The Affair Showrunner Sarah Treem Explains Why That Ending Felt Like ‘The Right Thing to Do’

Photo: David Giesbrecht/SHOWTIME

Over the course of its five-year run, Showtime’s The Affair spanned the better part of a half-century, from a kismet connection between frustrated writer and father of four Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and depressive Montauk waitress Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), to their tryst’s impact on multiple families across generations. It’s been an epic and erratic path to tonight’s series finale, fomenting with drama onscreen and off, but the 90-minute capper was — in a word — profound. Over the course of The Affair’s final few episodes, showrunner Sarah Treem and her team justified the rigor of moving on from the departure of multiple cast principals by reimagining the series as a time-jumping genre hybrid, ultimately sticking a deeply touching, humane landing. It may well be the best sendoff of its kind since Six Feet Under, even if The Affair’s sum total was nearly as flawed as its leads.

Two days prior to her baby’s swan song, we caught up with Treem to talk about the high-wire act of ending a high-concept project; Noah’s remarkable redemption; the characters’ final, dreamlike detour through “seafood purgatory;” and the soundtrack choice that justified the journey.

How do you cope with the lag between wrapping a long-running show on your end and the eventual public verdict?
To be totally honest, we were down to the wire with post-production. [Laughs.] There’s a lot of feelings involved. We’ve been doing VFX stuff to the bitter end, so I can’t quite anticipate what it’s going to feel like when it’s over, but I guess I’m going to find out this Sunday. In some ways I’m probably dragging it out just because I’m terrified.

In terms of the VFX, some shows have aged main characters more successfully than others. Were you conscious of where your effort might fall on that spectrum?
I honestly don’t watch enough television to be aware. I was definitely worried that we weren’t going to make them look good, but they did a really good job with Noah, and Dominic West also did a really good job with the old version of Noah, and it was a challenge he was excited to embrace. His old-man characterization felt like a really different character to me.

It does come across that West and Maura Tierney are really caring and committed about their characters to the end. Has it felt that way to you, and how crucial is that when you did lose some principal cast going into this season?
I love those actors, as actors and as people. And I agree that they cared so deeply about these characters, and we took them on such an intense ride. Dominic said something like, “Sarah challenged me in every way I could think of.” And I was like, “Well, I could think of other ways.” [Laughs.] I think the two of them together getting so much space to play at the very end was nice for them and nice for us. We were behind the camera just basically enjoying it. Dominic gave me this card at the end that had his future face on it, but he was peeling the face off, so there was this horrifying image, and it was hilarious. But he said playing the character of Noah made him a better actor and a better man, which was a nice thing to say after all these years.

The fact that the finale zeroes in on Noah’s redemption might surprise people, given how Helen had emerged as arguably the central character and the fact that Noah had been through a Me Too reckoning. Are you anticipating how people might read into all that?
I know. [Laughs.] I’m getting ready for all of it. I would say that, at the end of the day, this was a story about this marriage and the choices and relationships between these two people. There’s that classic aphorism: Nobody knows what happens in anybody else’s marriage. And I think that’s basically true. The choices we make for our lives in terms of who we’re going to spend them with, those are not group decisions and we don’t make them for the right political purposes, or even for our children. We make them for ourselves, and sometimes they don’t make a lot of sense to other people. In terms of what led these two characters back together, all I can say is it just felt like the right thing to do.

Another big theme this season was inherited trauma. Was the actual science behind that something you came across midstream during the series and assimilated into the story, or was it always in your back pocket?
That’s such an interesting question. I don’t remember. There was always a sense that this was going to be a story about how this one act impacted not just Noah and Alison, but their extended families and then children in the future. I did start to think about inherited trauma early on in the process. The idea of epigenetics definitely came in later. I don’t quite remember when we started talking about that, but somebody introduced me to the work of Rachel Yehuda, and it did seem to be a science that explained what we understood anecdotally and emotionally in terms of how trauma gets passed on in families. I understood that from a storyteller’s perspective, but I didn’t know there was a science behind it, so that was very exciting.

The character of EJ was the vessel for much of the epigenetics dialogue, but he also turns out to be Vic and Sierra’s son. Some might have connected the dots, since baby EJ’s name is Eddie, but had you hoped it would be a revelation in the finale?
Yes, I did. We struggled with that, in terms of how much we were going to reveal about that character to understand he was this other character grown up. Eddie being his name was the first component. At one point he said, “My father died before I was born,” and we considered taking that line out but left it in. And then he really likes old movies, which we thought was a funny thing only we were gonna pick up on, because his grandmother was a film star. But some people actually picked up on that too, so I was pretty impressed with the audience. I personally have a problem when stories do a reveal that audiences could have never seen coming, even if they were paying close attention. I think that’s a bit of a cheat, so I wanted to put in some bread crumbs about Eddie. I don’t know if we ended up putting in too many, but I think it’s fine either way. He’s part of the story, so if you saw it beforehand, it’s okay.

In terms of other speculative aspects, Joanie jokes to Noah that the Lobster Roll is like “seafood purgatory.” Just to be clear, are the flash-forward scenes intended to be the concrete reality of those characters, or is it open to interpretation?
I think you can interpret it any way you want. [Laughs.] But I did love the seafood-purgatory line, because from Joanie’s perspective, it’s like, “Where the hell is she?” It’s not an active restaurant, there isn’t anybody out here.

It’s like Joe Versus the Volcano in Montauk.
[Laughs.] Totally. That’s exactly right. Whether you interpret it as realism or not, the thing is so much happened where she’s sitting in this place that she has never seen, so in some ways, it all does seem like a bit of a dream or a story. Once the past becomes the past, it becomes less real.

Is it fair to say that when Joanie describes her job as “trying to save the world from drowning,” it’s an apt metaphor for reconciling the enormity of her family’s trauma?
Yes, exactly. It’s devastating when you think about it that way, because of the futility of it. But yes, it’s the only way she’s been able to survive.

And how should audiences reconcile that Ben is neither cuffed nor killed by episode’s end?
My feeling was that this is not a show that brings people to justice. It’s not a show where people pay for their crimes in the way you want them to. Noah pays for other people’s crimes, but he never pays for his, or he pays for them over a long period of time. And Helen never pays for the crime that she committed, and Alison doesn’t deserve to die, and Cole commits his own crimes and is never brought to justice for them. That’s not what this show is about. This show is about the long-term effects of the choices we make and how nobody’s gonna save you from yourself. Joanie thinks she wants Ben brought to justice, and thinks that’s what she needs, and then she doesn’t get it. But in not getting it, it sends her on this spiral back to Noah. What she really needs is not for her mother’s killer to be brought to justice, but to forgive her mother and therefore to forgive herself, so she gets what she needs in the end.

Ben going to prison or dying by her hand is not going to break the cycle of trauma. What’s going to break the cycle of trauma is change, and doing what her mother couldn’t do, which is going home and staying with the people who love her. She’s a child of so much abandonment, and then she breaks the cycle at the very end. In a show that is so much about looking at narrative and the way people construct it and lie to themselves and others when they’re telling their own stories, I didn’t want to do a very simple, bad-guy-gets-caught-and-punished at the end. That feels like a betrayal of the meta-story we’re telling. I wanted to it to be a story about how Joanie ends up changing her narrative about herself.

So you never felt constrained by structuring the show around different points of view?
No, I like it. It’s funny, I’m writing this new series right now, and two of the biggest characters are Hedy Lamarr and Louis B. Mayer, and we’re breaking their storylines separately in one episode, and I keep forgetting that we can go outside their POV. [Laughs.] I’m like, “Well, I don’t know how we’re gonna tell that part about the plane.” And someone’s like, “Well, we’re just gonna show it.” It’s like, “Oh, fuck.” To be honest, I really like this sort of [POV] storytelling. It provides a nice challenge and true character-based exploration of a story I’m personally comfortable and happy in. I’m actually having an issue breaking out of that.

At the end of the day, if the whole series was a roundabout way of encouraging audiences to listen to the Waterboys, was it worth it?

[Laughs.] I think it was, yeah.

The Affair Showrunner Breaks Down that Finale Redemption