t love Vik (Omar Metwally), her current partner and a man dying of pancreatic cancer. At least, she says, she doesn’t love him the way she loved Noah.
Noah responds in classic Noah Solloway fashion: by telling her he knows better. In this case, it’s actually an act of generosity on his part. He knows that Helen loves Vik because he’s seen it with his own eyes. “Where is it written,” he asks, “that love should be the same every time?”
I’ve thought a lot about that conversation after finishing the finale, partly because that scene struck me the most meaningful one of the season, but also because it speaks to framing expectations in a way that feels relevant to watching The Affair. Since season three — for some, maybe even season two — the Showtime drama has often been frustrating, sometimes because of characters’ actions (hut-hem Noah, double hut-hem Whitney) and definitely because its plot developments grew increasingly ridiculous. For an example, I point you to John Gunther, the prison guard played by Brendan Fraser who stalked Noah throughout season three … but only in Noah’s mind.
In its first and best season, The Affair sat comfortably in the prestige drama category. It could be self-serious and overwrought, but it was rooted in mostly realistic human behavior, and its use of dueling points-of-view raised provocative questions about how people construct their own senses of reality. It was a somewhat pulpy, but still literary work of fiction. It was the television equivalent of a book that someone like Noah Solloway would write. Hell, it was a book Noah Solloway actually did write.
That’s not what The Affair is now. In its fourth and penultimate season, it has turned into a full-stop premium cable soap opera, one filled with surprising and not always credible plot twists and an exceptional ensemble of actors that elevate the material, even if they can’t fully overcome its ludicrousness. With its partial shift to L.A. and a finale that closed to the sounds of Death Cab for Cutie, The Affair basically announced that it is now The O.C. for the middle-aged set, but with darker subject matter and a lot more explicit sex.
By the last handful of episodes — which revealed the death of poor Alison (Ruth Wilson) without definitively resolving what caused her demise; suggested Vik’s own death is a only a few labored exhalations away; and dropped the bombshell that Sierra (Emily Browning), the stereotypically Californian neighbor of Vik and Helen, is pregnant with Vik’s baby — I wondered if my appreciation of this series might increase if I adjusted my attitude toward it. If I stopped basing my expectations of The Affair on what it was in its first season and thought of it primarily as what it’s turned into, would I be more forgiving and more willing to praise it for the moments that really resonate? Maybe, just as in relationships, I don’t have to love The Affair the same way anymore.
While it helps to approach The Affair on its current, upper-class trashy terms, even that doesn’t completely excuse its flaws during the past ten episodes. This season had a tendency to introduce characters or potentially significant storylines — Trevor’s coming out, the entire existence of Sanaa Lathan’s Jenelle — and not give them the depth or attention they deserved. It killed off a major character, Alison, for practical reasons — Wilson apparently wanted to leave the series — but within the context of the narrative, the decision read as a transparent attempt to gin up some new mysterious intrigue. The writers concocted a white savior narrative that cast Noah as the hero for one of his students, Anton (Christopher Meyer), who also happened to be the son of Jenelle (Lathan), the principal at Noah’s school and Noah’s inevitable lover. That’s right, two divorced but clearly invested black parents can’t figure out how to motivate their son, but have no fear: Noah Solloway will swoop in and figure it all out for them!
Alison made contact for the first time with her rich father (Tim Matheson), who pretty much immediately asked her to give him her kidney. (#JohnLockeProblems.) Also, literally everyone who even mildly flirted with someone else either wound up having sex with them, or at least made an attempt to do so. Horrible dude sitting next to Alison on airplane? Tried to have sex with her, then gaslighted her. Random hotel employee that caught Anton’s attention? Wound up having sex with Anton in a matter of minutes. Delphine, the manic pixie dream hippie healer that Cole met on his “walkabout” — let’s call that what that was, a road trip — naturally got it on with him. (In her defense, he is Joshua Jackson, and you know you’d do the same thing if he and his surfboard rolled up at your house.) Initially, Helen could not stand Sierra and her horrible trash and recycling habits, so of course they wound up in bed together, but only after Vik got there first. And then there’s Jenelle, a smart woman who, from the jump, didn’t care for Noah and also seemed to hold rules in high regard. Yet, after a couple drinks and some conversation with Monsieur Solloway, who is one of her employees — bam! It’s instant makeout city. I know this show already has a name, and it’s The Affair. But when Helen responded to Noah’s story about Cole running off with the urn at Alison’s funeral by exclaiming, “Everybody’s so fuckin’ crazy,” I thought, that’s what this show should be called now. Showtime presents Everybody’s So Fuckin’ Crazy. Either that or, to borrow the most choice line from Anton’s Princeton writing exercise, Also He’s Fucking My Mother But That Doesn’t Matter.
And yet, as has been the case from the beginning with this series, I can’t bring myself to stop watching it. There is still something engrossing and absorbing about the tangled webs The Affair weaves and the alluring backdrops, whether in Montauk or Los Angeles, against which all the messiness and betrayal takes place. Even when I know it’s manipulating me by introducing yet another potential murder mystery via Alison’s death, I still succumb to the trap. Episode eight, with its conflicting takes on Alison’s final meeting with Ben (Ramon Rodriguez), implied that he killed her but didn’t make that totally clear. (Alternate theory: The dude who tried to choke Alison in her office in the second episode of the season did it.) So I will watch season five because I must get more intel what actually happened. The Affair is Noah Solloway and I am a woman who gets repeatedly seduced by him, even though I should damn well know better by now.
As I mentioned before, a major part of the allure is the actors who are, especially within the core ensemble, furiously committed to excavating honesty out of scenes that would otherwise fly even farther off the rails without them. Jackson is shattering in the last trio of episodes, swinging from panic to rage to horror to sadness as he tries to track down Alison and eventually gets the worst news he can imagine. When he falls back in his chair after hearing that Alison’s lifeless body has been found, it’s a physical expression of what it looks like when all of a man’s forward momentum is suddenly stolen. I also will really miss Wilson, who made Alison the most relatable lead in the series, right up until the end. Alison was damaged and fragile, but Wilson never played her as weak. Her performance was sturdy and consistent.
And there’s West and Tierney, who play two of the most insufferable people on television and are great at it because they understand exactly what makes Noah and Helen so insufferable. Watching them in that lengthy finale conversation was a reminder of how good they are together, both as a fictional couple and a pair of actors with outstanding chemistry. As Noah and Helen, they share air the way that only people who have known each other forever share air: comfortably, begrudgingly, gratefully.
When The Affair settles down and zeroes in on a long dialogue like that one between these two former spouses, it is, briefly, the intelligent drama it was back in season one. What the series is best at, ultimately, is not all that murdery intrigue, but depicting the nuances of growing older, something Noah gets at when he tells Helen that he keeps thinking about how lucky they are to be alive. That’s the kind of moment that rings really true for those who have reached an age where they’ve started to see more of their peers dealing with serious diseases.
It’s also the kind of moment that makes it hard to dismiss The Affair as a bunch of melodramatic nonsense. Every time you’re out, like the tide, this series pulls you back in.