The Affair's Tragic, Screwed-Up Characters: They're Just Like Us!

The Affair moonlights as a mystery, the question of who hit and killed wayward junkie Scott Lockhart with their car threading through and unraveling the whole of the show, which wrapped its second season Sunday night. (As a plot device, vehicular manslaughter also propelled a show that, without it, would consist entirely of people alternately arguing and fucking.)

But mystery might be The Affair’s day job, too, as Season 2 continued its compulsively watchable and often painful look into how we never really know one another, ourselves or, sometimes, our own desires. It’s dramatic realism about moral fumbling and its view is rarely either sympathetic or judgmental, which is why it can be so unsettling, and superb. These assholes on The Affair: they’re just like us.


[Spoilers from here on out.]

On last night’s finale, the mystery was finally solved, and the way Scott’s death went down acted as a metaphor within a metaphor for the show itself: though Noah Solloway (Dominic West) has been on trial for it, he wasn’t directly responsible. Instead, the hit and run was yet another collision between three main characters, this time the more tangibly direct (and indirect) result of Noah’s selfish but relatable animal instincts. Helen (Maura Tierney) is drunk driving Noah’s BMW after Alison (Ruth Wilson) finally admits that he is not Joanie’s father; after Helen plows over Scott, she screams “It’s just a deer,” in full denial of the inevitable way all their lives will be altered once more.


Cause-and-effect is crucial here, as it always is; the show’s brilliance lies in the subtle way it unrolls clues, every single action having a consequence. In this case, Noah longs for the stability of Helen, and might even still be in love with her; if he isn’t, he’s drunk and certainly sort of believes it anyway. As she drives, he puts his hand over hers; she turns to him, giving him an overly long, meaningful look, and while her attention is diverted she runs over Scott in the road, crashing head-on into the disaster Noah’s made of their lives.

And so the truth is out: Noah is on trial in order to protect Helen (who already has a DUI after that disastrous weed-candy hair salon snafu), whom he reveres as “the mother of his children.” Whether he sees her now as more than just the holy pin in his familial structure is open to interpretation, though; there was a reason he was drawn to Alison in the first place. By doing so, he’s paying penance for the way he destroyed their family, wracked with guilt and confusion—but he also knows the role Alison played in Scott’s death, having pushed him off her and into the road as he drunkenly attempts to rape her.


It’s a troubling triangle indeed, and at the last minute during the trial, when the defending attorney is just about to shift blame off Noah and onto Alison, he can’t manage to do that, either, and abruptly confesses to Scott’s death in a dramatic courthouse confession worth of Harper Lee, or Law & Order.

It’s not overly dramatic, though—all credit to the actors—and it does something tragically clever on the part of the writers. For two seasons (particularly after the first), critics have been complaining about Noah’s character, about how he seems to be entirely self-motivated and is a selfish asshole, wholly unlikeable. I don’t think that perception was ever the show’s intent—if demonizing Noah had been part of the agenda The Affair would have run the risk of becoming ham-fisted and cliché, something it’s not been one bit since its inception.


This show is about grey areas, the ambiguities of emotions, a moral exercise is forcing us to reject the binary of good vs. evil and recognize that most of us are both, quite often at the same time. Noah’s a cheating prick who’s lying about his desire for a child, but Alison’s a cheating prick who’s lying about who even fathered it; Helen’s life is devastated by Noah’s transgressions but in dealing with the divorce she learns how not to be so privileged and entitled, and she also learns how to stand up to her domineering, classist mother. Everyone moves along, grows, just like in real life (with any luck).

Noah sacrificing himself for the good of both Helen and Alison is a display of valor where he’s shown none, but it’s also a way to show the multitudes of romantic love, and how it’s possible to experience it in different ways with different people, often at the same time. Despite his dumb-headed handling of his affair with Alison, divorce from Helen and the aftermath, I’ve always had a little bit of a soft spot in my heart for him, if only because he’s worn his confusion so plainly. Other than his arguable exploitation of Montauk in Descent, he’s never quite done anything more calculating than anyone else on the face of the planet who’s had an affair. He’s just very dumb, and very disconnected from his own desires.


Alison’s motivations are more complicated, of course—she encased herself in numbness in the wake of her young son’s death, and by jumping from the grief process into a palliative relationship with Noah, she loses herself even further. The idea that she and Noah will ever be able to carry on a normal relationship crumbles over the course of the season, particularly when she abandons her idea of becoming a doctor—no doubt an attractive goal for Noah, who keeps company with a number of class-conscious snoots—and instead goes in on the Lobster Roll with ex-husband Cole.

Which, all things considered, seems like a pretty terrible idea! Yet she admits she’s a Montauk girl through and through, never comfortable in the presence of Noah’s silently judging literary crowd, nor really that into the party scene that accompanies it. When she gave birth completely alone the night Noah got zooted on coke and almost fucked his publicist before accidentally creeping on his teenage daughter, we all knew this relationship was over. (It sounds so soapy on paper; the fact that it doesn’t play like that on screen is a facet of its brilliance as well.) This leaves a wealth of material for Season 3, which was thankfully confirmed by Showtime earlier this year.


The Affair’s smart, tragic subtlety really hit home during the Season 2 finale, during the deployment of its ongoing smart structural device: showing the same scene from two different characters’ points of view, with dialogue altered depending on the character’s memory and perception. In two scenes where Noah and Alison discuss her future—would she return to the City and live with him as he wanted, or would she stay in Montauk and have an active hand in running the restaurant, as she did?—the set and surroundings are almost unidentifiably different.

In Noah’s version, she’s wearing an old yellow dress and living in a messy apartment with no décor and virtual squalor; in Alison’s version, her dress is newer and prettier, patterned and festive; her bedroom is decorated warmly with a tapestry on the wall and a comforter on the bed. In these tiny details, we’re able to pick up on what The Affair most wants to tell us: we’ll never perceive each other fully from where we’re standing, and so the best thing we can try to do is meet in the middle, and pray for it not to go to shit.


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