The Affair season 5 episode 6 review: generational trauma

The Affair explores trauma and resilience in an episode focusing on Anna Paquin's Joanie. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

“You get what you needed?”

“Yeah. I did.”

In last week’s episode review of The Affair, I referenced how the experiment that the show attempted with Sierra arguably would have worked a lot better if the episode was just a meditation on Joanie, her past, and her own fears as a mother. That saving grace isn’t applied to 505, but it’s exactly what happens in 506 and even though Joanie wasn’t present at all in the previous instalment, she’s the sole focus this time around.

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The snippets that this season of The Affair has provided of Joanie and this future timeline have been sparse, to say the least, but this episode is the showcase that both the character and Anna Paquin have desperately needed. This is a very helpful episode and it’s come at the perfect time in the season after a few entries that have stumbled (and now that we’re at the season’s halfway mark). That being said, I can’t help but feel that this episode would have worked even better if it were the season’s premiere. Starting the final season with much more context on Joanie rather than putting together a puzzle that’s missing pieces (even if that’s more of The Affair’s style) would have been so helpful. This approach would give Joanie a real personality, which is crucial when she then continues to appear in sporadic doses. 

This also could have made for quite the powerful and surprising season premiere if the episode wasn’t as in-your-face with how this is Joanie, instead letting the reveal happen naturally within the instalment. The glimpse of Joanie that does appear in the premiere succeeds in introducing her story. However, slotting this episode at the start would have really given this season that epic ‘this is the end’ feeling that this year is going for.

Joanie’s adventures in Montauk finally begin to provide her with some answers on her family’s history, specifically her mother, as well as giving a better indication of what Joanie’s feeling through all of this soul searching. Joanie’s trip to her father’s grave introduces her to EJ (Michael Braun), a man doing research on Montauk’s history and the formative families from the community. 

EJ is a historian, but he almost functions like he’s an Affair superfan (he even tries to save the pictures of Alison that Joanie callously threw out). He regurgitates the history of the Lockhart family and all of the tragedy that befell them and then proceeds to freak out when he figures out that he’s talking to the Joanie Lockhart. 

EJ doesn’t just function as an exposition machine, but he also explicitly turns the subtext of this season into text when he explains that he’s specifically studying generational trauma. All of the subtle touches from Joanie’s segments this season are erased as Joanie and EJ have lengthy conversations about how she’s just reacting to her parents’ trauma. Or maybe she’s not. EJ’s work explores the relationship between trauma and resilience and how genetics can apparently have a predisposition towards making someone a victim, or in some cases, a survivor. This is the crux of EJ’s study and he’s optimistic that Joanie is perhaps one of these exceptions who’s actually genetically built to persevere, rather than break down.

It’s certainly an interesting choice to get so explicit about the themes of the season and I’m not exactly sure if it’s the best approach. The heavy conversations that Joanie and EJ have together as he interviews her bring up some fascinating ideas and are engrossing to watch, but they also feel like a bit of a cheat. It’s just like how Noah’s storyline where he’s working on a feature film adaptation of what’s essentially his life forces him to get transparent with the undertones of his material. It might have been better if EJ was just a historian that was interested in Montauk and through that he and Joanie could still reach the same subject matter. When EJ initially reveals that his focus is generational trauma, I said, “Of course it is.” It seems like a big coincidence. 

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It’s also not super helpful that EJ’s vibe through all of this is that he wants to turn this interview into some atypical, cute date. Meanwhile, Joanie learns these disturbing details about her family. At one point he actually interrupts sex to psychoanalyse her and test his theory. It’s a strange dynamic that the episode tries to reconcile. That being said, he’s a fan of Phantom Thread, so he can’t be a total monster.

Regardless of the trappings and lack of subtlety in EJ’s character, he does trigger some important breakthroughs in Joanie. The two are able to talk casually about Joanie’s childhood and growing up without a mother, but the two are more importantly able to finally start to bring some justice to Alison’s covered-up murder. It’s extremely satisfying to begin to get some closure in this area and that Alison’s daughter is the one to do it, at that. However, I’m not sure if the use of Future Science is what was necessary to reach this epiphany, especially when EJ has been doing years of interviews and research on the matter. Granted, that research helps flesh out Joanie’s theory.

The final half of the episode sees Joanie return home from Montauk and while it doesn’t stop thinking about Alison, it does shift its perspective much more towards Cole. Surprisingly, Luisa makes an appearance and it looks like she’s been the maternal figure for Joanie that Alison never got to be. It’s nice to see that Luisa has managed to find some happiness at the end of all of this and strangely found a peaceful rhythm with Joanie. 

Unfortunately, all of the insight that Joanie gains makes her blow up her life, turn her back on her stable family, and basically do the most Alison thing that she could possibly do. It’s an especially painful ending to watch, even if it’s one that’s billed as supposedly optimistic. It tries to make the case that Joanie is in fact resilient, but it paints a much messier picture where she’s very much a combination of resilient and traumatised.

This is a powerful, emotional episode of The Affair that excels at showing the dangers of generational pain and how one person’s actions can have consequences that ripple far beyond what was thought to be possible. Joanie’s lived a full life and has her own family to worry about, but the decisions that Cole and Alison made decades earlier still linger within her. Joanie may feel disconnected or that she never got to know her parents, but they’re deeply embedded in every choice that she makes; even if she doesn’t realize it. Just like how the moon pulls at the tide. 

506 is a painful, introspective journey that’s exactly what The Affair needed right now, even if it does get a little too on-the-nose for its own good (Alison’s unhealthy thoughts even play over Joanie’s destructive actions). However, the true test of this season will be how this episode and Joanie’s story get incorporated into the larger narrative. 

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The Affair has never struggled with singular storytelling, but it’s when all of the pieces come together that things tend to get messy. Hopefully Joanie’s journey is the catalyst that this season has been waiting for. Otherwise, it’s just a pile of sand at the beach that’s going to erode away.

Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode here.