Remembering the uncertainty: A look back at The Affair Season 1
Ivan Radford | On 28, Oct 2015
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of The Affair. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review here.
“Do you remember what happened?” “Like it was yesterday.”
It seems so long now since Season 1 of The Affair premiered in the UK, but it has only been a few months since that unexpected, cliffhanging finale. Or has it been only a few weeks? Uncertainty is all too apt a sensation with this show: it’s a series that trades in memory and confusion.
The story, if you need reminding (or you’re planning to drop in just for Season 2), follows Noah (Dominic West), a teacher and author on holiday in Montauk with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and their kids. But one day, his daughter chokes in a diner, an accident that introduces him to waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson), who is also married – to ranch owner Cole (Joshua Jackson).
She smiles and flirts, but she’s also dealing with a tragedy of her own: the death of her four-year-old son. After the choking incident in Episode 1, she disappears to the diner toilets to compose herself, where Noah accidentally stumbles upon her and comforts her. Then, suddenly, we’re back in the diner and he’s the one smiling and flirting. The daughter chokes in the diner and Alison heads to the bathroom – only for Noah to knock on the door to speak to her.
Every episode follows this same structure, telling events from his perspective and then hers. It’s a device that leaves things up to interpretation, turning that simple set up into something dizzyingly complex. It takes two to tango, but they’re not necessarily thinking of the same tune.
The 30 minutes spent in each person’s company gives them more than enough time to tell their side of the tale. Dominic West is superb as the grouchy writer, struggling to think of ideas for his next book and bitter about his condescending father-in-law. Ruth Wilson, who impressed all those years ago in the BBC’s Jane Eyre, is equally brilliant: alluring and kind-hearted.
Flip to the other side of the coin, though, and he’s the one who grins seductively and cracks the jokes, while she is in agony over the loss of her child.
That shifting mood is captured by the cast in the smallest actions: Alison offering Noah a drink, or him clutching his daughter while ordering some jam; Helen glaring at the waitress or correcting her dress strap. Everyone seems to be looking for some way to control their story, whether out of grief, insecurity or lust.
The narrative is precisely governed by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who worked together on In Treatment. Their writing alters each line of dialogue to startling effect: “You found me,” exclaims Alison, cheerfully, by the sea. “I found you,” he declares, brightly, half an episode later.
What makes The Affair such a consuming piece of drama, though, is that the differences are not just on the page: they are visual, acoustic, running right down through each technical department. In Noah’s account, Wilson is made up, with colourful hair and glinting eyes. In Alison’s, she has less make-up on, while he has perfect teeth and the screen glows around him. It’s a triumph of perspective, achieved by a collaboration between everyone from the costume department to DoP Steven Fierberg and the team of directors. Even the theme song, by Fiona Apple, talks of sinking back into the ocean – a reference, you sense, to how Alison’s son died (secondary drowning after ingesting sea water) – which is then echoed by repeated shots of Noah swimming. As he eyes up the other women in the pool, water becomes both a symbol of liberation and also a current that drags people back into the past.
To thicken the plot further, the pair’s contrasting versions of events are narrated in the future to a police officer, who we soon discover is investigating the hit-and-run killing of Alison’s brother-in-law, Scotty; a setting that immediately suggests this affair won’t end well. And sure enough, things go slowly to pot, as the lies stack up. By using that dual narrative, the programme manages to waltz us through a range of feelings; excitement, in Episode 4, as Alison and Noah escape to nearby Block Island for a weekend, complete with amusing furniture re-arrangement; shock, as we find out later that Scotty and Noah’s daughter, Whitney, have had their own relationship and she’s become pregnant; and doubt, as the police detective ties Scotty’s death and events described in Noah’s eventually-published book to Block Island, which he claims never to have visited.
With our sympathies lying on both sides of the fence, The Affair emerges not just as clever piece of story-telling, but as a study of culpability: it understands that the act of remembering is inherently emotional. Both parties seem to think the other is to blame, a split that turns a fling into an absorbing study of memory as well as romance. The line between love and guilt is thin; The Affair finds endless shades of grey along its blurred edges.
Alison’s memory of her son’s death, for example, isn’t concrete: on the one hand, she blames herself because she didn’t take him to the hospital, but also blames Cole, because she wasn’t actually there when he drowned. It’s impossible to move on from something, if you can’t remember what you’re trying to move on from.
As this tangled mess of baggage unfolds, it’s surprising just how much the show manages to cram in: we take in everything from drugs dealt by Alison and Cole as of way to deal with their debts to Noah being caught having sex with another teacher in a classroom, which leaves him stuck in a strange pseudo-detention for an episode. By the time the final chapter arrives, both partners have confessed their infidelity, but, more importantly, we’ve seen Noah fly off the handle at Scotty at an abortion clinic – and so has his wife and, we presume, the police.
So when Whitney heads to see Scotty in Montauk, taking us all back there again, you expect something dramatic to happen. Sure enough, Noah attacks him once more, fuelling the doubt in his claims of innocence over Scotty’s murder, but then Cole pulls a gun on him, making Noah seem like the rational one.
It’s one of many brief moments that Joshua Jackson nails; his turn as the equally tortured, bereaved spouse is generous to a fault, encouraging Alison to stay with him, while still full of rage. Maura Tierney, who charmed audiences for years as Abby in ER, is similarly likeable, looking after the kids after her split with Noah, yet still tragically wanting him back.
The lack of resolution over the mystery surrounding Scotty’s death is an irritating cop-out, which suggests that maybe a second season wasn’t always on the cards. But it also emphasises The Affair’s clever balance between whodunnit and who-shagged-it: the uncertainty surrounding Noah’s innocence is as much about Alison’s faith in him as it is evidence. (Let’s not talk about how he bribed that mechanic who fixed his car to pretend it never happened – only for him to be wearing a wire anyway.)
And so, as Noah is carted off to prison six months later (when he and Alison appear to be living together), the news that Season 2 will introduce both Cole and Helen’s perspectives is a welcome one: the Season 1 finale proves that both Noah and Alison’s partners have their own conflicts to work through. But it’s also a thrilling reminder of how little we can trust any of what we’ve seen.
“I promise I’ll get you out of this,” Alison tells the arrested Noah at the end of Season 1. Do we believe her? Who knows? But you can bet the other characters will have something to say about it.
Season 1 to 3 of The Affair is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it 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), Sky Atlantic (Westworld, Game of Thrones, Billions) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead).
Photo: Phil Caruso/SHOWTIME