For all the tangles of its plot, things fall apart rather quickly on The Affair. In the first season of the show, the Solloway marriage disintegrated at the slightest breeze of infidelity. Perhaps you cannot expect more from a union between a rich woman of no fixed profession (Maura Tierney) and a novelist of dubious talent and little productivity (Dominic West). Perhaps such a marriage has too much room in it for existential angst. Perhaps it’s just that really no one ought to marry a writer who is looking to turn his marriage into a novel, as Noah Solloway eventually does.
In the second season, that novel became a bestseller, and Noah successfully left Helen for his mistress, a Montauk waitress named Alison (Ruth Wilson) who was really only half-committed to the affair in the first place. She’d been married herself, to the more steadfast and possibly more handsome Cole (Joshua Jackson), but then their child drowned. Briefly the change of husbands portends future happiness, but then Alison becomes pregnant again. And the child turns out to be Cole’s, not Noah’s.
All of that happens, by the way, as flashbacks from the present-day investigation of the murder of Cole’s brother (Colin Donnell), the victim of a hit and run. Noah confessed to the crime, but actually it was Helen, Tierney’s character, behind the wheel, and as it happens, Alison was the one who suddenly pushed the brother onto the oncoming traffic. At the very end of the second season, Noah pled guilty to Helen’s crime to keep her at home with their four children, acrimonious divorce notwithstanding. Are you dizzy yet?
The overdose of plot in The Affair has been there, I think, to soothe an anxiety at its core about its clear lack of a subject. In an age where television is viewed as the best medium to “tell stories,” narrative often stands in for substance on would-be prestige shows. Longtime critics of television will scoff, but for a while there were signs of intelligent life in the days of Davids Chase, Simon, and Milch, all storytellers who were using narrative to “say something.” Notwithstanding the rightful objection that their Golden Age of Television was perhaps excessively focused on the travails of white men, for the vast majority of television makers that intent to “say something” seems to be gone. Jill Soloway’s work stands as an alternative, but it’s lonely out there in the land of creating meaningful serialized narratives right now. Peak TV has resulted in beautiful shows that have nothing in particular to tell us about humanity.
For all that, I don’t want to be too hard on The Affair or its creators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi. There is a palpable animating intelligence in the show, and it is often elegantly executed, gripping on an episode by episode level. Though it looks like a soap opera, its construction along Rashomon lines—with every character’s perspective showing the situation from their vantage—betrays that it has other ambitions.
The problem is that, like its characters, it cannot seem to fully commit to anything. Sometimes The Affair will start to tackle a subject but before it can get ahold of things, it disintegrates. The series quickly dropped the class implications of Noah and Alison’s affair, for example, and in fact except for Cole, no one seems to have any real kind of job on the show anymore. There was something about Alison’s aimlessness that felt universal, but after a few feeble attempts at self-definition by way of yogic retreats the show has dropped her quest for meaning too. A portrait of book publishing, a story about stymied ambition: These things fade in and out, but nothing stays.
In an ideal world the show would grab on to the characters’ uncertainty and make it a subject. There is much more room to play with Noah’s constant inconstancy, with Alison’s inability to get even a slight semblance of her life together, with Helen’s privileged ambivalence about justice. The idea that nothing stays is a powerful one, the subject of Robert Frost poems and a whole set of Eastern religious principles. People spend their entire lives trying to construct something to grab onto: a family, a home, a business. Rarely does anyone seem to manage to get much ground under their feet.
That is exactly what is happening to the characters of The Affair: Things that seem like they are life-changing ultimately don’t end up changing much at all. It turns out that leaving your wife won’t make you a better person, necessarily. It turns out that a tragedy can follow you right into a second marriage. The Affair is smart enough to know this but isn’t willing to take any narrative risks about it; we don’t get into the real depths of anyone’s despair here because the action has to keep moving us along.
Indeed, in the first three episodes of the new season released to critics, The Affair is trying to stuff itself with a new round of plot twists. Now that the audience knows who committed the murder, now that we are in a new phase of the recovery from that now almost incidental affair, we find ourselves suddenly given at least one new perspective to consider things from: that of Juliette (Irène Jacob), a college professor that has for some unimaginable reason taken convicted felon Noah back as a writing professor.
“A kind of a Lancelot,” Juliette calls Noah at one point in the season premiere, at which it was hard to stifle a laugh. That characterization fits Noah’s view of himself, perhaps: ultimately heroic, devoted to experience and high ideals of love. In actual point of fact, though, he is a coward, a man who runs from everything and who even seemed to be doing so as he sacrificed himself in court to that prison sentence. The first few episodes see him on the run from his children, too. He has nothing to say to them, to us, or to the world, about what he has been through. Two seasons of angst have only made him seem shallower. He does not seem to have any understanding, really, that this catastrophe was his fault, was the product of a romantic idea he had about what life owed him that he projected onto Alison one long-ago night on a Montauk beach.
But the show can’t linger with what this means. It can’t stay with the idea that hardship has just made Noah into more of who he already was. That’s not how drama works, it seems to want to tell us; drama needs some kind of forward progression. Which perhaps explains why in the last moments of that first episode, an assailant creeps up on Noah and stabs him in the neck. Even if everything falls apart, the plot must go on.