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The Affair Season Premiere Recap: The Beginning of the End Gets Grim

The Affair

501
Season 5 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****

The Affair

501
Season 5 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Paul Sarkis/Showtime

There’s always a bit of a thrill that comes with starting to watch the final season of a show that is very much ending on its own terms, especially a show that has never failed to offer up surprises. From The Affair’s greatest choices (the slow and deliberate unveiling of the original murder-mystery plot in season one) to its more disappointing moments (looking at you, Noah’s “shadow self”), the Showtime drama has always swung for the fences, and its lasting legacy will be the way in which it kept us on our toes as a result.

While season four breathed new life into the series by killing one of its seemingly essential characters, season five begins by focusing not on the lingering memory of Alison but on another departure from this mortal coil: No medical miracles have been forthcoming for Helen’s second husband, and Dr. Vik is now dead from pancreatic cancer.

Some of the show’s signature manipulations of time result, as things begin with Noah and girlfriend Janelle attending Vik’s funeral — well, first he has a meeting with Sasha Mann (The Square breakout Claes Bang, joining the cast this season) to discuss the film adaptation of Noah’s novel. Noah’s relationship with how much the events of Descent are the truth of what happened has changed off and on ever since its publication, but in talking to Sasha he regularly conflates the characters of his book with their real-life counterparts, which is troubling — especially as the actor starts mimicking Noah’s approach to eating scrambled eggs. Safe money’s on this plot thread’s getting more and more meta as the season progresses.

As seen through Noah’s POV, the funeral is lovely, a service Vik planned before his passing, with guests in white and rose petals scattered into his casket — it is honestly just the right amount of sad and pure (which is a feat, given how often TV funerals can verge on cliché).

Noah keeps trying to help out after the funeral, but ten years of neglect and damage mean that his children are standoffish at best, and a grief-torn Helen is full of rage whenever he tries to help. Not only that, but Noah’s completely screwing things up with Janelle — not paying attention to her as she talks about job issues that Noah writes off as bureaucracy but sound much worse, and also brushing off what Janelle interprets as Bruce’s racism as another sign of Helen’s father’s senility.

“You should try not to fuck it up,” Helen warns Noah about his relationship with her, but Jenelle’s abrupt text message informing him that she’s left may be an indication that he already has.

While the rest of the wake watches a video message from Vik, Noah starts doing the dishes, clearly uncomfortable in this expensive house, surrounded by the family that was once his. He eventually cleans the entire house — which is a nice thing to do and also classic Noah behavior, as he’ll rarely miss an easy opportunity to try to prove that he can be a good guy.

Which, to Helen’s credit, she doesn’t let him get away with, snapping that she wishes it had been him, not Vik, who had been lost. After all, Vik didn’t choose to leave her. Noah did. And he’ll be dealing with the consequences of that choice for the rest of his life.

When it’s Helen’s turn to tell the story, we go back further in time to the day of Vik’s death, which is as predictably sad as you might expect, with the added complication of Vik’s one-night-only dalliance Sierra giving birth to his child next door. (Of course it’s a home birth. It is impressive, how Treem and the writers manage to pack in the crunchy L.A. hippie clichés with a relatively limited amount of screen time.)

Helen’s holding herself together pretty well given the circumstances, processing the details she needs to (even while engaging in a futile effort to convince Sierra to go to a hospital). “The problem with you dying is that I hate everyone else I know,” she tells Vik as his breathing rasps, enjoying one last moment alone with her partner before Sierra, and newborn son Eddie, arrive to say hello and goodbye.

It’s a haunting moment — a new life pressed to the chest of a life ending — followed moments later by Vik’s final breaths. Vik’s request for a mix of Hindu and Muslim traditions comes into sharper detail through Helen’s point of view, though blurred by her grief.

Because not too many sections of this episode overlap in terms of time, there’s only one striking deviation between narratives: Noah remembers the photo on display at Vik’s funeral as him in doctor mode, while Helen’s version features a portrait of him smiling happily on a bench. But Helen’s in a daze at this point, barely registering her fight with Vik’s mother over the choice to cremate him, looking at Noah and Janelle together and only seeing them laughing happily. All she’s really able to process is the now-empty hospital bed in her bedroom, and a final message from Vik she’s not ready to watch yet.

Sandwiched between Noah and Helen’s perspectives on Vik’s death and memorial service is the introduction of baby Joanie, all grown up and living in the not-too-distant future with her partner Paul (Lyriq Bent) and children. Anna Paquin’s casting as Joanie came with the news that for one section of the show’s final season, we would see adult Joanie return “some years in the future to a climate-change ravaged Montauk to piece together the truth about what happened to her mother” (per the Showtime press release from last November). But so far, all we come to understand about her is that she’s a wife and mother with at least one adopted daughter and a very technologically advanced house. Oh, and also, she’s not happy — so unhappy, in fact, that her section ends with her taking a fistful of pills.

It’s all tied to what might be a lingering sadness over Alison’s death, all those years ago. As Joanie tells Paul, she’s now the same age that Alison was when she died, which for any adult who lost a parent while young can be an extremely complicated time, emotionally. However, there’s not too much to parse yet from Joanie’s introduction, beyond a few intriguing details about the state of the world a few decades from now — and, of course, the question of how, after the last four seasons of marital betrayal and decent people making bad decisions, Joanie’s journey will play into giving The Affair a fitting ending.

There Is No Objective Truth (Just Bullet Points)

• For those looking for hard facts as to the show’s timeline, there are two key details in this episode: Beyond Sierra’s pregnancy (meaning that it’s been a matter of months since the end of season four), Vik says in his video message that he came into the lives of the Solloways eight years ago, meaning that eight years have passed since season two, and Noah apparently “walked out of their lives” ten years ago.

• Of course, given that this is a show literally built on the premise that there is no such thing as objective truth, take all those numbers with a grain of salt.

• The choice to not label Joanie’s section in the established tradition used to denote Noah and Helen’s parts was a bit jarring, but makes perfect sense as a way to delay the reveal of who this new character was (as using her name would have given the game away). Given that the general population doesn’t spend a lot of time reading Showtime press releases, it was probably a fun surprise for a lot of viewers.

• I have a habit of watching episodes more than once when recapping, and even the third time through Joanie’s section, I was still catching cool details in the production design of her house. Like, is her indoor garden being tended by tiny drones? That’s just nifty.

• Much less nifty: The fact that they take care to oxygenate only certain sections of the house at a time is haunting given the current fires raging in the Amazonian rain forest, which might have a devastating impact on the world’s air quality for years to come. The scariest thing about environmentally focused sci-fi is how close it is to coming true.

• For another take at what life might be like in the not-too-distant future, the recent HBO/BBC limited series Years and Years also leaps forward to depict how technology, climate change, and politics may affect us all eventually. It is occasionally very bleak viewing, but hey, if you’ve read this far, then you also watch The Affair, right?

The Affair Recap: The Beginning of the End Gets Grim