I have never been able to break up with The Affair.
During the third season, when Noah Solloway imagined he was being tortured in prison by a guard played by Brendan Fraser, that seemed like a good time to leave. But I stayed. Throughout season four, when, per this review, I renamed the series “Showtime Presents Everybody’s So Fuckin’ Crazy,” I considered ending the relationship, too. But I couldn’t do it.
Now season five is about to start and The Affair is finally breaking up with me, as well as every other Showtime viewer who maintained a commitment to this equal parts maddening and fascinating exercise in multi-perspective storytelling. The fifth season is the drama’s last, and you can sense the creeping finality right away because two of the primary characters — and arguably the two most appealing ones — are no longer in it.
Ruth Wilson, who played Alison, the bereaved mother who engaged in the extramarital relationship with Dominic West’s Noah Solloway that gave the show its name, left the series last season for apparently complicated, still mysterious reasons; Alison was murdered in season four as a result. Joshua Jackson, who co-starred as Cole Lockhart, Alison’s husband, then ex-husband, then lover, followed suit and bowed out as well. While watching the first three episodes of this season, the only ones provided to critics, there’s a sense that you’re peering into a house where several of the residents have already moved out.
But not everyone is gone. Noah and his former wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), are still very much present, and their perspectives on events — every episode of The Affair frames its narratives via different characters’ points of view — are the most central. Showrunner Sarah Treem and her fellow writers also devote part of the second episode to the POV of Janelle (Sanaa Lathan), Noah’s love interest and the principal at the high school where he teaches. More intriguingly, each episode flashes forward by roughly a couple of decades to show us a grownup Joanie (Anna Paquin), the daughter of Alison and Cole, who is now a wife and mother herself struggling with anxiety and the awareness that she’s facing a birthday that will make her the same age her mother was when she died.
The Affair also gets more meta this season, as Noah’s novel, Descent — based on his affair with Alison and the dissolution of his marriage to Helen — is being made into a movie starring a high-profile actor (played by Claes Bang) who’s also making his directorial debut and is determined to get every moment in the movie just right — at least as he sees it. The Affair seizes on this self-referential conceit to occasionally poke fun at itself and its own story structure. “I shot it both ways,” says a frustrated Sacha, Bang’s character, while shooting a confrontation scene that takes place on a master bedroom set that looks very similar to the actual bedroom Noah and Helen shared when they lived in Brooklyn. “But I’m not going to shoot the whole fucking movie like that.” Already, Sacha is fed up with the demands of showing the same incident through two different sets of eyes and ears. The Affair even occasionally shows a refreshingly wry awareness of its own pretensions: When Helen tells Sacha that she doesn’t think Descent is very good, he’s surprised because it’s been so universally praised. “So many people really like it,” he says. “Yes,” she replies, deadpan. “But I’m not sure that they’re very smart.”
Tierney’s performance as Helen is what really anchors this season and makes it as watchable as it is. In the initial episodes, Helen is grappling with the loss of her longtime partner, Vic (Omar Metwally), to cancer and the fact that their next-door neighbor, Sierra (Emily Browning), has given birth to the baby she conceived during a fling with Vic. (Yeah, The Affair has gotten even soapier in its later seasons.) Helen is overwhelmed and in mourning and a little lost. The way Tierney physically embodies the character, shuffling from room to room of her ginormous California home or glancing impatiently at her overbearing mother, projects a world-weariness that borders on total ambivalence. Helen quickly reaches the “I don’t give a shit what people think of me” stage of grief. Consequently, you never know if she’s going to drop a blunt opinion like that one about Descent, start barking orders at Sierra when she’s having trouble nursing, or open up honestly about her grief. She’s the personification of that lyric from The Affair’s theme song by Fiona Apple: She has only one thing to do and that’s be the wave that she is and sink back into the ocean. You keep an eye on her because you want to see exactly how she’ll crest and crash next.
As fine as the acting is on this show, it has always been a bit challenging to fully empathize with Helen or Noah — especially Noah — because they live such self-involved and privileged lives. (Another possible alternate title for the show: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.) That’s still an issue, although the show tries to reckon with it on some level when it revisits the day of Vic’s funeral from Janelle’s POV. Just about every white person at the post-service reception is condescending or downright rude to her, and Noah doesn’t seem to grasp how hurtful it all is because he’s too caught up in his own head. (Not surprisingly, in Noah’s version of these same events, he is perfectly apologetic.) The Janelle sequence is, like a lot of The Affair, a bit heavy-handed and overdramatic, but it’s not unbelievable, because (a) plenty of white people are this rude and condescending to black people and (b) the white people in this particular family definitely would be this rude and condescending toward black people.
The Joanie flash-forwards are a little harder to wrap one’s head around. Though the year when they take place is never specified, it’s fair to assume they occur anywhere from 20 to 30 years into the future based on Joanie’s age, the slight technological upgrades, and, more significantly, the fact that climate change has begun to wreak its havoc, an issue that Joanie has to contend with as a coastal engineer.
Paquin’s portrayal of Joanie is enigmatic, but that seems deliberate. She’s a woman who doesn’t seem to know herself any better than we do, which means she fits in nicely with the rest of the troubled, un-self-aware souls on The Affair. What purpose does she serve within the broader context of this series? What exactly does she know about her parents and, specifically, about how her mother died? It’s unclear after three episodes, which means I’ll have to keep watching this series until the bitter end to find out. After all this time, I’m not going to end things with The Affair until I have some closure.