In a college seminar I took on the American novel, we would constantly broach the subjectivity of the narrator. It was a bullet point each week: Can we trust this narrator? That question was hammered into our consciousness. Here, trust is interpreted as the following: Is what he or she saying really happening, or is it a construction of the narrator’s subjectivity? We aren’t getting a truth, but a storyteller is giving information that we must analyze in order to parse the text; the story is not his or her retelling, but how that story is refracted through them. Showtime’s The Affair, a drama about infidelity that premiered last fall, is obsessed with nuanced refractions of the same story as a way into each protagonist’s subconscious.
The Affair is about a husband and father of four vacationing with in-laws in Montauk, New York who strikes up an extra-marital relationship with a townie waitress, Alison. Going in, I was expecting a light drama driven by the caper of infidelity, getting us to the “don’t sneak out now, you’ll get caught!” or “don’t spend $200 on a hotel room, she’ll find out!” moments (although, it does get tense in this fashion for a very short period in the middle of the season) but the caper of the affair is very peripheral. This is not a light drama. Nor is it a show whose drama is contingent on whether they will be caught or not. Instead, The Affair is a show that asks why they’re cheating, and ponders what these people mean to each other. It’s more Badlands than Ocean’s 11.
To explore each protagonist, every episode is split in half. Usually, we first watch what happened through Noah’s perspective, and then we watch that same period of time through Alison’s point of view in the episode’s second half. But, their parallel yet differing narratives don’t serve exactly as distinct memories; the truth is neither that he sat his choking daughter on his lap (as Noah remembers it) nor that he tilted her upside down (as Alison remembers it) to get the food out of her throat. The truth is usually somewhere in between, but these differences are used to infer the emotional recollection of each protagonist: Noah remembers reacting to his daughter’s choking responsibly; Alison remembers it as chaotic.
Each half transcends merely telling us about its respective character. Once Noah’s half is over, we aren’t done learning about his subjectivity. Instead, the separate truths of each protagonist are constantly being shaped. Both sections are used to characterize Noah and Alison, concurrently. If Noah’s shirt is partially unbuttoned during his half yet he’s wearing a tie during Alison’s section, then we not only get an idea of how Alison thinks of Noah (dressed formally), but also more about how Noah sees himself (looking relaxed and suave).
What makes The Affair work is how its characterization refrains from being stark. We like the protagonists, but Noah is nobody to admire – a negligent father, and though we empathize with Alison – she is constantly grieving her lost son, she’s involved in quite a bit of unsavory activity. Further, it’s their partners that are nicely drawn three dimensionally. It would be really easy to make Cole (Alison’s husband) a cut-and-dry prick, which is the way Noah often sees him. Instead, through Alison’s perspective, the show treats him as understandably frustrated. He’s dealing with the trauma of a lost child in a different fashion than Alison.
And Noah’s marriage is actually quite good. Helen (his wife) is cool, attractive, understanding, and they have a healthy albeit constantly interrupted sex life; he doesn’t see her as an incessant nag that he needs to escape from. Interestingly, the only thing that contributes to any dissolution of the quality of Noah’s marriage is his infidelity. It’s only when he is so focused on the titular affair that he neglects his wife and children. This type of nuanced storytelling not only benefits from verisimilitude, but it makes Noah’s motivations for cheating murkier; the show is more interested in exploring the cerebrations of Noah and Alison than how they are physically manifested.
Noah’s story is about self-worth. In the show’s wonderful pilot, he tells his son to read books while he can, later in life he won’t be able to. Although a minor moment, we get a sense early on that Noah seems trapped. He doesn’t exactly want out of his family, which would be too regrettable. He just misses certain feelings that aren’t a part of his life now, or in the foreseeable future. Later, he describes his infidelity as finally “wanting to make a mistake.” Because of the strength of Noah and Helen’s relationship, his infidelity is more crushing and interestingly conflicted. His cheating is not out of revenge or maltreatment, but as a knee-jerk reaction to being a grown up who hasn’t realized his internalized potential. At the same time I empathize with him I think he’s pathetic, especially in contrast to Alison’s situation.
What becomes the starkest and most poignant evocation delivered by the show’s divergent subjectivities is Alison’s sadness. More so than Noah, the dissimilar perspectives bring out the following distinction: how Noah sees Alison as opposed to how Alison feels about herself. It’s jarring and moving to jump cut from sexy Alison to sad Alison. For example, at a banquet during an early episode, Alison is seen as sexy and put together as she caters in a tight black dress. But during her own segment, Helen points out that her bra strap is showing and helps her hide it. Alison feels clumsy and out of place. There are hundreds of likewise manifestations of Alison’s low self-esteem opposite Noah’s vision of her as sexy. Most overtly is when she blankly asks Noah what he sees when he looks at her. “What do you think I see?” he replies. Alison thinks he sees death in her, she thinks everyone sees the overcoming grief of her son’s death on her face. Noah doesn’t see death on her face; we know that from having access to his perspective. But, as sweet as that is in that moment, I’m afraid it’s because Noah doesn’t care about her suffering at all. Even when he finds out some ugly things about her day-to-day life, his concern is almost always about how it effects him, whether it puts him in danger or not.
Unlike Noah, the sadness that existed in Alison’s life previous to meeting Noah is actually compounded by the affair, not because she feels guilty about infidelity, but because she feels used by him. Alison can tell that Noah’s motivation for cheating is driven more by self-medication than a desire for Alison. Her motivations for the affair seem completely propelled by wanting to feel something other than sadness, if only momentarily. Similarly, she says she cuts herself because it makes her feel better – in that moment Alison’s thoughts are focused only on that immediate feeling, instead of the reverberations of her lost son. Noah’s respite is privileged and immature, while hers is much more complex and permanent.
The writers make it known that her sadness and his reprieve from the higher expectations of a “perfect life” are grounded in Noah and Alison’s respective social and financial strata. She is a waitress in a vacation town; her and her husband are working class and are pushed to break certain laws in order to procure a sustainable income. Noah is only a schoolteacher, but between that, his wife’s shop and his in-laws’ aid, they are able to comfortably raise four children in Brooklyn. And along with the access to money he has, Noah is also a fiction novelist, which comes with more than a dash of class cache.
When I was convincing OpVac contributor Megan Connor to watch The Affair, she had reservations because it “looks like Rich People Problems.” But don’t be mistaken by its marketing, this isn’t east coast vacation porn. It uses class differences to its strength. However, it is not so much that the show covers class, and other topics like grief, marital struggles and extra-marital emotions, but how the protagonists’ conflicting subjectivities entangle to offer us a heightened idea of the gravity of such issues.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, and probably should, is that the protagonists’ subjectivities are tempered by an objective storyline wherein a detective is investigating a murder. Every once in a while, this plotline peeks its head in to display part of an interrogation of either protagonist. Unfortunately, this stuff is significantly uninteresting and forgettable compared to what’s going on between Noah and Alison, and it appears as if a murder mystery were a mandated plotline in every prestige drama. Though I enjoy where The Affair left off at the end of season one – attempting to make some headway on the murder case, I fear that the intimate world between Noah and Alison is behind us in favor of ostensibly larger issues.