Warning: This contains spoilers.
“At first, Noah seems like the greatest guy on Earth. But then, you start to really get to know each other…”
First impressions are everything in life – especially in relationships. Love at first sight is something we’re sold from a young age, while the act of commitment is a pledge to move beyond those first impressions and get to know what someone is really like.
The Affair has always positioned itself as an explicit exploration of the importance of perspective, with Season 1 jumping between the POV of Noah (Dominic West), a married writer with kids, and Alison (Ruth Wilson), the married waitress who serves him in a diner during a family holiday in Montauk, only for them both to fall passionately in love. The show dazzled with its playful shifts in appearance, rippling all the way down from its camerawork to its costume design and make-up, leaving us unsure who was telling the truth about how their affair unfolded – a game that became a deliberate back-and-forth of guilt, thanks to the knowledge that the police were investigating the future death of Scotty, the brother of Cole, Alison’s husband.
The show’s refusal to answer the murder mystery at the end of Season 1 was a frustrating cop-out, but one that has been well and truly justified by the fascinating first half of Season 2.
We’ve now moved on from police testimonies to a more standard story of a relationship’s early stages. Alison and Noah are living in a cabin in the woods, a peaceful place away from the troubles of the past.
What makes this new tale – still haunted by the looming threat of Noah being charged with Scotty’s hit-and-run death – so gripping is creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi’s decision to add two more perspectives to the mix: Helen’s and Cole’s. That extension of the programme’s remit forces us to spread our sympathy further, adding more shades of grey to the emotional palette. We even jump back and forward in time, just to keep things really disorienting.
The secret to The Affair’s success at this juggling act is that it’s all told so handsomely: the little touches in presentation are still out in full force, gently tweaking our perception of events, while the dialogue is pitch perfect. Treem has a habit of hiring playwrights (such as Sharr White and David Henry Hwang) to write episodes and there’s a theatrical elegance to the way these interweaving narratives are crafted – every speech has substance, but is also concise enough to let the story be squeezed into 30 minutes, while the pacing is thoughtful, but never slow. It’s like watching one-act, half-hour plays back-to-back.
The constant leaps between perspectives, meanwhile, repeat the show’s engrossing – and often affecting – knack for dismantling first impressions. Every time we meet a new supporting character, we’re already aware that they may be seeing things differently. Jon, the lawyer paid by Helen to defend Noah, seems like a helpful slimeball when he first appears – but we see another side of him when he bumps into Alison later, as he looks down on her with a sneer. She’s hurt, one of many times that Ruth’s face crumples with heartbreaking sincerity.
But Alison is no longer the only woman demanding our support: Maura Tierney’s Helen proves a hugely rewarding counterpart, as she struggles to keep her family together, half wanting Noah back, half wanting nothing to do with him. Her empty fling with a rich man approved of by her mum only adds to the absorbing complexity of her failed marriage.
Joshua Jackson, meanwhile, emerges as possibly the best of the bunch as the tortured Cole, who finds himself stumbling into work as a cab driver, sleeping with a passenger, feeling awkward about it, and then falling for the cleaner who works for her. That’s Louisa (a fiery Catalina Sandino Moreno), a waitress whose flirting with Cole over a bar takes Joshua’s lonely cuckold from the first impression of intriguing and sexily-bearded to a less appealing, anti-social drunk.
For every fathom of depth added to our characters, these relationships also smartly deepen the mystery surrounding Scotty’s death: the discovery that Scotty wants to sell the family home, something his brother doesn’t approve of, not to mention Scotty’s drug-dealing and the fact that he’s been sleeping with Luisa, suddenly makes their sibling relationship seem strained enough to turn sinister.
“Half the people in this town wanted Scott Lockhart dead,” Jon tells Detective Jeffries in Oscar’s familiar Montauk diner. “Why did you zero in on my client so fast?”
The majority of time, though, is spent with Alison, as she navigates her way through her new life, just as Noah’s moves back to New York to look after his sick son, Martin, plus have a residence suitable to fight for custody of the kids. That geographical distance emphasises the growing gap between Noah and Alison’s perspectives: where their stories once told the same events, now they are jarringly unrelated. That simple change in structure and content delivers the crushing realisation that, outside of Noah’s narrative, Alison doesn’t really have an identity or existence: the alluring Other Woman has to find a tale of her own.
And so Alison begins to work for Yvonne, a publisher living nearby with her husband, Robert. Even that, though, becomes soured by Noah’s take on things: they’re both reading the manuscript of his novel, which, much like the show in Season 1, portrays Alison as a seductive temptress, someone who was always more flirtatious in his chapters than hers.
“She was sex, the very definition of it. The reason the word was invented,” he writes, the kind of sentence that is enough to colour anyone’s first impression of a character – or alter it altogether. And so Alison finds herself kicked out from Yvonne and Robert’s home. Robert, seemingly innocent with his need for physical therapy, is eventually revealed as having a hard-on for Alison too. “I guess you just have this effect on men,” he tells her with a sickening smile.
Where should she head now? Back to Montauk, of course, where Cole seems comfortable with her sharing his bed – or does he? Before we begin to second guess his opinion, something that we never would do in a less complex TV show, we see Alison storm out of Yvonne’s office, only to pause and look at herself in the mirror, reflected back in floods of tears. The Affair Season 1 was an expert study of culpability and infidelity. The Affair Season 2 has grown into a mature and dizzyingly nuanced exploration of romance, commitment and refracted identities. At this rate, we can’t wait for Season 3, where we get the perspective of the local bus driver. Or Season 4, where we find out what the postman makes of it all.
Season 3 of The Affair is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm every Monday. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to other Sky channels, including Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead). Season 1 and 2 of The Affair are both available as box sets.
Photo: Steven Lippman/Showtime