I don't really know how to write coherently about The Affair. I watch far too much television, and most of it ends up being background noise while I'm working on the laptop in the evening. But this is a show that haunts me, and no matter how many different ways I come at it, its true depths elude me.
In terms of plot, it is no different than any other family-drama soap opera. The story is bone-simple, almost paint-by-numbers. But the characters drawn in this series are so complex, so brilliantly acted and wonderfully damaged, that I am helpless to stop watching them or feeling for them.
As the series begins, Noah is a frustrated writer. He is married to Helen, and they have four kids. Noah wrote one book, which did rather poorly, and settled into a life as father and teacher. Each summer, they take the kids to the seaside town of Montauk where they visit Helen's parents. Helen was a wild hippie in college and is now an antiques dealer. But she has uber-rich parents; Dad is a celebrated literary genius and egotist, and Mom is the nastiest, most poisonous bitch in television. Seriously, you can look at Claire Underwood all the way back to Joan Collins, and it'd be hard to match Helen's mom.
Noah is trapped. He genuinely seems to love his family (and his quasi-spoiled, decidedly messed-up kids), as well as Helen, with whom he has decades of shared history. But every time he speaks to the in-laws, they dig the knife into the places where we see him hurting: he's a failure as a writer, he's financially dependent on his wife's family money, he's useless and unnecessary in his own life story.
That's when Noah meets Alison, a former nurse turned waitress who is recovering from a terrible trauma. She is married to Cole, who isn't handling their shared trauma any better than she is. Alison is bright but unstable, occasionally quasi-suicidal, a lifelong resident drawn to the ocean in a love-hate balance that is captivating to watch. For his part, Cole has a whacked-out family full of drug dealers and low-IQ crazies, and delves into some pretty dark, violent shadows.
Montauk itself is a character, a seaside town that simultaneously lives off the rich summer people and despises them. That isn't a new story any more than "mid-life crisis" is a new story, but The Affair does not glamorize the townies either. The summer people may be self-involved 1-percenters, but the townies are not blue-collar heroes. It reveals the prejudices, longtime feuds and willful ignorance that is, sadly, sometimes the way of small towns.
And of course, there's a murder.
At its most basic, The Affair is nothing more than the chronicle of a mid-life crisis. A married man bored with his pedestrian life sleeps with a woman he shouldn't, and lives are wrecked. But there are two things that make it different. One is the characterization, as mentioned before: every character is fascinatingly complex and strangely damaged. The other is the structure: Every episode tells the same story from multiple perspectives.
In the first season, we see each moment from Noah's perspective, and then from Alison's. And there are differences in the perspectives: for example, when Noah and Alison meet the first time, he sees her as wearing a much shorter skirt than she remembers. In a later moment, both perspectives agree that Noah caught sight of Alison and Cole having sex. In Alison's version, Noah is a creepy voyeur getting off on watching them; in Noah's version, Alison is a teasing exhibitionist, enjoying watching Noah watch her.
There is something fascinating about seeing the same story through different eyes. We never know which is true - in fact, with unreliable narrators, neither may be the whole of any truth. We have to piece together the story from two different truths, and even better, the story jumps around. We have a frame story in the supposed present, in which someone is being investigated for a murder (we don't even know the victim for half of Season One) and it's years after that summer at the seashore. And then the main story follows that summer and its disastrous consequences.
In the second season, we mix it up even more: we see the progression of both stories through Noah's eyes, and Alison's.... and Helen's, and Cole's. Nobody deals very well with the mess created that summer, and I found myself yelling at characters for their poor life choices, just like a soap opera. Noah particularly got a lot of yelling from me - he spends much of season two as the most undisciplined, selfish prick you can imagine. Take every stereotype about the rock-star author behaving badly on the book tour circuit, and roll it up into Noah. Yeah, I've seen that guy on the tour, and I didn't like him much then, either.
On the surface, The Affair is simply enjoyable as an incredibly well-acted soap opera. From its haunting and transcendent theme song - one of only two TV theme songs I have sought for my writing playlist - to the intensity of its character conflicts to the visuals of Montauk, it can be watched simply as intense personal drama.
But to me, it is trying to say something more. Both Noah and Alison are struggling against something more than their forbidden lust. Noah's struggle is against himself, the feeling that he is more than either life he has chosen. In the second season, he has a therapy session (with the amazing Cynthia Nixon) in which he spins an elaborate web of rationalizations for the choices he has made. This is long, but bear with me.
NOAH: Helen once told me that when she reads obituaries, she's looking for whether the person loved or was loved. Did they have a family, were they married long, did they have children, grandchildren. It kind of blew my mind at the time, because it never occurred to me to judge someone by their family.
THERAPIST: Instead, you're looking at what?
NOAH: What they did.
THERAPIST: Meaning their work, their accomplishments.
THERAPIST: And yet there's something about what Helen said that stayed with you.
NOAH: I just think there are so many different matrices by which to measure a man's worth, and I don't know which is right. I'm writing a whole book about this question, at least I'm trying to...
(snip as he talks about the new book)
NOAH: He was flawed, and imperfect and selfish, and that, I now realize, is what makes the book compelling. It's the center of all of it. What do we make of this guy? Does the fact that he had sex with a movie star outside his marriage, does that somehow negate all his achievements? Or do those traits that led him to cheat: ego, intensity, drive... do they also lead him to achieve?
THERAPIST: Those are some big questions.
NOAH: I've known for a while I wanted to take the next step. I wanted to do something with scope, something serious and significant.
THERAPIST: Do you notice the words you use to describe Bradley's life - big, significant, great - you're now using them to describe the new book... How does this subject relate to your own life?
NOAH: I want to know if it's possible, really possible, to be both. A good man, and a great man. The way Helen reads the obituaries, for long-lasting marriages, for virtue, basically. Monogamy, partnership, love. I mean, do the men who Helen thinks led good lives, how many of them also had great lives?
THERAPIST: It depends on what you mean by great.
NOAH: Would General Bradley have conquered Normandy if he'd been home changing diapers? I'm serious. You look at the way this guy led his life, he went out in the world and he followed his instincts and he took whatever he wanted. Maybe he was narcissistic, maybe Mary was unhappy, but his life had consequence. He basically won the war for us. So do we judge him for his absence for his family and his infidelity, or do we just let that slide, because what does it matter in the end? The guy stopped Hitler.
THERAPIST: What does it matter... to whom?
NOAH: There is a certain type of man that history reveres. You see it over and over: Jefferson, Hamilton, Picasso, Hemingway, all of them cheaters. It's like they have this bald desire, this willingness to take whatever they want, that ends up making them remarkable.
THERAPIST: Again, I want to understand how this connects to you.
NOAH: What if, I mean, what if I have it in me to be great? What if the only thing that separates me from Ernest Hemingway is that he never had to choose? He just gave himself permission to do whatever the fuck he wanted in the name of his work and he didn't care who he made suffer.
THERAPIST: And he blew out his brains at 60.
NOAH: (laughs) Well, what does that mean?
Alison, meanwhile, is grappling with horrific grief and a lack of focus; she doesn't know what she wants, or who she wants. Usually a character that indecisive is annoying as hell for me, but Alison is different. She's a force of nature, she changes with her environment, and we see her not as a victim per se, but perhaps as a leaf on the wind, and just as fragile. She tries on several roles: Cole's "wounded bird" wife, Noah's smiling girlfriend out of place in sophisticated New York, capable assistant to strangely hot-and-cold neighbors, restaurant owner, medical student. Nothing really seems to fit her, including Noah's image of her as portrayed in his second book, the one that sets him free from his in-laws but also chains him to a creative life that, in its way, stifles him as much as failure ever did.
It seems like the show is trying to say things about the roles we play in our lives, about striving to be more than we are and our inevitable failures to live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others. This is where The Affair stops being a soap opera: while it is certainly melodramatic, it does not ascribe to a candy-coated happily-ever-after view of love or marriage or even sex. Even the layers have layers, and there is no one who does not end up trapped at some point or another. The Affair seems to say that more than money, status, education or circumstances of birth, it is those we love who trap us the most - and yet money, status, education and circumstances of birth play the vital parts in each person's life as it unfolds. There is no action without consequence.
I've written much more about this show than I usually do, but that's because it haunts me. Perhaps because it centers so much on the creative life - if you're a regular reader, you know that I'm a fiction novelist, though not nearly as successful or egocentric as Noah, I hope. The purpose of art is to evoke emotion and thought, and The Affair does that and more.