2018 might not have been as disastrous for The Affair as it was for Lethal Weapon, but when one of your leads decides to quit under ridiculously vague circumstances, hey, that’s not great! Yet that’s exactly what happened with one of the Showtime drama’s stars, Ruth Wilson, last year, when her character Alison was unexpectedly killed off — a departure that spawned many theories, given how Wilson has repeatedly said she’s unable to discuss the reasons that influenced her decision to leave the show. It may be because of pay parity; it may be because she wanted to do other things; or it may even be because she ended up hating her role. Who’s to say!
So with The Affair gearing up to air a fifth (and final) season this evening without Wilson, let’s channel our inner detective while recapping everything we learned about her final hurrah over the past year and a half.
Mid-February 2018: Wilson, in an interview with the U.K.’s Radio Times, says she’s “definitely” earning less money than what a man would earn for her co-leading role. She also ascertains that she’s making less money than co-star Dominic West despite their equal billing, while acknowledging he was a more recognizable star in America when they began The Affair: “Certainly when I signed up to that project, I would have got paid less. Then the producers might argue, ‘Well, he’s already done a major American TV show so he’s already got a level.’ But even after a Golden Globe I’m not going to be on parity. So he definitely gets more than me. I mean, I don’t know what the figure is, but I’m sure he does.”
When pressed by the interviewer about what exactly she wants in terms of pay parity, Wilson says she doesn’t want “more” money, but rather “equal” money. “Which means,” Wilson adds, “men have to take less.”
Late July 2018: Showtime announces, a few weeks prior to The Affair’s season-four finale, that the show will conclude following an upcoming fifth season. The network stresses that it’s not a cancellation but rather a natural end, and it was “always envisioned” as a five-season arc.
Mid-August 2018: The show’s penultimate episode reveals the pretty shocking truth about how Wilson’s character died. It wasn’t suicide, as previously teased in the prior episode, but something far more grim: she was murdered by her married boyfriend after a fight, and he disposed of her body in the ocean to make it look like she killed herself. “Ruth wanted to leave the show. That was a request, so that was decided basically before we started writing,” The Affair’s creator and showrunner, Sarah Treem, said about the death. “It wasn’t a discovery of any kind. That was very deliberate. And actually, we shot all of her work first. Her whole story line was shot before we shot anything else.”
Before Wilson’s death scene aired, there was no official confirmation that she would be leaving the show for good.
Mid-August 2018, a week later: Here’s where the mystery really starts to deepen. Appearing on CBS Sunday Morning as her only form of official postmortem press, Wilson admits she’d been wanting to leave the series for a while, but is “not allowed to talk about why.” When Gayle King brings up the topic of money — specifically with regard to how much she made in relation to West — Wilson insists that she “never complained to Showtime about pay parity.” Shortly after her appearance, Showtime releases a statement saying Wilson and the show’s writers had agreed that her “character’s story had run its course,” adding, “Ultimately, it felt like the most powerful creative decision would be to end Alison’s arc at the moment when she had finally achieved self-empowerment.”
Mid-August 2018, one day later: Reiterating that she’s not allowed to discuss her departure, Wilson reveals to Vulture that she had no creative input about how her character was going to leave the show. And not only that, but she had envisioned a different ending for Alison that didn’t involve a tragic death. “No, I had no say over how the character’s arc was going to end, or how she would die and leave,” she says. “I always hoped that she would … I always had the image that she would walk into the sunset with her son with no man. That’s what I hoped for her. But no.”
Late August 2018: While chatting with the New York Times for a profile, Wilson offers a little more fuel to The Affair’s lingering gossip fire, letting slip that there was “a much bigger story” to her departure than just pay parity or wanting other acting opportunities. She also implores the interviewer to contact Treem to obtain more information. Treem demurres from revealing anything more, only reiterating to the Times that “the character of Alison had run its course.”
Mid-September 2018: It’s announced that Joshua Jackson, who plays Wilson’s original husband on the show and is a series regular, will not be returning for the final season. It’s unclear if his decision was in solidarity with Wilson or for another, unrelated reason.
Early November 2018: Details of The Affair’s final season emerge, and boy, times they are a’changing. Jumping a few decades into the future for one “perspective,” Anna Paquin will be a new lead who’s the adult daughter of Wilson and Jackson’s characters — and she’s going to return to “a climate-change-ravaged Montauk to piece together the truth about what happened to her late mother.”
Late December 2018: West makes his first public comment about Wilson departing the show, expressing a bit of regret that he never had the courage to talk to her about their pay gap (a transparency that has helped actresses in the past.) “I never ask what the money is on a show,” he told the U.K.’s Radio Times. “It was more a question of if I wanted to do it. So it woke me up to the issue. I never realized the disparity and the injustice.”
Late August 2019: Maura Tierney, who acted opposite Wilson and West throughout The Affair, offers a new perspective about Wilson’s departure to Vanity Fair, and it’s not about pay parity. “People have different tolerances for different things, you know? I’m not surprised by much,” she explained, agreeing with the interviewer that an actor can simply “run their course” with a show. “That’s what I’m saying. Or how long they want to do one thing. The work was certainly very demanding for her. Like, that character was just suffering all the time. I mean, I can’t speculate as to what happened.” She added: “You know, this show is very specific. And it’s very demanding. And sometimes people have a shelf life for it. I think that’s what I would say.”