The set up for The Affair is as simple as it gets. A married author visiting a small town for the summer with his family meets a younger – also very married – waitress, sparks fly and an affair ensues (as the title would suggest). How the story is told however is far more complex, intriguing, and central to the show’s successes.
The deception is quite simply this: We don’t know who we can trust.
Noah (Dominic West) is teacher and author vacationing in the summer town of Montauk, struggling with the day to day “grind” of marriage and family. He’s successful in his career, he’s branching out into writing having published his first book, has four children and a beautiful wife. Basically, he has nothing to complain about. And yet he’s greedy.
When first we meet Noah he’s eyeing up a woman in a swimming pool. He initially shows restraint but that goes flying out of the window when he meets Alison (Ruth Wilson). Though Alison is also married, it’s under considerably more stretched circumstances than Noah as she finds herself distant from her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) after the loss of their child.
Each episode is split in two distinct halves with either half shown from one of the two lead character’s points of view. In the present, both Noah and Alison are questioned by police over a murder hinted at throughout the season, with each retelling of the events of the fateful summer revealing layers of the plot and inconsistencies in each character’s version of events. As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story.
The Affair weaves an intricate web of truths, mistruths and half truths as each side of its story unfolds. Initial moments from the two perspectives on the summer hold a multitude of similarities, but also small differences. Over the course of the season the differences between Noah’s take on events and Alison’s begins to grow, or divert in altogether different paths. The key for us as viewers is figuring out who’s telling the truth, Noah or Alison?
Noah is a dreamer and a storyteller, by far the least relatable of the two characters and yet still engaging. He seems to embellish his take on events, his version peppered with subtle cinematic cliches – the easy going girl in flowing dresses coyly inviting him into an extramarital relationship. Can we really believe his side of the events?
Alison in the other hand sees things in a much more down to earth fashion. She’s emotionally wounded and looking for comfort that her husband can no longer provide as personal tradgedy has torn them apart over the years. She portrays herself much less idealistically than Noah ever does, she has her imperfections and issues, and they shape her actions over the course of the affair. She’s more of a realist than Noah, and more relatable thanks to a consistently strong performance from Ruth Wilson. We have less reason to be untrusting of Alison than Noah, but an excellent job is done of planting seeds of doubt over her reliability over the course of the ten episodes to ensure that it keeps you guessing (and second guessing) right up to the season’s disappointingly rushed climax.
It’s gripping stuff that gets its talons stuck in deep. The murder mystery that bubbles underneath the main crux of the story is intriguing, but the affair itself and the generally non-glamorised way it is shown (along with the consequences of it) is what makes The Affair work. It’s very much a show about its characters – although Noah may not have many redeemable qualities, Alison has them by the bucket load. The interaction and chemistry between the two is vital and thankfully strong. The tension (both sexual and otherwise) can be felt at all times and it makes for fascinating viewing. Putting aside the looming spectre of the murder mystery, without its characters The Affair’s simplistic story would have stretched thin long before the end of its run, but a measured approach to the peeling back of the story’s layers ensures that the show doesn’t stagnate.
Though many of the plot threads are left dangling agonisingly come the finale, and an uncharacteristic jump forward in time in the final episode threatens to leave a sour taste in the mouth, the journey to that point well worth taking. Who you want to take that journey with is entirely up to you.
Absorbingly structured, well performed and intriguing from start to finish, The Affair has all of the ingredients for an impressive first season. Noah cuts a pretty irredeemable character, but one who is interesting at the least, and any slack he leaves is picked up by the season’s standout performer Ruth Wilson with her touching portrayal of Alison.
Rating (out of 5):