A popular sport these days among TV critics is to complain about episodes being too long, but there are a few circumstances when it feels permissible for a show to stretch beyond its normal limits. And one of those is definitely a series finale. So we’ll grant The Affair’s fifth-season closer its hour-and-a-half runtime, even though the breakdown of things that actually happens is, frankly, pretty minimal.
There’s still plenty to unpack, so let’s start with this: Who had the odds on the series finale opening and closing with Dominic West dancing to different versions of a 1980s pop song? Because that bet probably paid out big. Central to the action of the finale is The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon,” which first plays as Noah reveals a new talent, such as it is: flash-mob choreographer.
It’s the day of Whitney’s wedding, and Noah’s running around the Butler Montauk estate getting everything ready for her Special Day, from leading a dance rehearsal for the wedding guests (“Ride the tractor! Kick the puppy!”) to coaching Trevor through his responsibilities as ceremony officiant to giving Colin a pep talk about marrying into this crazy family (plus, getting Colin’s mother a plane ticket from Belfast). It all comes with a catch, though: Noah is still not welcome at the wedding, and makes his exit just as Whitney arrives, looking beautiful in Helen’s dress.
Noah walks back to his motel, alone, holing up with some mini bottles of champagne, and that’s when we take a trip to 2053, when Joanie has just been confronted not just by the truth about what Ben did to her mother, but the fact that she doesn’t have any real options for justice. EJ’s gas-guzzling car is running on fumes, so she pulls over to that familiar Montauk mainstay, the Lobster Roll — now owned and operated by Noah!
“A customer! Welcome to the end of the world,” he says, serving her a cup of coffee and some eggs. By the look in his eye when Joanie mentions growing up in the area and that her mother used to be a waitress at the Roll, he seems to figure out pretty quickly who she is, but says nothing — not even later, when she grows frustrated by his prying, and blurts out that she’s just learned that her mother was murdered, running out of the restaurant.
That’s in the future, though — in the past, things switch to Helen’s point-of-view, as Whitney gets ready and is, guess what, maybe, just maybe, being a little bit bratty. (Between it being Helen’s perspective on things, it being Whitney’s wedding day, and also Whitney being, y’know, Whitney, this is pretty much to be expected.) When Margaret butts in to add her own passive-aggressive disapproval, it’s almost a perfect storm of multi-generational rage … until the bubble pops, the women hug, and it’s time for Whitney to get married.
The wedding ceremony seems to go well, Whitney is delighted by her flash-mob surprise, and Helen seems content — but when she tries to text Noah the video of the dancing, it won’t send, and that seems to be her excuse for leaving the wedding and walking to Noah’s motel.
Initially hesitating, Helen eventually decides to enter, and once again rant at him about their relationship, and, essentially, her annoyance over the fact that she really can’t escape him. It’s an incredibly intimate, emotional scene, played between two empathic, mature actors sitting ten feet apart — until Noah gets up. “Will you dance with me, on our daughter’s wedding day?” he asks, and things go exactly as you’d expect. “What am I thinking right now?” he asks. “It looks like you’re thinking you want to kiss me,” she says. And that’s just what he does.
Things go from simple to complicated as Joanie, after yelling at a too-nosy Noah, storms back to her father’s house to get his shotgun. EJ finds her preparing to go back to Ben’s place and kill him, and manages to talk her down — instead offering her the opportunity to run away with him to Vienna.
However, as they drive away, EJ has a bit more truth to unload on Joanie — the fact that thanks to their parents, they are “loosely affiliated.” Congratulations are in order, by the way, for the many viewers who did accurately guess that EJ was Sierra and Vik’s baby, Eddie, all grown up. And congratulations are also in order for actor Michael Braun, who is tasked with delivering some of the show’s trickiest dialogue of all time: trying to simply and accurately explain the connections that have bound together all of these complicated people across the decades. (I’ve probably written 30,000 words about this show since it originally premiered in 2014, and I don’t think I could do it as well.)
Talking with EJ makes her realize she shouldn’t run, and when he tells her that Helen and Sierra became friends despite the drama between them, the possibility of people changing feels real to her. So she goes back to Noah at the Lobster Roll, and they talk about Alison, and how Noah believes she was “one of the few people I ever met in life who actually managed to change.” He seems to do what many, many people before him have not been able to do: convince Joanie that her mother really loved her, and that there is still a chance for her to find some happiness. “You may not be able to save the Earth,” he says, “but you can be there for your children, no matter what happens.”
Time to trip back to the past, this time to see the rest of Whitney’s wedding day from her perspective. While still angry at Noah, she realizes that she misses him being there, and so her grandfather (experiencing a moment of lucidity) helps stage a distraction that lets her, her siblings, and her new husband sneak out of the wedding with a bottle of Champagne and the top of the wedding cake.
When the Solloway kids arrive at Noah’s motel, though, Whitney sees through the open curtains that their parents have reunited — and so instead of rushing in, they all sit outside, sharing the Champagne and cake, perhaps the very happiest we have ever seen them as a family.
In the future, Joanie returns home to her thrilled children — and her husband, despite the anger that was between them before, hugs and kisses her. And old man Noah leans against Helen’s gravestone in the Montauk cemetery, reading out loud from their daughter Stacey’s novel about Montauk — but also really written about her family.
Noah then hikes out to the coastline, as Fiona Apple, instead of screaming into the canyon, performs a new cover of “The Whole of the Moon.” And that’s where The Affair ends.
So, it seems, Ben gets away with murder. And despite the fact that there are two direct connections to the Solloway clan after Whitney’s wedding in this episode, it’s surprising how little detail gets revealed about what happened to them over the following 30 years. It’s fact that Noah moved back to Montauk after the wedding, and given that Noah and Helen did get remarried (per the name on her tombstone), it seems like a fair guess that Helen came back east with Stacey and Trevor as well, just like Margaret wanted. What else happened to so many other characters, from Sierra to Janelle to Luisa to the other Solloway children, remains in the ether for us to imagine.
It feels natural to wish for more details, more clues and stories. But there’s something about the final scene, as West’s aged shuffle on the cliff recreates a 30-year-old dance full of life, youth, and joy. It’s poignant, nostalgic, and more than appropriate for this show, which was always about looking back at what happened, and trying to remember the best version possible. Is it the most narratively satisfying ending? Probably not. But emotionally, it feels apt.
There Is No Objective Truth (Just Bullet Points)
• Sasha Mann’s presence in the finale is limited to him sending a literal wall of flowers to Helen, which does (per Whitney’s POV) make its way into the backyard for the wedding, but otherwise seems to have no impact on her decision to get back together with Noah. Maybe that’s because Noah never gave Helen the card — or because Sasha Mann misattributed Victor Hugo to Balzac.
• One deeply felt regret: Oh, how wonderful it would have been if EJ’s movie nerdity had resulted in him and Joanie, at some point, watching Sasha Mann’s Untitled Affair Project (Previously Known as ‘Descent’).
• Though EJ’s movie obsession does make a lot of sense now, as of course the son and the grandson of professional actors would be steeped in the industry.
• It is a bit surprising to see Sierra at Whitney’s wedding, though it does speak to EJ’s claim that Helen and Sierra end up becoming close friends. But even more surprising is that Sierra’s wedding date (and willing flash mob participant) is her Madame Bovary director Leif, given how dark and drug-fueled their initial connection was.
• The aging makeup used for 30-years-later Noah was, as these things go, well-applied. (It’s never flawless, of course.)
• The finale doesn’t really deliver a satisfying conclusion on the season’s climate-change through line, which is a shame because it was one of the most intriguing ongoing elements. However, given that there are no easy answers for those questions right now, in our current reality, it doesn’t quite feel fair to demand that The Affair provide a cathartic resolution to one of the world’s greatest ongoing existential crises. And perhaps it was all worth it for the layers of meaning behind Joanie’s line, “I’m a coastal engineer. I’m trying to save the world from drowning.”
• And that’s a wrap on The Affair. Thanks so much to Vulture for letting me dig into this one weekly, and to everyone who has read these recaps and said nice things in the comments or on Twitter. Everyone’s point of view, after all, carries with it some degree of truth.