The Affair and the History of Television Multiverses

Season two of Showtime's The Affair could be joining the ranks of series that challenge viewers with multiple universes...

Showtime’s premiere of The Affair in 2014 was well-timed. Just a few months after the release of Gone Girl in theaters, the series’ he-said-she-said retelling of a doubly extramarital affair, revealed in the wake of a potential murder, hit all the right buttons for viewers. Most fascinating, especially in the pilot, were the little ways in which Noah (Dominic West) and Alison’s (Ruth Wilson) accounts diverged: he envisioning her as more come-hither despite his strident faithfulness to his family, she remembering herself dowdier and him more aggressive and creepy. 

The series’ Rashomon-esque style of storytelling, with its contradictory accounts, has kept viewers compelled where they might have dismissed the show as an evening soap opera. In season one, it wasn’t so much Noah and Alison’s connection that drew us in, but all of their minute disconnects. Yet, as season two fills in the blanks between Noah and Alison leaving their respective spouses to make a go at things, and Noah getting arrested for the murder of Alison’s former brother-in-law Scotty Lockhart, the narrative starts to look less like two sides of the same story, and more like multiple parallel universes. 

It’s a notion that the series itself flirted with all the way back in its second episode. In Alison’s memory, Noah sits with her on the beach at his in-laws’ party, and charms her with theoretical physics:

There’s this hypothesis in theoretical physics I used to love, back in school, about time travel. About what would happen if you could travel back in time and make a different choice in your past, how that would affect your life in the future. So the theory goes that your true life, your first life, continues as it is, unchanged, but at the moment of decision, a new life splits off along a tangent, into a parallel universe. So you could, in a way, live both lives. 

It’s a line, and it gets him what he wants: Alison tells him she wants him to kiss her, and he does. But earlier, in Noah’s memory, we saw him steadfastly resist Alison on that same beach, only to be surprised when she mentioned that she was also married. Shortly after, they run into each other again, at his house; the attraction is so strong that they nearly collide in their need to have that first kiss.

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Seeing as The Affair is something of a hybrid crime story and romantic drama, the audience interprets most of the inconsistencies as ways of Noah and Alison covering their respective asses to the detective interrogating them separately (and, at first, without each other’s knowledge). Each blatantly glosses over points, like Alison talking about picking up fish every morning when we later realize that she’s actually delivering drugs across their small town; and Noah downplaying his reasoning for having a mechanic fix his car after the night of Scotty’s death.

But what would either have gained by telling Detective Jeffries a different sequence of events about their first kiss? The disclosure of Alison’s marriage and the timing of their kiss are different enough that this could be our first evidence of parallel (and not all that different, not yet) universes. 

Noah’s layman’s definition about sums up the basics of multiverses. Wilson herself is no stranger to the concept, having starred opposite infinite versions of Jake Gyllenhaal in Constellations on Broadway earlier this year. As her character, theoretical physicist Marianne, explains it, “Every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” 

Take NBC’s Community, which tackled the notion in season three, episode 4, “Remedial Chaos Theory.” At Troy and Abed’s housewarming, when the doorbell dings for pizza, Jeff rolls a six-sided die to determine who has to go get the pizza. But first, he and Abed have this exchange:

Abed: Just so you know, Jeff, you are now creating six different timelines.

Jeff: (incredulous) Of course I am, Abed.

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He is: Whoever gets up from the table changes the course of what happens that night. When it’s Annie, the others find out she has a gun in her purse, and Shirley disapproves of Britta smoking weed. When it’s Shirley, her pies burn in the oven, and she leaves in a huff. With the absence of Pierce to get the pizza, Troy and Britta bond, as do Jeff and Annie. When Britta leaves, things get more bizarre: Pierce terrorizes Troy with his “gift,” a troll doll, to punish him for moving out. When Troy has to leave, his desire to come back as quickly as possible—so not to miss anything—leads to Annie’s gun discharging and shooting Pierce, a fire starting from Britta’s lit joint and the rum Pierce brought, and Jeff catching on fire. And the absence of Abed makes everyone awkward, not knowing how to interact with one another. 

The end-of-episode tag reveals the fallout of “the Darkest Timeline,” or the one that ended with fire and gunshots and screaming: Pierce is dead, Jeff lost an arm, Annie has been institutionalized due to guilt, Shirley is drinking again, Troy damaged his larynx, and Britta has a streak of blue in her hair (not unlike, interestingly, poor Helen with her bleached hair in season two of The Affair). Abed makes everyone felt goatees a la the “Mirror Universe” episode of Star Trek: The Original Series and declares that they embrace their identities as “the evil study group” and try to take over the prime timeline.

The Darkest Timeline crops up again later in seasons three and four, primarily through the actions of Evil Abed: He takes over prime Abed and tries to influence events toward the scenario we saw at the end of “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Of course, the fact that Evil Abed begins appearing to Abed, the one who suggested the multiverse theory in the first place, presents the question of whether it’s all in Abed’s head. “Remedial Chaos Theory” has been praised as one of Community’s best episodes and some of television’s most innovative storytelling. 

For all of The Affair season one, we were trained to think that this was a series about people misremembering or hiding the truth for their own benefit. But what if what we had accepted as subjective perceptions, opinions, and biases were actually hard facts?

The first few episodes of season two are starting to crystallize this idea, in two key ways. First, showrunners Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi brought in two more narrators: Noah’s ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and Alison’s ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson). As Treem explained, the writers’ room realized that by bringing together Noah and Alison, they estranged the ex-spouses—and that those redefined relationships were just as juicy as Noah and Alison’s will-they-won’t-they in season one. Tierney especially went from playing one “character”—Helen as Noah perceived her—to four: her various selves from her own POV, from Noah’s POV, from Alison’s POV, and from Cole’s POV (though the latter has yet to occur).

Second, the show has dropped the frame story of an interrogation room. Season one concluded in the present with Noah being arrested for Scotty Lockhart’s murder, and Alison telling him she would find a way to clear his name. Season two has jumped back and forth between the present, with Noah preparing for a trial, and the months after he left his family for Alison. It makes sense that as the lovebirds start building their life together, we would see the fallout through Cole and Helen’s eyes. But no one is explicitly telling their story to Detective Jeffries or anyone else. Why, then, would we see such inconsistencies as in season two, episode two, when Alison and Cole have their first confrontation(s) since she left? 

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As with Helen, we see multiple versions of Cole—but they’re so distinct from one another that it’s difficult to believe they exist in the same universe. In Alison’s memory, he descends upon her and Noah’s home in Cold Spring, his presence menacing and still as unhinged as in the end of season one, when he pointed a gun at them. He stalks through her new home, marking his territory as he brings her clothes—and, here’s the kicker, the chest belonging to their dead son Gabriel. “Don’t forget the most important part,” he taunts her in front of her boss Yvonne. 

However, when we get our first visit to Cole’s perspective, he’s more mellow and more pathetic in his suffering: driving a cab for days straight, unwilling or unable to sleep, endangering himself and his passengers on the road. But there’s no malice behind Cole’s actions, just a helpless spiral into depression. And when he decides to bring Alison her clothes, the two have a surprisingly companionable talk over coffee: him asking if she’s happy, if there’s any chance of her coming back, accepting her “no” as “I just had to hear it for myself.” He goes to leave, then Alison surprises him—and us, considering what we saw in the other timeline—by running after him and hugging him fiercely.

They achieve closure, and Gabriel’s belongings are never introduced as a weapon of spite. Alison and Cole could not have remembered this encounter so differently; it must have taken place in two different universes, in which minute circumstances brought Cole to Alison vindictive in one reality and vulnerable in another.

And how else can you explain Noah’s visions? Each of his perspective episodes we’ve seen so far (2×01, 2×03, and 2×04) have been punctuated by odd, prescient flashes of what seems to be the night of Scotty’s death: a trancelike drive down a deserted road, a light in the distance, a woman. These visions wake Noah from uneasy sleep and visit him while submerged in their swimming pool… but in all cases, it’s long before Scotty’s death. The Affair is not a supernatural series prone to ghosts or clairvoyance, but what if Noah is experiencing flashes of alternate realities? 

If The Affair is indeed a multiverse, it owes much of its inspiration to ABC’s Lost. While the show established in the first five seasons that its narrative involved plenty of flashbacks (explaining how the members of Oceanic Flight 815 ended up on the Island) and some tantalizing flashforwards, it seemed to be one (albeit supernatural and creepy) reality. Then season six (airing in 2009-2010) introduced the “flash-sideways,” glimpses of a parallel universe in which Oceanic Flight 815 makes it to LAX instead of crashing on the Island. 

Much of Lost’s final season is devoted to these flash-sideways alongside what viewers had come to know as the prime universe. While their lives diverged in many ways, they were still undeniably drawn to one another, by a combination of fate and decisions based on the subconscious sense that they had met before.

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Some viewers felt that the flash-sideways, while bringing back certain characters as fan service, were ultimately a waste of time. io9 pointed out that many timelines only confirmed character traits, and that in some cases they undid the hard work of the previous five seasons.

Perhaps those viewers were glad or vindicated to learn that the flash-sideways were actually flashforwards, in a sense: This “alternate universe” turned out to be more of a state of purgatory; it’s how the characters found one another after death.

Lost’s attempt at a multiverse may have fallen short, but one of its contemporaries got it right: Fringe didn’t mess with metaphors or ambiguities—it presented two parallel universes working to assert dominance over one another.

Mad scientist Walter Bishop discovers a window that bends the fabric of reality between the two universes, but begins meddling when the fate of his son Peter is endangered. The inciting event comes in 1985, when Walter steals his doppelganger’s young son Peter after his own Peter dies of a rare genetic disease. From there, the two universes begin merging together, creating odd incidents that prompt the FBI to create a Fringe team comprised of Bishop, his adult son Peter, and FBI agent Olivia Dunham. Those singularities, occurring in both universes, indicate that Universe A and Universe B are slowly merging together, which will ultimately destroy one or both realities.

What’s fascinating about Universe B is that its differences are major and minor: For example, the alternate New York City was also attacked on September 11, 2001, but the World Trade Centers remained standing. But this universe also has its own Fringe division—its members nicknamed Walternate and Fauxlivia by the show’s fans—that wants to save Universe B as well as settle some personal scores.

What follows are several seasons’ worth of doppelgangers jumping back and forth between universes, either to impersonate their counterparts (as in the case of Fauxlivia) or potentially erase their timelines to try and reset the universes. Not to mention that there are the mysterious Observers from over a hundred years in the future, noting fixed points in time that they can use to avert or escape their own future. Fringe didn’t flirt with theoretical physics, it went all-in.

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Fringe’s greatest triumph was proving that mainstream television watchers are interested in and capable of understanding and enjoying a story that takes place in an ever-changing multiverse. Take the fan nicknames, which seem to have been coined by a number of different people concurrently—you don’t come up with cutesy aliases for TV characters unless you’re truly engaging with the series and its twisty plotlines. 

A year and a half after Fringe’s series finale came The Affair. What’s with the rise of multiverse stories in television? 

In his 2005 anthropological study Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson made the point that modern entertainment—TV, movies, video games—is evolving to actively engage its audiences. A key example he pointed to was the transformation of a standard TV episode from the relatively simple A-plot versus B-plot to a single episode switching between ten different plots. Series like HBO’s The Sopranos and Fox’s 24 require viewers to keep track of multiple narrative threads, to recall developments from several episodes prior, and to keep straight who’s who and what every character wants.

In the case of multiverse plotlines—whether one-off episodes or built into a show’s framework—like Community, Lost, Fringe, and now maybe The Affair, it’s yet another demonstration of how smart TV viewers have become. Once we mastered following a dozen characters’ separate and intersecting arcs, we needed a new challenge, and it came in the form of parallel timelines. Now, instead of knowing what Tony Soprano or Jack Bauer are doing in a single timeline, we have to keep track of every potential decision and their various consequences. 

There’s also an emotional dimension that speaks to the appeal of the multiverse: not all of the possible outcomes, but the rare constants.

In “Remedial Chaos Theory,” Abed establishes the prime universe by preventing Jeff from rolling the die: He points out that in the other six realities, Jeff never had to get the pizza, because there were seven people. Indeed, when Jeff is forced into leaving the room, it’s the “best” outcome, with the group unabashedly singing “Roxanne,” Pierce deciding against giving Troy his passive-aggressive gift, Abed inviting Annie to move in with him and Troy—everyone getting along without Jeff screwing things up. As Abed explains:

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Chaos already dominates enough of our lives. The universe is an endless, raging sea of randomness. Our job isn’t to fight it, but to weather it together on the raft of life. A raft held together by those few, rare, beautiful things that we know to be predictable. 

It’s comforting to think that no matter how realities diverge, there are certain events that “must” happen, that are perhaps even fated to occur.

Even as Cole appears both dangerous and defused depending on the universe, as alternate versions of Alison and Noah sabotage their fledgling relationship while the other tries to save it, one thing remains the same: Scotty Lockhart is dead, and Noah is on trial for his murder. The Affair’s inconsistencies still lead to the same road in the present, with Helen involving herself in protecting Noah and Cole getting pulled in, though his role is so far unclear. It may be cold comfort to Noah himself, facing any number of grisly futures depending on if he’s being framed by someone in the Hamptons or if he actually did it, but this is a fixed point in time. And there’s a comfort to knowing that. 

Back in 2000, Farscape riffed on Rashomon with season two’s “The Ugly Truth.” Following an incident of one ship firing on another, the crew members give five contradictory testimonies about what happened and who fired the cannons. It’s a rather comedic episode, as we see the crew reveal their biases toward one another as they portray each other as aggressive, ineffectual, or just hilariously thick. While the truth eventually comes out, the episode is an example of how fraught memory is, how inaccurate recall. With half of the second season left to go, The Affair’s showrunners haven’t given any official indication that we’re seeing actual parallel universes. But even if that’s not the case, the show has (like Farscape and others before it) more than demonstrated the multiverses that we create in our minds.