This review contains spoilers.
“I have lived this entire story before and it doesn’t end well.”
Goddamn leaky faucets.
Now this is how you do an episode of The Affair episode. I went from absolutely hating this episode to quickly thinking it’s my favourite the show has ever done. This is the prototypical, perfect way to incorporate The Affair’s bifurcated perspective structure and it’s all the more bittersweet that it comes as a send off to Alison.
The season’s penultimate episode features a significant line from Alison that is echoed in both version of her story. She regretfully talks about the idea of repeating life through reincarnation until your soul “finally gets it right.” Alison hasn’t passed away, but she’s still fulfilled this unhealthy pattern of repeatedly living out similar versions of the same life.
For the beginning of this entry it looks like Alison will be stuck on this Möbius strip of fate where she’s doomed to repeat her mistakes and never make any progress. However, Alison does finally break free of this cycle and it’s what dooms her. This makes for one of the bleaker instalments that The Affair has ever done, but it provides some strong social commentary along the way. The most nihilistic thing about this episode is as much progress as Alison makes, the audience still knows that a nasty death lies ahead for the character.
The beginning of Alison’s side of the story goes down an unfortunately predictable path. Alison and Ben have their long-awaited reunion after Alison’s found out that he’s married. Ben apologises and says all of the things that he’s expected to in this sort of situation, but what’s crushing is that Alison totally falls for it. It feels like she relishes the praise that he heaps on her as she comfortably sips wine.
Maybe The Affair wanted us to think that Alison and Ben were the next great romance, but in my opinion not only have they never clicked, but Ben’s come across as manipulative and unstable. Did we really need to see a third man spill their guts out to Alison and tell her that she’s the woman of their dreams? Couldn’t there have been a richer ending for this wounded, struggling character?
What’s even more condescending about Alison’s eventual, reluctant re-acceptance of Ben is that a key factor in why she forgives him is the coincidental nature around how he has a son named Gabriel. This romantic serendipitous spiritualism has been rampant this season and it’s easy to cringe at its incorporation here.
Alison and Ben get together for the same reasons that Batman and Superman stop fighting in Batman V Superman.
Alison persists throughout Ben’s speech, but she doesn’t put up much resistance. Ben is given much more power than he should have and there are plenty of other ways in which they could have reconciled that actually complement her character.
As Ben’s ambush on Alison slowly morphs into a date, Ben covers why his marriage with Heidi dissolved and is increasingly candid about how life can just change people in a way that they are no longer compatible with each other. Alison needlessly probes Ben for more details about his PTSD and pain in a way that may seem a little callous.
I know that it’s an attempt for Alison to connect her trauma to Ben, but it still feels a little indulgent and almost makes a spectacle out of Ben’s messy past. That being said, it’s comforting to see Alison commiserate on such difficult territory, but she’s still a character that deserves to be defined by more than her pain.
Ruth Wilson gets handed a lot of gold in this instalment, but a particularly devastating moment occurs when Alison reveals a recurring dream about a teenage Gabriel that’s started to attack her subconscious. Ruth Wilson absolutely nails every line of the scene and it’s made all the darker by Alison’s broken admission that she’s “just waiting to die.”
Adversely, Ben’s tough life does create empathy for the character, but all of this still comes across as rushed and it’s unclear how the audience should feel about it. This murkiness is intentional to some degree as it puts the viewer in Alison’s head as she’s caught up in the same situation, but even with the hearty amount of backstory he’s given in this episode, Ben still feels like a blank slate. The character is able to make even his staunch haters turn on him by the end of Part One, but at that point it doesn’t even matter anymore.
Part One concludes as Alison makes her own decision, which is framed as a positive thing, but it still feels like a problematic, regressive one in many respects. Alison deserves an empowering ending, especially after the speech that Helen gave her about rewriting her story. Whether you’re screaming out of joy or hatred from the events of Part One, the mid-way mark of the episode should shock even The Affair veterans as the show pulls a major first. Both halves of this episode are different interpretations of Alison’s story.
If the first half of the episode is the rom-com, then the second half is without a doubt the gruelling home invasion horror film. There’s no confusing Part Two as the darkest timeline version of events, right from the grubby hoodie that Ben shuffles into Alison’s apartment in.
If his look and demeanour weren’t enough of a red flag, Part One begins with Ben’s rote apology whereas Part Two is all about Ben’s condemnation of how Alison’s treated him. The two stories, in spite of covering the same territory, carry on to be polar opposites. Part Two portrays a slimy, callous, violent Ben as opposed to the healing victim in Part One.
Furthermore, I was finally starting to come around to Ben right before the episode pulls the carpet out from under the audience. The entire dance is brilliantly handled and it makes every misstep or cliché from the first half actually stronger in hindsight (like the Gabriel name reveal, for instance).
It’s so painful when this second loop begins and you realise that Alison’s happy ending is gone and that these events were actually her idealised version of how the night could go. Not only is that peaceful conclusion off the table, but now a drastically more dark rendition is going to play out. This is Alison’s soul trying to reconcile itself before she dies.
Part Two brims with toxic masculinity and while this instalment is Alison’s showcase, Ramon Rodriguez also does masterful work conveying both of these sides of Ben Cruz. Alison’s frightened in both versions of this story, but the difference is that in her idealized account of things she’s able to eventually muster up courage and find an ally in Ben.
Alison almost can’t even find the strength to accuse him of being married in Part Two. Here she never finds that support and Ben is consistently on the defensive. Tiny moments like when Alison angrily tears open tea packets while Ben gaslights her yield big results. It’s a nightmare scenario that unfortunately is all too real and any misgivings on Ben’s part in the first version barely even register in comparison to this Ben’s actions.
There’s a lot to digest in the approach that this episode takes to its story, but this strategy is so much more effective than if Part Two showed the exact same events, but was labeled as Ben’s story. It’s a subtle difference, but it speaks volumes. This isn’t just Alison misinterpreting what happens, it’s the crossroads of a mental break.
It’s unclear if Part Two is the clear-cut version of what happened or if the truth lies somewhere between the two versions of this story, but I’d be more likely to side with the take that Two is canon. The joy of something like The Affair—even in an uneven season—is that how you side with the character of Ben is going to naturally determine which interpretation you support. The sad reality behind this is that this decision is ultimately meaningless. Alison is still dead.
I can’t help but wonder if there was any consideration in this episode coming before the previous one. Alison’s death in this episode would arguably hit a lot harder as a result and the news would still be emotional and have weight when it reaches Cole and Noah. This is still a very powerful episode, but it’s crazy how much of a difference it makes in the progression of the story if this instalment and episode eight were to flip.
This may be a troubled season of The Affair, but it’s also been the year that’s most completely thrown me all over the map in terms of my opinion. Many episodes from this season feature the show at its best and its worst, but this penultimate entry is the physical embodiment of that concept.
Alison’s final monologue is deeply moving material, but it’s crushing that this attitude doesn’t get her anywhere (the Krishna statue next to her unconscious body is also an especially vicious final touch). What’s the better alternative here? That Alison swallows her soul and lets Ben rape her? She’ll still be alive, but she’ll be one step closer to throwing herself into the ocean.
Alison eventually stands up for herself in both versions of this story, but it just doesn’t seem fair that her reward is death. I suppose the silver lining is that Alison will move onto her “next life,” but that’s hardly a worthy consolation prize when Cole doesn’t even get a chance to confess his feelings to her and their daughter will now grow up without hermother.
This week’s is a brutal, deceptive sledgehammer of an Affair episode that may be hard to watch, but it acts as a worthy conclusion to Alison’s story. Next week’s super-sized finale will likely touch on the fallout of Alison’s passing and hopefully it can cause some peace to be found between these characters.
We’ll miss you, Alison Bailey. May you come back the next time around as someone that is happy.
Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode here.