Remember when The Affair was going to be a thing? It had such promise this summer. The idea of taking a frank, mature look at an infidelity with the cast that they assembled seemed like the next big thing. But with the season finale only a few days away, it seems like the only time people talk about the show is to ask, “Hey, are you still watching The Affair?”
Part of the problem is that the show isn’t actually about an affair. It plays a major role in the plot of course, but all of the action is filtered through a murder case. We see in flashbacks how both Allison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West) view their affair. Not just a single narrative showing us what happen, but the same events or days shown first how he remembers it and then how she does. It’s an interesting concept, but between that, the murder case and the affair itself, there’s a lot going on.
Unfortunately it’s a lot going on that we don’t care about. The details of the murder are laid out slowly over the course of the season, including waiting three full episodes before revealing who the murder victim is. There aren’t enough clues to tell us if or how Noah and Allison were involved, and we’re not sure what they’re lying about. Also they were having an affair so we have to assume they’re going to lie about a lot of things. Can we really spend ten episodes trying to figure out if the cheaters are able to hide things well?
Mostly my problem is that I absolutely don’t care about the affair itself or Allison and Noah’s relationship. The scenes with the two of them are the least interesting of the show. And possibly that’s done intentionally. Almost everything about their relationship seems like an incredibly well-crafted stab at making us feel uncomfortable. Their flirting isn’t romantic or funny. It’s weird, bordering on creepy. And the sex scenes. God lord, the sex scenes. They are overly intimate and accurate in ways that can only be described as akin to walking in on your parents. It’s the least sexy affair since the Dollangangers.
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be watching The Affair. Because the scenes that don’t feature Noah and Allison are amazing. Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson as Noah and Allison’s spouses are unbelievable. Without a doubt, the most ludicrous part of the show is not the mysterious murder or the seedy underbelly of the Hamptons, but “how in the hell could anyone cheat on Lisa Miller or Pacey Witter?”
The answer is that the cheaters are incredibly flawed people living in circumstances that they don’t want. And both West and Wilson are phenomenal at making essentially Harlequin romance characters believable. West moves from the “good guy doing a bad thing” version of Noah in Noah’s story to full court McNulty in Allison’s version. I don’t think he’d take this as a compliment, but West has perfected the art of flirting in a charming way that still makes your skin crawl. I don’t know how he does it, but it was be mesmerizing if it weren’t so disturbing.
The show almost completely belongs to Wilson though. As one half of the affair and a grieving mother caught up in her husband’s dysfunctional family, she owns every scene she’s in. Allison’s biggest strength is the way she presents herself in her version of the affair. She is most likely playing up her paralyzed grief in order avoid responsibility for the affair, but the brutal honesty with which she acknowledges her flaws practically destroys any chance you had at not feeling sympathy for her. She doesn’t just acknowledge her minor flaws. She doesn’t just own up to not giving enough to charity or gossiping or something equally benign. She’s vindictive and cruel at times. She’s reckless and so caught in her own grief that she punishes the people around her by refusing to fully interact with them. She’s not a great person and she knows it. And after last week’s episode, just go ahead and give Wilson all of the awards. She just killed it.
Despite it’s flaws, I’m really hoping that The Affair pulls it together for the finale. I want it to be a good show, and I think it has the potential. If they can progress the murder case enough it might become interesting. Or if they can eliminate at least some of the dramatic elements other than the affair itself, it might seem less melodramatic. But if I had my way I’d do away with the two versions of the same story concept, and replace it with a different one. Namely, the fallout Noah and Allison’s told affair told without ever having Noah and Allison interact again.