This feature contains spoilers for The Affair season 5.
For its fifth and final season, Showtime’s The Affair has made an incredibly ambitious and rather polarizing move. The series about infidelity in Montauk has jumped ahead nearly thirty years to a climate change-ravaged future, witnessed through the eyes of a woman who would not have been born had two strangers not crossed paths in the primetime soap opera’s pilot.
With this flash-forward, the steamy drama has also genre-hopped solidly into climate fiction, or cli-fi—a speculative work concerned with the future of our planet. Though the change in tone and story has drawn criticism from viewers jarred by the shift from illicit liaisons to erosion studies and inherited trauma, it is actually the most fitting place for this uneven yet still compelling series to end.
The Affair has always existed a little bit in the future. The entire first season sees Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) being interviewed separately by a detective investigating a mysterious death in Montauk, who learns about their affair during the course of his inquiry. As their memories take place when the show began airing in 2014, the detective’s interrogation is already ahead of the present; then the series does a three-year time jump between seasons 2 and 3. But a time jump more than a generation ahead into a fictional yet recognizable future is new narrative territory for the series, and seems to indicate a growing trend for other contemporary television concerned with potential futures.
“We always thought about a flash forward,” co-creator Sarah Treem told Vulture recently, “because so much of the show is about how this one affair influenced people so far beyond the original participants. I was always interested in the final season being about how their children live with what happens and how their children’s lives have changed. But Montauk became a character on the show itself a long time ago. We started to think about not just these characters but what would have happened in Montauk at this point.”
The 2053 of The Affair is not so much shaped by climate change as it is eroded. Smartphones have been elevated to flexible, transparent, holographic devices. Biological children are considered “carbon bombs.” Smart homes regulate oxygen levels, prepping stores for the day that their inhabitants will have to live off them. Hi-tech trains have replaced the Metro-North to Montauk, but are often stalled due to flooding. And what of Montauk itself? Eroded by storms, pitted by sinkholes, plunged into near-perpetual darkness, it will likely be uninhabitable within five years.
This evaluation comes from former resident and climate scientist Joanie Lockhart (Anna Paquin). First through brief glimpses sandwiched between each episode’s typical two perspectives, and then when given her own full episode, viewers are reintroduced to Alison’s daughter with ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) at 38, the same age Alison was at her death. However, Joanie’s sojourn to Montauk is a temporary balm for the fear that plagues her: that she will kill herself the way Alison supposedly did. So she throws herself into her work, cheats on her husband through increasingly violent and risky sex with strangers, all to keep herself from ever being alone with her suicidal thoughts.
These are the bleak yet unsurprising consequences on which The Affair prepares to end its five-year run.
Science fiction and speculative TV series are no strangers to time jumps, which have served varying purposes. Lost’s utilization of a flash-forward in the season 3 finale launched that episode onto many best-of lists. The series had built its narrative on flashbacks that revealed character details and major themes. Jack screaming “We have to go back!” at Kate layered incredible dramatic irony over the entire next season, with the knowledge that at least some of the Oceanic Six make it off the island.
Similarly, Battlestar Galactica jumped ahead a year in its season 2 finale and stayed there. The series then spent the entire third season teasing the monumental shifts in New Caprica—President Baltar, Kara and Anders married, and, oh yeah, the Cylon occupation—occasionally doubling back to examine what brought about these character and plot changes.
Alias used a time jump to up the spy drama (where was Sydney for the last two years?) and intertwine it with the personal (why is Vaughn married?). Fringe projected its own desolate future, out of humans’ control, then gave them the means to wrench it back. Dollhouse envisioned a better life for its complacent Dolls, even if they had to fight their way through a post-singularity apocalypse to get it.
Unlike these series, The Affair did not start out in any way otherworldly. Yet it seems to be indicative of a larger trend of contemporary series flashing forward to near-futures just speculative enough to make statements about where humanity is headed. For its fourth and final season (which aired in 2018), Hulu’s dramedy Casual invoked Black Mirror by skipping ahead to 2021 or 2022. A series that began with two adult siblings commiserating over online dating saw these same characters approaching middle age with increased reliance on technology, often to the detriment of their human relationships. An egg-shaped digital assistant named Ova has supplanted Alexa in every home. Self-driving Ubers are de rigueur. One character’s attempt to cyberstalk his ex’s new boyfriend hits a wall due to the loss of net neutrality. And when that same character, Alex—who started the series as the brilliant programmer of a dating website—wades back into online dating, it’s through a virtual-reality interface in which he and prospective dates meet in digital bars and have cybersex à la any cyberpunk future.
Alex and his sister Valerie’s casual tethering to digital entities is so pronounced that the viewer keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the devastating Black Mirror twist in which Ova distracts Alex so much from his young daughter that she gets irreparably hurt. Instead, Casual’s series finale ends on an uplifting scene that encapsulates these siblings’ quirky, codependent relationship: a double date where they belt Queen at a karaoke bar, followed by a montage of their successful sexual encounters. Ova is neither seen nor heard. It’s not a cautionary tale so much as a pragmatic prediction.
Water is a much more powerful force than technology in The Affair, starting with the pilot’s Montauk setting and Fiona Apple’s haunting (and possibly prescient) theme song. The hook in particular has only taken on more sinister meaning with each new season: I have only one thing to do and that’s / Be the wave that I am and then / Sink back into the ocean. For four seasons, it had seemed likely that the lyrics referred to at least one character’s motivations, but in her Vulture interview, Treem put forth a different potential narrator.
“I think of the ocean as this character holding itself at bay for the whole show but constantly kind of reaching,” she told Vulture. “And that’s what Fiona Apple’s song is about. I think a lot of the song has ended up influencing the course the show took.”
Most of the series’ key scenes take place in Montauk’s waters. Alison’s body is dumped off a harbor jetty on the night of her death; her mother later attempts to hold a beach funeral for her, though it was against her wishes. The trauma between Alison and Cole that helped catalyze the eponymous affair was the work of the ocean: their son Gabriel died of secondary drowning, which takes place long after he was rescued from the water because of the fluid that had built up in his lungs. Had Gabriel not died, Alison might not have had the affair with Noah, which in turn led to the brief reconciliation with Cole that conceived Joanie.
In fact, it makes perfect sense that Joanie would grow up to become a coastal engineer, considering that she was born during a hurricane. Episode “209” was one of the first to subvert the series’ narrative device of two competing takes on one event; instead, it’s Noah, Alison, Helen (Maura Tierney), and Cole’s experiences of the hurricane, each one existing without contradiction. Or, as Angelica Jade Bastién points out in her Vulture recap, the truth. The hurricane is an apt metaphor for the episode’s relationship dramas, from Noah choosing a coke-fueled Hollywood party over being with Alison at the hospital when she goes into labor early to Cole lamenting the supposed Lockhart family curse that means he will never have another child of his own. (Little does he know that Alison is giving birth to their daughter Joanie at the same moment he burns down their home.) The whipping winds and torrential downpour reveal the core foursome as selfish, grieving, lonely, impulsive—human.
The hurricane is also climate change at work. While the episode aired in November 2015, by the show’s timeline, Joanie is born in March 2016. Less than three years after Hurricane Sandy (and eighteen months before Hurricane Maria), and these four New Yorkers—two in the city, two out on very different parts of Long Island—are facing potential devastation all over again. There’s no spin, no bias—in the world of the series, this is pure fact.
The Affair has always been about the ripple effect of actions, from how infidelity destroys a family to larger socioeconomic issues. In the early seasons, Noah and Alison’s affair represented the larger conflict between the Montauk locals and the “summer people” with whom they had to contend: the vacationers treating their neighborhoods and businesses as temporary amusements before returning to their real lives come fall.
In episode “506,” Joanie encounters EJ (Michael Braun), an epigeneticist studying intergenerational trauma; naturally, he’s obsessed with the Lockhart family curse and especially with the question of whether Joanie has evolved resilience or if she is doomed to the same dark fates as her forebears. “The more this place deteriorated, the more summer people abandoned it, the happier he got,” EJ tells Joanie of his interview with Cole, near the end of the latter’s life. “Said it brought him back to the Montauk he remembered as a kid. It was becoming a small fishing town all over again.” Montauk’s tempestuous relationship with its inhabitants can be read as a larger commentary on how different populations treat the planet: some with respect, others as if it is disposable.
“Our memories of places are just that,” Treem told Vulture. “So much of this final season and the show in general is about how you’re either moving toward somebody or moving away from them at any given time. It all depends on how much effort you put in. And it’s the same thing for a place, for the land, for the earth. If you keep abusing something, it won’t stick around.”
Noah and Helen got at least a fraction of this lesson in the penultimate episode, in which they had to survive the polar opposite of the waterlogged future: escaping a wildfire ravaging Los Angeles and in the process having their long-overdue reconciliation. Not only do they escape the fate of a hundred pour souls burned alive in their cars, but they are actually candid with one another about the pain they put each other through for decades.
The series finale ends on a hopeful note, with a very old Noah suggesting to Joanie that “if pain can echo through generations, then so can love. If abandonment can ripple across time, then so can presence.” Sitting at what has become his Lobster Roll (a symbol of eternal rebirth if ever there were one), Noah is able to give Joanie the small gift of a shift in perspective: a more hopeful memory of Alison that gives her credit for trying to overcome her trauma for Joanie’s sake, and that metaphorically recontextualizes Alison as a Mother Earth of sorts: “She’s one of the only people I’ve met in my whole life who actually managed to change. […] Do you know how difficult that is? How few people actually achieve that?”
But Noah is near death, so he can afford such rosy lenses with which to regard the past. His advice to Joanie mirrors the conclusion of his own story in the present: “You may not be able to save the Earth, but you can be there for your children. No matter what happens.” Even though her one-time father figure is telling her to ignore the pull of an affair, of someone new, to return to the stability of family, what he’s asking of her is not that different from EJ’s scorched-earth attitude when he asks her to run away with him: “I’m so sick of trying to fix my parents’ mistakes. We didn’t fuck this planet up; they did. Why should we have to fix it? Let them go, Joanie. Let them all go. You don’t owe your life to any of them.”
Neither of these men will save the planet. They will just tread water until those waves swallow them whole. While Joanie hears them and is even moved by each of their arguments, ultimately she will forge a perspective that is independent of either.
What began with contradictory memories of the potential murder of one man has evolved into a forward-facing tale with a singular, if still biased, focus regarding the fate of our planet. Like the complicated, hurting people who created her, Joanie by no means possesses perfect recall; her particular filters mean that she sees the world a certain way. But unlike them, she’s not remembering vital information. Instead, she’s existing in the moment, and potentially looking ahead.
At first that outlook was bleak: “Mushrooms are the greatest hope for life to continue on this planet,” she tells EJ at the Montauk police station, inspecting some new growth at the Montauk police station. “Once we’re all dead and gone, funghi are gonna come and clear everything out and make space for new life something better.” Having freed herself from the purgatory of Montauk, Joanie Lockhart is no longer waiting to be swept away and replaced with something supposedly “better.” Instead, by returning to her family to ask not only for forgiveness but for a second chance, she – like her mother – is making herself better. It might do nothing to save the planet, but it will create some ripple, no matter how small.
Natalie Zutter might be the last person still emotionally invested in The Affair. Talk flash-forwards and multiverses with her on Twitter!