The new podcast Serial may be the most gripping new drama of the fall, and not much can compare to a true crime whodunnit that has many of us donning our Rust Cohle ponytails and decorating the walls of storage lockers with information about the case. But in our rush — in our instinct — to try to solve mysteries laid before us, real or not, let’s not forsake one of the more intriguing ones unspooling on TV.
Showtime’s The Affair, from creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem, is more engaging and confounding than most stories that make it to the small screen and the highlight of the fall season. Murder mysteries certainly aren’t new to TV, and neither is the format of alternating between characters’ points of view to flesh out a story, which The Affair employs. But what is special here is the show taking a novelistic approach to telling its story and the fact that that two episodes in, there’s no way to answer the question of who to believe. Viewers are given two narrators — and both are unreliable.
The setup makes itself known halfway through the pilot: The first half of the episode is told from Noah’s (Dominic West) point of view; the second half, from Alison’s (Ruth Wilson). They are the partners in The Affair. He’s a writer and is married to Helen (Maura Tierney), whose rich novelist father owns the Montauk mansion at which the family is vacationing for the summer. She’s a waitress and is married to Cole (Joshua Jackson), one of a set of brothers running a struggling horse ranch on the island catering to the “summer people.” He and Helen have four kids; Alison and Cole had a son, but he died.
We don’t know why their son died, and we don’t know who it is that dies this summer, only that he’s male and was apparently hit by a car while walking down the side of a road. The facts of the investigation unfold slowly in an interrogation room as Noah and Alison separately speak to a detective about this summer at a later date. They both knew the victim, and the detective thinks their affair is worth examining. (How long after that summer the interrogation is taking place is unclear; all we can tell is that Alison’s hair is shorter, she’s in a more professional-looking outfit than we’d seen her in previously, and she mentions having a child.) No matter what viewers think they know about this apparently deadly Hamptons summer, we know little outside of basic facts.
The story is told mostly in flashback, and the initial shift from Noah’s point of view to Alison’s is satisfying; the story gets stickier and our defenses go up. But with every detail that is different — Alison is sexy and flirty in Noah’s memory of their first meeting, and her hair is down; she is reticent and upset in Alison’s memory of the same meeting, and her hair is tied back — our own memory begins to falter. Our certainty that we understood what we watched the past 30 minutes, that we understand what is being presented to us, crumbles.
These differences — and they become bigger than changing hairstyles or outfits — tell us that we’re not necessarily viewing memories; we’re viewing Noah and Alison’s versions of the summer’s events, versions that aren’t necessarily true. Some of the discrepancies could be chalked up to both Noah and Alison misremembering as well as to how much perception plays a role in our lives and how we often see what we want to see. But some of them are probably lies.
Helen comes across much better in Noah’s version than Alison’s. Is that because Noah doesn’t see Helen’s flaws like Alison does? Or is Alison painting a harsher picture of Helen than the truth would allow? In Alison’s version of a party, she comes across Noah’s teenage daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) flirting with Cole’s definitely-not-a-teen brother, and Noah shows up and sees the interaction, too. But nothing of the sort happens in Noah’s telling. If it happened, why would he omit it? If it didn’t happen, why would Alison make it up? To put it more succinctly: Are the discrepancies intentional or unintentional?
Noah and Alison each paint the other as the aggressor, the instigator of the affair. They each are practically innocent bystanders in their own versions, people who were just going about life and were attracted to a charming and persistent stranger. Perhaps the truth is in some middle ground we aren’t seeing. The Affair may have been marketed like a high-brow soap opera, but it is delivering a complex head game. This isn’t How to Get Away With Murder, which doesn’t deserve the presence of the great Viola Davis. This game has higher stakes and for now, it’s interested in raising questions, not providing answers.
West, Wilson, Tierney, and Jackson move between characters — because each character is actually two characters at this point, depending on who is telling their story, like a puppet master pulling the strings — with ease. The most amusing takes come with Helen. When we see Alison’s version of Helen at the party, the differences amount to more than her changed hairstyle and dress. She’s bossy, and snobby, and is just another one of the summer people. Maybe that’s what she’s really like. Maybe that’s only part of her story and we can’t judge her based on one person’s perception of her. Maybe it’s all a lie.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.