This review contains spoilers.
“When the shit hits the fan, we show up.”
Some series finales tend to take a more humble and understated approach as they go gently into the night. The Affair series finale is a final instalment that’s big in as many ways as possible. Not only is this a 90-minute offering, but it begins in a grandiose way with a quote from Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Writer“. This is an eerily perfect quotation to utilise in regards to The Affair’s finale.
“The Writer” is a poem about a father who wishes his daughter good luck, but beyond its surface level it’s actually about the difficulties and challenges of being a writer. The passage in particular that’s used is specifically in reference to the inconsistent bouts of inspiration that writers face and how the luck that the father wishes onto his daughter is entirely subject to coincidence and fate. This message is applicable to The Affair in a literal sense, but also in a much deeper context.
The Affair has presented the art of writing and storytelling as a chaotic process, whether it’s through Noah’s literature or the show’s very structure. However, The Affair also treats life itself—specifically Noah and Helen’s story—as something that’s wildly dependent on the random whims of the universe.
Chaos, in a way, is also the clarifying cause for Helen’s chronic indecisions through life, which she’s finally able to understand about herself. So whether it’s the words of Richard Wilbur, a run-in at a seafood restaurant, or an impromptu flash mob, The Affair’s series finale is a celebration of how chaos comes together and the beauty that can be born from it.
One affair back in Montauk nearly a decade ago has somehow prepared and transformed that couple to be stronger than ever. 511 is The Affair at its sharpest and most effective and it goes out on a finale that does this series justice and is a reminder of why this show was important.
I called out the telegraphed nature of Stacey’s out-of-nowhere story about two star-crossed astronauts that was very obviously an analogy for Noah and Helen’s trajectory. This finale goes one step further by using Stacey’s story as the voiceover that introduces this final instalment as Helen and Noah’s complicated history plays out underneath. At this point it’s very clear that The Affair’s endgame—and its entire story—has been about Noah and Helen, but just in case you somehow missed this neon sign, 511 puts together this package that makes it beyond obvious where this finale is headed.
Remember when Noah was caught in a debilitating #MeToo scandal and everybody wanted him dead? While these guys sure don’t! The first 20 minutes of 511 are devoted to propping Noah up into as big a hero as possible. He seriously just rights wrongs and is so perfect here that he should radiate light with a halo over his head. In the past, The Affair has built Noah up like this, only to tear him down, but that’s not what this finale is about. It wants to—for the last time—show that over five seasons of faults and mistakes, Noah is deeply good. He’s Saint Noah, the martyr here.
Noah’s awesomeness tour involves commiserating and helping all of his children and he handles Bruce when he’s in crisis. He even humours him and turns his dementia into a playful game of sorts for the confused man. Noah even listens to Colin’s family problems and becomes his personal saviour as he goes above and beyond for them. All the while, Noah sings Whitney’s praises and can’t be more generous towards his representation of her. Whitney herself is the final hurdle, but she comes around just like everyone else because love is ultimately so much healthier than hate.
Many hatchets are buried here and the finale almost operates with a fairytale-like quality once Whitney’s wedding is in full swing. Visuals like Bruce tied up to a chair while Whitney and Colin recite vows is as broad as The Affair has ever been with its humour. It, and many moments from this finale, feel like they’re from out of a dream.
Since Noah can’t be present at Whitney’s wedding, Helen’s perspective covers what happens there in his absence. The highlight of this is Helen’s honest chat with Noah, but there’s also a very impactful discussion that she shares with Whitney. Helen opens up to her daughter on topics like generational problems and worries, the importance of compromise, and how the emotions involved with a wedding can be so powerful that they erase any negative thoughts between loved ones.
This is a romantic episode of The Affair, but so much of this episode is just longing looks between Helen and Noah as love oozes out of their pores. So much of Helen’s portion of this episode plays out like a gentle romantic comedy or an instalment out of Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy. It’s careful, kind, and raw. Every time that they move an inch closer together, sparks fly. Series creator Sarah Treem makes her directorial debut with this finale and she directs the hell out of Noah and Helen’s scenes.
Noah’s life appears to have become sunshine and roses in the present, but the future paints a much more solitary portrait of his life (although one that’s far from unhappy). From the start of this season it seemed like Future Joanie was destined to collide with Future Noah, yet when this does happen it’s still rather satisfying. To begin with, Dominic West does a wonderful job with his portrayal of an older, jovial Noah Solloway. This union happens very early in the finale instead of waiting until the end. This takes a lot of pressure off of Joanie’s storyline, even if it does jump in and out of it as the episode goes on.
As if to compound on all of the love and positivity that’s present in the first half of 511, Noah provides the empathetic advice that Joanie needs in order to truly move on. It’s beautiful to hear the way that he reminisces about Alison, but his message about how love can be just as generational as trauma is a powerful idea for this series to go out on.
The Affair is initially coy over whether Noah and Helen’s reconciliation is temporary or if it leads to them getting married again. They do decide to give things another shot, but Noah’s words in the future indicate that what’s more important than if he and Helen heal their wounds is that their children don’t get injured in the first place.
The development that EJ is actually Eddie, Sierra’s son, is the craziest thing that happens in this finale, but it hardly takes up any focus. This convenient relationship may induce eye rolls in some, but it weirdly works through the highly incestuous relationships and multi-generational stories that The Affair tells. It also helps justify Sierra’s heavy focus earlier in the season. Joanie doesn’t run away and start over with EJ, but he gets his own sense of closure here, too.
511 isn’t just a happy ending for the series, but it’s one that’s practically drowning in sentimentality. That being said, it’s really hard to argue with this angle. The previous episodes made it clear that the series was moving in this direction, so if you were hoping for everyone to go down with the ship there’s been ample time to leave the show before this heartfelt ending. Such an uplifting conclusion is definitely not what I would have expected for The Affair back during its third or fourth season. The emotions are extreme, but this tone feels justified after the previous few episodes worked out everyone’s pain and 510 acted as the very necessary catharsis. Accordingly, 511 can celebrate and have fun. If you’ve ever loved this show, it’s impossible to not take joy in this finale. The final image from the present timeline is so exaggerated, but it’s literally the perfect visual to end the Solloways’ story on.
511 is full of satisfying payoffs, but this season as a whole got messy and its lows were really low. Realistically, this season could have been done in ten or even nine episodes. I loved Janelle’s material with her strife at the school board in the first half of the year, but it’s hard to justify its inclusion when looking at the larger scope of this season.
In that sense, it’s also a little surprising that there are no final updates on what happened with the Descent movie or Noah’s reputation. These lingering questions imply that they’re ultimately not important in comparison to Noah and Helen’s love story, but at the same time they were major components of this season. Thankfully, 511 is a good enough finale that it helps you look past the season’s faults.
Much like people themselves, The Affair was flawed, but it was always willing to discover more about itself and strive for self-improvement. This final season is indicative of just how messy that process can be, but it ends on an utterly inspiring note that people are full of love more than they are anything else. It’s endings as strong as this one that make people want to re-watch series from the beginning. As The Affair says goodbye, it’s comforting to see it confidently float on the tide and not sink back into the ocean.
Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode here.
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