back into the ocean

How Climate Change Became The Affair’s Most Consequential Character

Photo: David Giesbrecht/Showtime

The final season of Showtime’s The Affair has been an unusual one so far. Six episodes into the series’ ultimate 11 — the seventh airs this Sunday — the rotating-POV dramatic thriller has wormholed into the lives of multiple secondary characters, including Noah’s girlfriend, Janelle (Sanaa Lathan); Vic’s baby mama, Sierra (Emily Browning); and Noah’s eldest daughter, Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles). But its most radical departure from the long-standing intertwined quartet of primary players — Noah (Dominic West), Helen (Maura Tierney), Alison (Ruth Wilson), and Cole (Joshua Jackson), the latter two having been written off after last season — concerns Joanie, Alison and Cole’s daughter, played in flash-forward segments by Anna Paquin as a grown-up coastal engineer and mother of two adopted children in the year 2053. Through Joanie, showrunner and writer Sarah Treem has introduced us to The Affair’s most meddlesome presence yet: climate change.

Since The Affair’s debut five years ago, Treem and her co-writers have cooked up every conceivable modern malady — both unavoidable and manmade, though those are arguably indistinguishable in Treem’s wider scope — to test the show’s principals with everything from adultery and manslaughter to PTSD and cancer. But in mid-21st-century Montauk and beyond, it’s warming temperatures, rising seas, and a suffocating shortage of reliable oxygen that bedevil those who’ve survived. That creative choice has thrust The Affair into previously uncharted waters of advanced SFX and forced its audience to ponder several pressing practical and existential questions. Does the show’s dire forecast for what life looks like in 34 short years (smart homes that regulate breathable air, mass transit that routinely short-circuits due to flooding, coastal communities plunged into near-total darkness) serve as commentary on the recklessness of its main cast’s relentless self-concern? And would shoreline towns across the country really have to make do without basic municipal services?

A few days after “Episode 506” — which focuses exclusively on Joanie, accelerating environmental decay, and a tide-watching wake-up call about what really happened to Alison — Vulture caught up with Treem to discuss the symbiosis between rising tides and human lives and coming to terms with people’s aptly disparate perspectives on The Affair’s home stretch.

Given the cast shake-ups after season four, was necessity the mother of invention when deciding to flash forward and fold in the impacts of climate change?
We always thought about a flash forward because so much of the show is about how this one affair influenced people so far beyond the original participants. I was always interested in the final season being about how their children live with what happens and how their children’s lives have changed. But Montauk became a character on the show itself a long time ago. We started to think about not just these characters but what would have happened in Montauk at this point.

Montauk and the ocean have consistently stood in for the show’s core themes: birth, death, renewal, etc.
Totally. My grandparents had a house there. I grew up going out there, going to Lobster Roll. I have a real institutional memory of that town, and the town has changed a lot. It’s a little unrecognizable. Nothing stays. Everything is in motion all the time, including places. Our memories of places are just that. So much of this final season and the show in general is about how you’re either moving toward somebody or moving away from them at any given time. It all depends on how much effort you put in. And it’s the same thing for a place, for the land, for the earth. If you keep abusing something, it won’t stick around.

Over the course of the series, the ocean did seem vengeful at times. 
Yes, that’s right. And the sea levels are rising. There’s a real possibility that, flash forward billions of years, we’ll be underwater again. I think of the ocean as this character holding itself at bay for the whole show but constantly kind of reaching. And that’s what Fiona Apple’s [opening-titles] song is about. I think a lot of the song has ended up influencing the course the show took.

Have you discussed that with Fiona as the show has gone on?
I have, yeah. It’s been really nice. I feel like she understood the show better than I did at the very beginning. She somehow knew what the essence of the show was, ’cause so much of that song has ended up being perfect for the themes we explored.

Are you surprised when people are taken aback that this season suddenly explores these huge themes about humankind?
I’m always surprised. [Laughs] Every single year. I’ve gotten used to that, to be honest. When you’re making a show, you forget the audience hasn’t been there with you in the writers’ room for 12 months coming up with all these themes. The show means different things to different people. It’s so much in the DNA of the show itself. I’ve always thought all these themes were seeded into the beginning of the show, and we have absolutely been playing the long game. But I understand people watch it moment to moment. They’re not necessarily thinking about the future or the past.

My response to the show’s climate-change arc has been “Oh, these characters have been so self-involved for five seasons, but they’ve totally lost sight of the fact that the world is coming to an end.”
Well, yeah, and we’re all pretty insignificant. That is the point. It’s a funny paradox in being human, where you can understand how insignificant you are intellectually, but you can’t just think yourself out of feeling how you’re feeling just because you know none of it matters anyway. We’re not trying to undermine the narrative of these characters. We’re trying to celebrate that they lived their lives the best they could, and at some point, it’s somebody else’s turn.

Was the decision to dovetail Joanie’s story with the climate conditions a way to make it clear that it’s not purely nihilistic commentary?
Part of the question we had going into this season was, How is she even going to find out what happened to Alison? We were working with this idea of a confirmation bias. Why did everyone just accept that Alison killed herself? Her daughter has suffered her whole life because of this confirmation bias. With Cole, it was easier to live thinking Alison had killed herself than thinking he had somehow failed to prevent her murder. With Joanie, the idea that Alison killed herself has created this feeling of unworth, so she needs that story to be false.

When we went back into Joanie’s story line, we were thinking about Alison’s death at the jetty and were like, “What if Joanie’s a scientist? That Joanie understands that the story they told her wouldn’t be possible?” Joanie being a climate scientist came out of that necessity to help her solve the issue of her mother’s murder. But then we started to think about these larger issues of the climate in general, and there’s more coming in terms of how all the stories we’ve seen build this season come together. I’ve been reading some criticism, and it’s like, “It’s too disparate. Too many different arcs, and I don’t see how they all come together.” They will. [Laughs] It’s halfway through the season. Give us a sec. It will become clear.

Did you get any pushback from the network or crew when you landed on a concept that would require a more expensive effects budget and more complicated execution?
No, I don’t think so. In terms of the writers, people were excited about it. We got to talk to a lot of supercool people: futurists, epigeneticists, climate-change scientists. The network, I think they were open. For sure, the VFX budget went up, so we had to find that money in other places. But everybody was jazzed on it. After five years on a show, it’s always nice to stretch and see what you can do.

What were your takeaways from consulting with all those technical experts?
One thing I found really interesting is the future’s probably going to be weirder than anything we put onscreen. We actually shot this whole scene with people telecommuting with holograms. Theoretically, that’s not an impossible idea in the next 30 years, but it’s too weird onscreen. It takes your focus completely out of the scene, so we had to pull back from some of the more futuristic ideas we’d been playing around with.

Photo: Paul Sarkis/Showtime

Some of what’s depicted feels like it has familiar touchstones. The strawberry garden, for one, reminded me of Lois Smith’s greenhouse in A.I. How much did you take your cues about what a climate-ravaged near future would look like from existing references?
The costume designer did a lot of interesting research. One vision I had for the costumes was the movie Her, which I think does a really good job subtly altering hemlines and stuff like that in this way that’s a little bit vintage and a little bit futuristic. We wanted to avoid the idea of a future uniform, which I think a lot of times is an initial thinking about the future, that everyone’s gonna look the same. But obviously, we don’t all look the same now. We thought a lot about what their hair would look like [in] a world where water had become a more limited resource, so a lot of what you’re seeing is braided and would stay in for a while, especially on women. We thought about future communication devices. And then our production designer did a lot of thinking about how much of the future is going to be left in the past, and how much is going to be looking forward to a different design. We kept trying to go back and forth between thinking about what the future might look like but what’s going to feel nostalgic.

There’s a kind of Sarah Connor–as–coastal-engineer stoicism about Joanie, down to her wardrobe.
Right. And Anna Paquin’s character is the character who would be [the same age as] my children’s generation [in 2053]. So the idea that there’s a question about climate, about whether having children is a moral imperative or an act of selfishness, was something we were both fascinated and horrified by. Ultimately, her disgust for having children is less about the climate than this character having adopted the climate as a defense against her own fear of having children because of her personal family history. She knows, based on her science, this is an irresponsible thing to do, but the truth is she’s afraid of having children because she’s afraid of doing to them what her mother did to her. In so much of the reason we say we’re doing something, we can justify our decisions based on one piece of information we’re using that validates our thinking. That’s what we thought was interesting about Joanie: that she’s using climate change, not that she’s wrong about it, to defend decisions that are coming from a deeply hurt place.

Even though so much of what has been wrought this season has always been in the show’s DNA, was any of it born out of a desire to say something pointed and political?
That was not something we were conscious of. Climate change is on all our minds because we have children and it’s one of our greatest fears for their lifetime and the future. And it felt like a beautiful metaphor for our show. A relationship with the climate is not a relationship we take for granted in the same way we can take for granted our relationships with each other, but nothing sticks around if you don’t invest in it. When I think of being a child and assuming the weather would always stay, I find it extraordinary that that is something that now, as an adult, I have to think about. I find it really tragic, but also I find a real beauty in it when I think about the way of the world and how everything is constantly in motion. Everything is a wave. Everything is either coming or going. Climate change felt very much a part of that. When people react to climate change and say it’s not happening and how dare we put it in the show, that honestly surprised me. I’m surprised people see that as an agenda that we’re pushing or not pushing, as opposed to just a realistic view of the future.

How Climate Change Became The Affair’s New Big Character