Major spoilers for The Affair series finale ahead.
The first time we saw Helen (Maura Tierney) and Noah Solloway (Dominic West) together on The Affair, they were having morning sex and were interrupted by their young children. The last time we saw them together in the show’s series finale, which aired Sunday night, Helen and Noah were having sex on their eldest daughter’s wedding day, as their four children waited patiently outside their motel room for them to finish.
Although their reconciliation didn’t seem likely a few seasons ago, it didn’t land as surprise: Noah and Helen had moved toward each other all season as they confronted themselves and their roles in their marriage problems. In the end, the story of The Affair, which spanned about five decades, was more about the affect of the adulterous relationship on multiple generations than it was about the love story that sparked all the drama.
Actor Maura Tierney, who won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for the nuance she brought to the show’s most challenging role, sticks the landing in her final moment on the series. When Noah asks her if Helen wants to try again, she chokes back tears as she quietly says “yes” and gazes into his eyes. During a phone interview with Vulture, Tierney said she will miss playing Helen Butler Solloway and will always cherish the years she worked with Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, and Joshua Jackson. Although she lamented not getting a glimpse of future Helen in the series finale, she said she was touched that creator Sarah Treem and the writers sought her opinion on whether Noah and Helen should get back together.
What did you think of the way the story ended?
I thought it was a really interesting choice. I hope it came out as good as it felt. It was like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — I’m not comparing it to that, but I mean the level of anger and the pain they’ve inflicted on each other. It was the first time they talked about it.
The show was built around this affair, but in the end, it feels like the show was the story of this marriage. Did it feel that way to you as you were making it?
It did. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. What I really liked about the pilot is that [Noah] was in an ostensibly happy marriage. My character wasn’t this sort of nagging shrew. They didn’t have a sexless marriage. And Alison and Cole were in love. I thought it was very unique to not make stereotypes out of Cole and Helen, which doesn’t usually happen. I also thought it was a bold choice about deciding to make yourself happy over everyone else. That’s not a choice a lot of people can make.
I’m not sure exactly how or why, but it ended up being about Noah and Helen. And that didn’t feel weird to me because they started off happy. It was just that they were keeping things from each other. Over the years, their secrets or the anger they were harboring got stripped away, allowing them to see each other.
As you were reading the scripts throughout the season, did you expect them to reconcile in the end?
Oh no, I had no idea. The writers didn’t either. At the beginning of the season, Sarah hadn’t decided. Early on in the season, they invited me to the writers’ room and asked me what I thought happened. It was a very long discussion. If they got back together, what does it say? It was a back and forth for a long time, until very close to when we shot it.
There were a few long, poignant conversations between Noah and Helen this season, especially in the last two episodes. At one point, Noah declares his love but she says she doesn’t feel the same. But when they’re at the motel in the finale, she admits she does love him. How did you feel about that scene?
I really like her speech. What if I just want to be with you? That’s also about making a choice to be happy. Fuck it. I don’t care what anybody thinks. This is who I want to be with. And it’s also tentative, right? You don’t really know until the end when he’s sitting at her grave, right?
Did you get to see him in his old-age makeup?
No, I just saw pictures. [Laughs.] He made cards for everybody at the wrap party and that was the picture on the front. It was hilarious.
I’m not in the future, right? They were like, “Helen’s not in the future.” And then, one day towards the end of the season, Sarah texted me, “Do you remember Helen ever having a middle name?” And I was like, “No, I don’t think so.” And then, on set, another writer came up and asked, “What do you think would be a good middle name for Helen?” And then a third one asked. I was like, Wait a minute, this is for my fucking tombstone! I am not giving you a middle name for my tombstone!
It seems like they reconciled and stayed together until she died. Her name on the tombstone is Helen Kathleen Solloway. It’s not Butler.
Yes, I think that’s the implication. Isn’t he reading or something?
He’s reading Stacey’s book to Helen because Stacey became a writer. The last time we see Helen in the series, they’re in bed at the motel and he asks if she wants to try again and she says yes.
Oh, that just made me a little sad. We’ll never see Helen again. But yes, I’m pretty sure they wanted you to know they were together.
A few other interesting details: Helen is buried next to her parents and she died the same year as her mother. Her mother lived to be 100.
Of course she did. Margaret will never die!
I want to know what happened to Helen. Was she happy? And what happened to Margaret?
I don’t know. I have no clue. And I said to Sarah, “I don’t want to know.” That’s great, though. I don’t think it was in the script that they died in the same year. So Helen was in her 80s?
She was 79 by my math.
Wow. Well, that’s great.
In the second-to-last episode, you and Dominic had that long scene where you hike to safety from the wildfires. Tell me about filming that.
It was really challenging. My stunt double was good at emotional support, ’cause I wasn’t really informed about how high these things were going to be that I was leaning over, you know? You’re on cables, but it was scary as shit to look down. The stuntwoman even said to me, “I wouldn’t look straight down or you’re going to get vertigo.” I was like, “Okay, the professional is telling me not to look straight down.” And it was really hot and there were a lot of bugs. There were actual rattlesnakes — not stunt rattlesnakes! It was nerve-wracking. And the dialogue was pretty heavy. They’re both laying it on each other, their thoughts, their mistakes. Hopefully, it was a bit funny, too.
I laughed when Helen tells him not to mansplain how to rock climb.
That was one of my favorite lines in the show! That was really fucking funny.
What did you like about working with Dominic?
He’s hysterical. He’s one of the most charming, witty men you’d ever want to meet. Even though we’re doing all of this heavy work, both of us luckily don’t take ourselves too seriously. When the work is demanding, we joke. Or he’ll take a minute and go sit on the grass somewhere. We just know when to stay out of each other’s faces and also when to help each other. He really commits. I mean, no one will give that character a break! And I think that’s because of Dom’s commitment to acting what Sarah writes. Dom doesn’t shy away, even though everyone keeps calling Noah an asshole. He doesn’t let his ego get in the process.
Do you feel like Noah was redeemed in the end? Just as he was starting to have stronger relationships with Helen and the kids, his career started falling apart as those Me Too allegations came out against him. But then in the last couple of episodes, he seemed different. There was personal growth.
I don’t think he has to be redeemed as much as everybody else does. [Laughs.] The character’s also done lots of decent things. The Me Too episode was very complicated, like the fact that Janelle (Sanaa Lathan) told him he can’t tell anyone about their relationship because she was his boss. If the roles were flipped, it would be really uncool. But he respects that. And we’ve seen these women over the course of the show — for example, the publicist hit on him — so the truth is so tricky.
I felt I was reading was someone who was accused of certain things that he didn’t do and other things that he did, like being a predator to his daughter. Disgusting! But I don’t think the character needed saving as much as some people. There’s a real humanity that came out of him and a loneliness, as a result of his choices, that made me feel for that character.
The way the show films from different points of view meant you played Helen in different ways. Can you talk about that process? How did the way you saw Helen change, depending on whose story was being told?
I loved it. It’s one of the main reasons I took the job because even before Helen got her perspective [in season two], you were essentially playing two different characters. And then it was four different characters. I believe, by the end, we did six iterations of Helen.
I have to say, this season, getting to see Whitney’s POV of Helen was my favorite one. At first when I read it, I thought Helen had her shit together. But they were like, No, no, no, she’s a mess. To play her as this needy, insecure, self-involved mother coming unhinged was so fun. Also, we never addressed how much Helen drinks. Helen drinks all the time! We improv’d that on the day. Julia [Goldani Telles] and I worked it out. I grabbed the wine and she says, “Mom, it’s 10 a.m.” And I’m like, “So?” In Whitney’s eyes, Helen is an über martyr.
It seemed like the writers had fun with the finale. What did you think of the choice to have Noah and Helen’s four children sitting outside the motel room, waiting for their parents to finish having sex?
[Laughs.] Eating a cake while their parents fuck! That is pure, 100 percent vintage Treem. I mean, only that mind. She just came in one day and she’s like, “I know the last shot of the whole show. The kids are sitting outside the Memory Motel and Helen and Noah are having sex inside.”
It’s memorable! And the last moments of the show were very moving, too: Noah as an 80-year-old man, holding his cane, reenacting some of the flash-mob moves from Whitney’s wedding. That was an unexpected ending for The Affair.
I don’t know if it was someone in the hair or makeup department or maybe it was one of the writers, but someone mentioned that there was something really moving about seeing him do that as an older man. And Fiona Apple covered [“The Whole of the Moon”]. I was invited to go to that recording session, but I was doing a play in L.A. and I was so bummed I couldn’t go. I’m dying to hear that and I’m dying to see that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.