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…