“Welcome to the end of the world.”
The Affair is a show about infidelity in New York City, which perhaps doesn’t sound that original, especially in the television landscape that we’ve seen over the past few years.
However, The Affair is from Sarah Treem and Hagar Levi, the team that gave us the sublime In Treatment on HBO all those years back. That too, surely didn’t sound that fascinating on paper—just watching a therapist talk to his patients, the entire episode—but it proved to be a goldmine of acting, storytelling, and structure, and The Affair too excels at all of those things. But what a lot, if not all, of the shows that are dabbling in infidelity have in common is that they all explore the idea of what’s underneath us all. Who we really are, in spite of what our spouse, or even ourselves, may think. And this show does a wonderful job at digging into that idea.
The episode is drenched in swimming imagery, as we see Noah Solloway (Dominic West) doing laps and constantly submerging and emerging himself. It’s no coincidence that shots these shots open the series.
Unsurprisingly, Noah and Helen’s (Maura Tierney) family are perfectly typical. We get stock scenes and everyone fitting neatly into comfortable boxes and archetypes, which makes it all the more jarring when the show pulls everything out from underneath you with a voice over implying some sort of cataclysm has happened and then we see Martin, the Solloway boy, hanging in the bathroom. Maybe everything might not be as normal as it seems here.
There’s even a thread of choking going on throughout the episode, with people coming close to almost dying, but not. You’re repeatedly being kept tense and on your toes as you’re presented with the mundaneness of a marriage. Everything is tense for the Solloways, deep down, inside, so why should you too not experience that anxiety in a way?
The episode works hard to show us that Noah’s a guy who loves his wife and even enjoys being married and the idea of it. He even turns down the outdoor shower offer from the very becoming Alison, and eventually full-out leaves when he doesn’t like the direction of where things seem to be heading. But he still gets pulled in. There was still something in there, underneath, and even though he says, “I’m not dirty,” it’s in there. Somewhere.
We’re also presented with the idea that even if everything the Solloways have seems perfect and good, it’s easy to get these things. It’s maintaining them and keeping them pristine that’s the challenge. “Everyone has one book in them. Almost nobody has two,” we’re told. Anyone can get married and get someone pregnant, but being a healthy family is another story. And we see that every little thing for this family begins to become more and more of a strained struggle and challenge.
This above idea is even seen with how Noah and Helen are repeatedly interrupted during sex in this episode. They don’t have peace. They can have sex, but not maintain it. Their family itself is the obstacle and distraction, keeping them from this connection.
But while the setup and characters are entertaining enough here, some really wonderful things happen structurally as the episode continues. The whole series appears to be told in retrospect, from an unknown point from an unknown level of stability until we get half way through the episode. It’s unclear if Noah has anything left at this point. It’s here that we realize it’s got something to do with Alison (Ruth Wilson) and her husband (Joshua Jackson), and then in perfect In Treatment-y fashion, the episode switches over to Alison Lockhart’s side of the story, the other party in the affair. She too talks about this affair with the power of hindsight, looking back from the future. We at least know it’s far enough that Alison now has another child. Is it with Noah? We’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure.
On the reverse of everything, Alison’s home life couldn’t look any more different than Noah’s as she seems so removed and distant from her husband, Cole, deeply struggling to connect after the loss of their child. She just looks utterly lost and fragile as she moves around Cole and his family. We see close-ups of minutiae going in and out of focus as Alison tries to focus on anything other than Cole, searching for some sort of escape. Alison’s voiceover gets pretty purple and melodramatic at times, but it’s not at the point of being a problem yet.
It’s nice to see Jackson actually playing the asshole here with Cole and being the bad guy, as Dominic West struggles to be moral. There’s the potential for Jackson to do some really hammy work with Cole, and I’m more excited to see what he brings to this show than anyone else.
This switched perspective that will hopefully become the trademark of the series already starts to show its worth when we see Noah’s daughter choking the second time around, from Alison’s perspective, now knowing the circumstances around Alison’s past and what she’s gone through and the trauma this is pulling up. On her dead son’s birthday of all days, too.
There’s also a moment with Alison having the same Band-Aid pattern that the Solloways do, which seems so, so brilliant as a subtle clue about this affair, but apparently that’s not the case? At least from what we’re being told so far, Noah and Alison meet there for the first time, so perhaps it’s just foreshadowing about worlds colliding and these two worlds injecting themselves into each other and blending together. There’s still weight to the scene, regardless.
Performance wise everyone is wonderful here, with Jackson doing some particularly great stuff in the limited time we see him in this pilot, but it’s Ruth Wilson as Alison who really gets to show herself off as the grieving women in a steadily breaking marriage, minus a child.
It’s a lot of fun to see this show take a conventional idea, but Rashomon-ing it up, making it more interesting, as well as the boiled down bottle series type construct going on here. Obviously we’ve seen countless shows on infidelity, but this one is presented all different, and almost feels like True Detective if it were about marriage instead of murder. You’re being negotiated in a very particular fashion, just like how an affair works, with a powerhouse of actors pushing it forward.
Just like how in a marriage, you feel like you implicitly know your partner and exactly what you’re getting (hopefully), The Affair does a wonderful early job of replicating this feeling of thinking you’re getting just one more show about a cheating married couple, until it surprises you—just like finding lipstick on your husband’s collar—that it’s in fact much deeper and more complicated than what you expected.
We see the first layer of what’s underneath some of our characters here, but know we have much farther to go. As a pilot, it’s done a great job at setting the stage and hinting just enough with the framing device of the series. We’ll see how much it takes advantage of this and throws the viewer around, skewing facts and representing scenes in a different light, just like the twisted maneuvery of an affair. There is a lot of potential here, lets’ just hope it doesn’t turn into something ordinary and surface level. It’s showed us it can go underneath.
Let it drown us.