Critics’ Quarrel: Debating The End of ’The Affair’

Tackling the divisive series from two points of view

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Basically this. (Showtime)

There are two sides to every story — unless the story is a review, in which one critic’s word is the gospel truth, at least until you hit the comment section. Not anymore! In an echo of the he said/she said structure of the show itself, we’ve tapped critics Sean T. Collins & Eric Thurm to walk us through their opposing points of view on both the finale and the whole first season of The Affair, Sarah Treem & Hagai Levy’s Showtime series presenting an extramarital fling — and a murder — from the dueling perspectives of the two participants. Sparks will fly!

Part One: Sean

My love for The Affair is passionate and tempestuous and closely guarded, an embarrassingly thematically-appropriate way to love The Affair. It’s the show I’m most likely to tweet about rhapsodically at two in the morning after a few drinks, marveling at its sharp sexiness and sophistication as if I’m impetuously blurting out a secret to my fellow night-owls and barflies. These tweets are often shot through with bafflement and contempt for the show’s detractors: Why, goddammit why, does no one love The Affair like I do? Don’t they know how good they could have it? I feel like I’ve discovered the best thing in the world and it’s a thing only I can see.

Which is an exaggeration, of course, but only slightly. Even many of the show’s initial, vocal supporters appear to have cooled on the bifurcated saga of Noah Holloway and Alison Lockhart; on HitFix’s annual critics’ poll it ranked a lowly 24th, below such scintillating fare as The Walking Dead, Gotham, and season four of Homeland. At moments like this, I worry that TV criticism’s sensible refusal to conflate “serious” with good may have become a reflexive zeal to conflate “serious” with “bad.”

But the worry is slight compared to my deep, deep delight in the show itself, which is one of the best on television. It’s just so smart, and so specific, about so many things that are hard for TV to do without getting all, you know, teevee about them. Sex, yes, of course — Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are enormously attractive people, as are Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson, and if nothing else it’s fun to watch them fuck. But the show captures more than just hot naked bodies. It gets at the varying, unique intensity and dynamics of all different kinds of sex, from the familiar and comforting to the novel and forbidden, from fun one-night stands to soul-killing ones, from long libertine afternoons to urgent late-night assignations. On a separate but related note it’s also unsparingly insightful on marriage, on how the tremendous security can come to feel procrustean, yet also how long-term love can deepen into something closer to a gravitational force.

And it’s brilliant on the forms of virtue we celebrate in different genders. Note how Noah’s viewpoint always portrays him as a Good Man, a mensch so misunderstood and unappreciated he can’t help but do the wrong thing anymore, yet still strives to do the right thing, woe is him. By contrast, Alison’s viewpoint paints her as the Long-Suffering Woman, whose pain and grief is total and untouchable by anyone’s understanding. The Affair is speaking some heavy-duty truth about masculinity, femininity, and the forms we force ourselves to take on their behalf even when no one’s looking.

But the show goes beyond the he-said/she-said sex/love/marriage stuff, and that’s where it gets truly impressive. The Affair didn’t need to give both its protagonists huge families of well-drawn characters, each with their own set of interactions and expectations with the protagonists and one another. The stuff with Noah’s daughter or father-in-law, the stuff with Alison’s mother or sister-in-law, is strong enough for other shows to build whole episodes around. And good god, The Affair does not fuck around about pain. Alison’s ordeal as the mother of a son who drowned has manifested itself in some of the most powerful television I’ve ever seen — her breakdown after watching a child with cancer vomit from chemo right into his mother’s hands, her graphic on-screen self-injury, her almost unwatchable insistence to her pediatrician that “next time” she’ll save her son’s life, as if she can get a do-over…this is the kind of face-on treatment of difficult ideas and emotions we should be demanding from all forms of art.

Certainly the finale is The Affair at its wild-and-wooliest. Ending the entire season on a Law & Order act-break cliffhanger, revealing that Noah and Allison are now happily married, well-to-do parents just before Detective Jeffries swoops in to arrest Noah for Scotty Lockhart’s murder? That’s neither the quiet, resolutely un-dramatic character study that the show always was at its best, nor the resolution of the whodunit aspect that many viewers, myself included, expected even after the news that the show would be returning for a second season.

But while the continuation of the murder mystery is indeed frustrating — for every Twin Peaks, where the decision to prolong the central mystery was wise, there’s a The Killing, where, uh, not so much — that frustration dissolves when you consider all the new corridors the show can travel in its new status quo. How have Noah’s children handled his remarriage and the birth of their half-brother? Is Helen’s contempt for her ex and his mistress enough to make her believe he’s actually a killer? Will the sprawling, feuding Lockhart clan all line up behind this theory of the case, given their long-time rivalry with Oscar and other players in Montauk politics and crime, not to mention one another? Has the birth of a new son helped Alison genuinely recover from her grief over the one she lost? The meticulous way in which the show has rooted its plot developments in character, rather than the need of a story to do Thing X just because this is usually the time when Thing X happens, has earned it a ton of leeway, and kept me confident that I’ll be just as hot and heavy for season two.

Part Two: Eric

I liked the first few episodes of The Affair, but I don’t think I quite understood what kind of show it was supposed to be? Those first few episodes, which take pains to show the same events from the perspectives of both Noah and Alison, are pretty interesting looks at one human relationship and the way it’s refracted through the prisms of both of their personalities, histories, and pain. (Forced through a police interrogation.) But then the show stopped caring about all of that, and threw a ton of twists at the characters for no reason. The ranch was being sold! Noah loved Alison! No, he wanted to go back to his wife! Wait, no, he wants to be with Alison! Someone is pregnant!

There are shows that can lean into this level of melodrama and pull it off well — and the cast of The Affair is certainly talented enough to handle a heightened level of emotional reality, something that perpetually signals that we’re not quite supposed to take everything so literally. Yet everything here seems weirdly muted, as the seeming intellectual aims of the show (which revealed itself to be just a gimmick) make it harder for everything to lean fully into ridiculousness, because I’m actually still supposed to care what happens to these characters for reasons other than shock. That’s a little too much to ask, particularly as I’m also asked to actually care about the resolution of the murder.

It’s too bad that the back end of this season went so far off the rails, because, you know, there’s actually some pretty good stuff in this episode. Opening with Noah’s directionless sleeping around is pretty excellent, suggesting that all he ever really needed was to be unshackled from the “conventions” of his “marriage,” Walter White-style. Noah is far more compelling as an unrepentant cad and horrible husband than as someone I’m supposed to care about ending up with Alison. It’s cool that Noah’s daughter Whitney is sort of a character with own agency now, and Julia Goldani Telles gets to play with some steel.. And seeing Joshua Jackson’s Cole get to have a real showdown with Alison and then rock out with a gun was a lot of fun! Sure, it’s kind of nuts, but the extent to which he’s been wounded by his wife is palpable.

And then it fully turned into Damages? I can’t imagine someone really caring about the murder framing device. I guess I can sort of see how the twist that Noah actually did murder Scotty Lockhart (apparently — nothing is ever as it seems on this show in the worst way) would be exciting to someone who liked the show. It’s also the closest we’ll get to a full admission of how terrible he is, though not one that makes me want to watch this character again.

But this is obviously a season finale, one that doesn’t really wrap up many loose ends and sets up another year of Noah fighting with the judicial system waffling on whether or not he really loves Alison or just kind of loves her. At first I thought The Affair would be a seasonal anthology like True Detective, a show that would explore human memory and illicit relationships and even variations on soap in different settings every season. That would be awesome! And it’d have suggested some closure in this finale.

For me to care about The Affair as a show that might run for ten years (as all Showtime series do these days), I’d have to care about Alison enough to sink ten hours a year into her life, or care about Noah at all. And, uh, nope. I’m not even sure the writers realize how terrible they are most of the time. Because the most unforgivable thing about this episode is what it does to Helen, Noah’s wife.

Maura Tierney’s performance is elegantly understated and her character refreshingly complex. So her pleading for him to come home and conduct toward him (save a few scathing looks) just makes her appear toothless and weak and uninteresting, an impression that’s only strengthened by the show’s revelation that Noah and Alison are together at the end because I guess why not? The Affair is so close to being really good television — it has all the right elements, for the most part, except for good, empathetic, and communicative writing. The show is deeply interested in Noah and Alison, but now  I don’t get what it sees in them, which means I don’t quite get what people see in it.

Part Three: Sean (Again)

I guess The Affair’s central thesis is true: People really can see the same thing in two radically different ways, huh? It’s funny, though, that stuff I actually had a harder time with in the finale, like Cole getting all armed and dangerous, actually played perfectly well with you. On the other hand, we’re in agreement that the murder mystery itself is probably the least engaging aspect of the show. Maybe it was more of a draw when it looked like Alison and Noah were going to be telling stories designed to cast doubt on one another, but that no longer looks to be the case. In fact, I’m not sure the show’s best understood as two people telling different stories about the same event anymore, if it ever was. Noah casting Alison as a smoldering working-class temptress versus Alison painting Noah as a swaggering upper-class cocksman? That’s one thing. Completely different versions of that time Alison’s husband pointed a revolver at them? Now we’re on some alternate-timeline isht. Shrug — I suspect Noah’s covering for someone close to him, perhaps even Helen, for what it’s worth.

But I don’t think it’s worth much, not compared to the show’s firm and dexterous grasp on its characters above all else. I really couldn’t disagree more about how the finale portrayed Helen, just for starters. Breaking up a marriage — a family — is like taking a jigsaw puzzle you’ve constructed over the course of decades and tossing it across the room, scattering some pieces while gluing others together, lighting some on fire, and throwing still others away altogether. Only four months into their separation, still united by their love for their children, there’d naturally be times when Noah and Helen alike would want to grab those glued-together pieces and try to work with them, no matter how much Noah relished his freedom or Helen justly reviled his infidelity. It may be a bad decision, but it’s not a weak one. It’s not weak for people in pain to seek an end to it, even just a temporary, illusory one.

That the kind of hands-off approach to human behavior I like best about The Affair, and I think it’s why I see complexity and empathy in the protagonists where you’re seeing a pair of vapid assholes. It lets Noah and Alison, and Helen and Cole, make mistakes without treating those mistakes like referenda on the sum total of their moral character. It does make it harder to see what they see in each other, and what the show sees in them too, because these things are obscured by emotional and behavioral false starts, dead ends, and double-backs instead of set front and center. But I like taking that journey to get where they’re going. I’m in it till the end, or, as the case may be, The End.

Part Four: Eric (Again)

“Alternate timeline” seems like a pretty charitable interpretation of what the show is doing now. It seems relatively clear to me that Noah’s half of this episode is the version he’s presenting to Jeffries, depicting Cole as the clear villain, his reunion with Helen in fairly sympathetic terms (this might be the explanation for why I dislike her portrayal in this episode — it’s coming from Noah), and clothing Alison in saintly white rather than the grey she’s wearing in her own story. In turn, Alison’s half rushes forward to something that I suspect is a bit closer to what “really” happened, culminating with Noah getting taken into custody. The investigation still seems like the justification for the split-story structure, which continues to bother me because not only is it unnecessary, it’s a distraction from the stuff that’s actually good about the show.

Sean, we’re at least in agreement that neither of us particularly care much about the identity of Scotty Lockhart’s killer, or the fallout from the murder. But that’s the event that explains the structure of the show, and is likely to be even more important to its relationships going into the second season. I get why you’re sympathetic to some of the character decisions (in particular, your reading of Helen, which I disagree with but makes total sense), but they still come across as arbitrary to me. Everyone has a rough character outline, then does whatever the hell fits the story for an episode, especially Noah — who, yeah, is likely covering for someone, but I’ve begun to despair that the show has an actual theory of the crime, or that the peeling back of the layers of deception has any purpose other than justifying the actors ripping off more clothing.

It’s not that I dislike watching television about narcissistic assholes — I mean, I love, love Transparent. But there’s a level of raw, quiet humanity on that show, something tied to wanting to understand the characters as people rather than as cutouts, a quality that is, for the most part, missing from The Affair. The people who populate this show want things and don’t care about the consequences, which would be fine if we had a sense of why they wanted them, or at least a vague sense of what was driving them. Other than pleasant emotional surprises like seeing Alison with her mother (sorry, Athena), there’s practically none of that in the finale. There’s barely been any emotion that I, at least, could recognize as genuine after the first few episodes, which did a very good job capturing the tentative, dizzy rush of the beginning of the affair.

Put another way, I can imagine being pleased at a hands-off approach to characters without having to make particularly definitive statements on them, even in the sort of “serious” show you’re worried is being unfairly maligned by critics. (Though I’d argue these are qualities that, say, The Americans possesses and pulls off much better than The Affair.) But the characters have to actually be interesting to us, or at least the show has to be so fascinated by them that we become interested in it, and I just don’t find that to be the case anymore here, if it ever was. Admittedly, it’s also possible that I’m just really unhappy at feeling hoodwinked by the promise of a show that’s much smarter than this one — upset by the way my affair with The Affair cooled, as it probably had to. I’m glad you like it, and I’m glad that there’s something this self-confidently serious with good actors who generally get to turn in good performances. I just wish that either I got it the way you do, or that all else failing the show would ditch all of the bells and whistles, and become the drilled-down character study that it could have been from the get-go. But with a little more fun and self-awareness, please — I don’t think “serious” has to mean “bloodless.”

Eric Thurm is a writer living in New York whose work has appeared in Grantland, The A.V. Club, Complex, and The L.A. Review of Books.

Sean T. Collins has written for Rolling Stone, Wired, BuzzFeed, and The Comics Journal. His comics have been published by Marvel, Top Shelf, Study Group, and Youth in Decline. He lives with his daughter on Long Island.

Critics’ Quarrel: Debating The End of ’The Affair’