That’s not a minute too soon; the season two finale breaks this Sunday. And just anticipating the sound of that haunting opening theme song, written and sung with brio and emo by Fiona Apple, and the hypnotic line “Sink down into the ocean,” gives me shivers.
Truly, this is the first show since the disappointingly ashram-filled ending of "Mad Men" that I’ve found totally addicting. It’s like episodic crack, even when it’s terrible.
Ostensibly, “The Affair” is about the usual: sex, betrayal, and power struggles. But its distinctive bite comes from telling the same story from multiple perspectives: male and female, cheaters and the spouses whom they dumped.
This “Rashomon”-like conceit allows for wordless layers of insight and subtlety that most shows simply can’t muster. It’s genius.
It also proves that for the screwed-up, self-serving main characters who often give contradictory versions of the same story, there is no such thing as objective truth. (And they can’t handle it!)
But let’s face it: Part of the draw of “The Affair” is that it’s a form of really soft porn — both of the sexual and real estate kind. (Likewise, it’s one of the few shows to acknowledge the existence of a class system in the U.S. — which is always painful.)
In the tradition of “The Sopranos,” there are only antiheroes here, played by a superb ensemble cast of actors. Maura Tierney, who just earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role as Helen Solloway, kills it every week. As the initially sympathetic mother of four and now ex–wife, she sucks on pot lozenges, tears off her Spanx, and gets stressed-out and forgetful.
“Why are you the only one allowed to make mistakes?” she asks Noah Solloway, her ex, played by Dominic West. He’s the put-upon writer with a neck like a turtle and a face like a handsome camel, who bolts on his marriage, Brooklyn brownstone, and kids (a life paid for and controlled by his rich in-laws) for the thrill of being with Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson.) She’s the duck-lipped, wounded bird/former nurse/waitress /Montauk, L.I. townie he met last summer when she performed CPR on his choking daughter.
That bit of life-saving is ironic, given that Alison was still reeling from the drowning death of her own young son, a tragedy that had already put a stake in the heart of her zombie marriage to her semi-reliable childhood friend, local boy Cole Lockhart. (Joshua Jackson.)
Although Alison leaves the marriage, Cole’s family — complete with mentally ill matriarch and brother, a lost compound, and freaky curse — stay in the picture.
Now, way into the second season, it turns out that Helen — Noah’s ex — is dating the surgeon who operated on their oldest son, Martin, saving him from chronic pain. So in the end, the agonizing realignment of partners and ex-spouses also brings a weird balance. It does force all of them to grow. Still, Helen shows her newly world-weary view of men when she asks her hot, not-yet boyfriend (although they’ve already had sex), “Are you a nice guy that acts like a dick, or a dick that acts like a nice guy?”
What a mess, and a treat. Noah was all pent-up self-hatred and frustration when he saw Alison as his way out after 20 years of faithful marriage. (I couldn’t believe how much sex he and his wife actually were having with four kids in the house.) His move wasn’t about love — it was about power, his lackluster career, and his feral need to define himself as his own man and get an edge. Stealing Alison’s husband’s family history eventually allowed him to write “Descent,” the successful novel that had always eluded him.
Alison was also looking for a way out and a savior, and then had a baby, so she and Noah are now clinging to each other out of guilt and shame. They acted like impulsive teenagers, and now don't even trust each other. As such, they are stuck, and that part of the story reminds me of “Therese Raquin.” Along the way, there are other references to “Rosemary’s Baby” and “As the World Turns.”
Unfortunately, the raging success of Noah’s novel is the one part of the narrative that always rings false. (Well, that and his ridiculously lavish new apartment in Tribeca.) The show's writers just don’t “get” publishing — they’re completely off on the process and the timelines, and crazily glamorize the parties, readings, and attention given to first-time authors these days. That also goes for awarding Noah a sexy young publicist who stays Velcroed to his leg at all times, fulfilling his social media needs.
But making Noah such an asshole after the success of his novel, believing he’s the next Norman Mailer-like literary giant, is indeed excruciating to watch. (Although I really enjoyed seeing that his new office in his fabulous apartment is literally in the toilet.)
This is where the show reminds me of “Mad Men.” Although they lived at very different times, both Noah and Don Draper use booze and womanizing to numb the pain of feeling deep-down like a fraud. They both have a thing for waitresses; both have acquired glamorous new lives after divorce, but essentially wrecked their children in the process.
But the lowest point of the second season came in Episode 10, with Noah acting like Don during one of his psychedelic time-outs in L.A. That’s when the writers broke with the vaunted POV format to go with the lowly deus-ex-machine device of unleashing a sudden, unseasonal hurricane and tracking the reactions of the characters over 24 hours. Closer to “The Howling” than “The Affair,” it not only sunk the show into the ocean, but made for a total shark-jumper of an evening.
The sea was angry that night, my friends, like a pool of drugged-out young women (including Noah’s teenage daughter) attending a decadent party at a movie producer’s house in Montauk. Noah, blitzed out of his mind, swam naked in the indoor pool up to his daughter, Whitney, who happened to be kissing a female friend. When he recognized her, he came to his senses, ran out of there, and discovered that he was missing the birth of his fifth child (the first one with Alison) back in New York City. All the roads were closed. And you thought you had problems. (One of the show writers is Kate Robin, who also worked on “Mad Men.”) Whitney, a nightmare of a kid even before this trauma, understandably cuts ties with her dad after that.
The show has since redeemed itself with Noah’s subsequent therapy session, which was also a clever nod to the roots of its producers, showrunner Sarah Treem and executive producer Hagai Levi — the creator of the Israeli show "BeTipul," which eventually was bought by HBO and produced here as “In Treatment.” (Treem was a writer on that show.)
The other annoying add-on is the “Who killed Scotty Lockhart?” subplot that makes the timeline — jumping into the future and back again —impossible to follow. The courtroom antics strain credulity. If the killer turns out to be Noah (and his ex-wife’s divorce lawyer is representing him for this serious criminal procedure), he’s going up the river, to prison. There are three or four other contenders, and the promo suggests the answer will be revealed in the finale this Sunday, like "Dallas"' “Who shot J.R.?” subplot.
Meanwhile, one of the secrets Alison has been keeping is the paternity of her baby. Her one-year-old, Joanie, is the personification of the question “Who’s your daddy?” And if she is not Noah’s, she’s also the embodiment of the red-headed stepchild.
In the end, both “Mad Men” and “The Affair” show that no matter what generation you’re born into, grownups can be narcissistic little children, too, and tend to pass on that psychological damage along with their gene pool.
In the opening song, Apple manages to convey all the cycles of birth, growth, loss, and death that the ocean symbolizes. Perhaps the answer is in the lyrics of her song. Meanwhile, despite all, I’m finding it a soapy, but totally addictive rinse cycle.
Like sands in the hourglass…
You gotta love the scene where Noah demolishes his friend Max's self esteem, which fuels Max's jealously & revenge-based testimony at Noah's trial. TALK ABOUT JUICY. (Thanks Barbara!)
I'm just glad that Rashomon made its way into a TV discussion.
Beautiful summation and commentary, Barbara.
Your character descriptions are poetically spot on:
Noah–– "the put-upon writer with a neck like a turtle and a face like a handsome camel..."
Allison–– "the duck-lipped, wounded bird/former nurse/waitress/ Montauk, L.I. townie..."
You make a compelling case for the Noah-Don Draper comparison, and I hadn't thought about how Solloway children in medical trouble led to sexy hook-ups for their parents.
Who knew kids could be date-bait?!
Yes, the show is soap opera-y (like "Mad Men" was), but it's very satisfying with its dark explorations of emotions and human frailties.
Terrific television. Thanks for sharing your illimunating insights and perspectives, Dr. Lippert.
Barbara, I love your critique! And love the show--it's brilliant. And Rob, I completely agree with you about the scene with Max. When Noah realizes Max has been in love with Helen for YEARS, the incredulity and rage he expresses are haunting. How dare you be in love with my ex/wife since we were kids in college. Hah!
Barbara, great stuf! The only thing I've enjoyed more is binging on Season 1 of Transparent: I started at 6:30 p.m. and ended at 1:45 a.m. with barely a bathroom break. Laughed, cried, gaped--could not imagine a show with better writing, acting and I'm sure some improvisational acting than Transparent. The Affair is over the top, sure, but there are smaller, less glamorous versions of it with less beautiful people going on every single day. Thanks for the critique.
wow Barbara....i am amazed by your insight...i consume it on such a different level, leaving so much on my plate...you squeeze out (in a very very good way) all the juice and after i have watched it i am treated with a tall glass... i watch episodes a second time to see things more fully...with all the nuance that i missed the first time
Such a delight to see BL's preceptive views and outstanding writing skills brought to The Affair.
Barbara- I am completely addicted to this show and find your insights fantastic. I'm a relative newcomer to TV watching having just become an empty nester so here goes..... I can't help thinking the book Descent is providing an alternate point of view as well...is this obvious to everyone else?
Lots of sex and yet completely un-erotic. They might as well be washing dishes.
Thank heavens for this bit of insightful brilliance, Barbara, I was beginning to question my own sanity. I had complained about the less than stellar writing, but I have come to see it as more complex than that, more intriguing, more of a puzzle to solve. I continue to believe that the men, most notably Noah, are more flawed than the women, and that both Helen and Alison are to be reckoned with; that in the end, if there can be a catharsis, it will be embodied in them. Noah will be left to himself...lonely, and very possibly unrepentant. There is indeed genius to the madness, and I am paced and prepared for the season finale. Terrific piece!
As usual, you manage to see things no one else does. Even more appreciated, you manage to bring them to light in a way that is as clever and thought-provoking as the subject itself, if not often more so.
Thoughtful, fascinating analysis, Barbara. While I usually agree with your reviews, this time I cannot. The mostly unsympathetic characters always make self-destructive choices, and both the sex and the writing and plot choices feel sensational and synthetic. A hot mess of softcore porn and cheesy soap opera. I always come away more irritated than satisfied. And the murder trial is a completely useless dramatic exercise.
Without spoiling anything, I think the next episode will show Noah being selfish and Allision being sullen.
Thanks Barbara. Yeah, relationships are tough. Or as you said in a piece on online dating sites, "love is a battlefield."
You were half right!
Just reading this now after seeing the season finale. Great analysis as always Barbara, but disagree with you about a couple points. I liked the pool episode and totally disagree that it made The Affair jump the shark. I do agree with you that it was very Mad Men-like and it so easily could have been Don Draper making those mistakes in a swimming pool. (The fact that Don and Noah are both swimmers is just one of many qualities the 2 share.) I'm also wondering about your pointing out a reference to As The World Turns? As I watched that show, if there were references, I missed them. Unless you're making the point again that The Affair is "soap opera-y." I realize that you are saying that you're hooked, but I have to say that when people compare nighttime dramas to daytime dramas and do so insultingly to the daytime "soaps," it really bothers me. It does a disservice to the daytime serials which are a legitimate and important television art form, I think. When people say that this show, or Downton Abbey, are just soap operas, they mean that they're not "important." I find a kind of inherent sexism and elitism in that, similar to Jennifer Weiner's argument that books by women are often dismised as chick lit; and that art about feelings and human beings is somehow not as significant as art about ideas. Your thoughts?
Thanks, A.C. Points taken! I didn't mean a direct reference to As The World Turns. It's just that when the storyline got away from what it takes to live in a real marriage, etc, and into how "who killed scotty?" and "who's your daddy?" and as incestuous as all those exes together at the wedding, it veers into the straining credulity soap opera area. I don't find it sexist to say to that. Lots of guys watch daytime soaps. but they've been replaced by reality shows, which are far more annoying.