The Affair, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
October 12, 2014, 10 PM (EST), Showtime
After just one episode of The Affair I am completely enamored. Stylishly shot, wonderfully acted, bewilderingly complex - it’s like a dream for lovers of challenging television. It’s already so many things - an intensely intimate view of marriage, a devastating depiction of grief, a potential murder mystery, and a passionate adulterous affair. Some of the themes touched on so far are the fallibility of memory, love at first sight, and the different ways men and women experience love and grief. A haunting, beautiful, and sinister score supports the air of mystery. The setting of Montauk feels like a place of stifling familiarity and romanticized unpredictability. It’s exciting and refreshing storytelling on every fathomable level.
The pilot tells the story of the day when our two protagonists, Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), meet for the first time. Noah seems to be recounting the story for an investigator, but he chooses to reveal pretty specific and intimate details one wouldn’t immediately admit to a stranger. When we first meet Noah, he’s swimming early in the morning. He flirts with a woman at the pool, but when she realizes he’s married, she stops pursing him and he chooses not to act on it. As soon as he gets home, he initiates sex with his sleepy wife Helen (Maura Tierney), but they’re interrupted by their daughter needing assistance elsewhere in the house. Next, we see him rounding up his family so they can begin their summer vacation with his wealthy in-laws in Montauk. Before they leave, his son fakes a hanging, which is the first of a few disasters throughout the episode. It’s a strange scene that seems to be foreshadowing the horrific accident down the road.
At the diner where his family stops to get lunch, Alison is their waitress. She seems flirty and fun, a problem-solver who has the perfect solution for his picky teenage daughter’s food preferences. He admires Alison’s figure as the voiceover from his interrogation indicates that he remembers her face, not her ass, which the camera clearly denies. Noah’s youngest daughter chokes on a marble, and he saves her life by patting her on the back. It’s such a stressful situation that Alison is reduced to tears. Noah runs into her outside the bathrooms, and he finds her tears endearing. Later, after another unsuccessful attempt at sex with his wife, he sees a beach bonfire from his window and decides to join. On the way, he meets Alison smoking alone on the beach in an alluring dress. He’s obviously attracted. She asks him to walk her back to her home, where she invites him into her outdoor shower while she boldly strips down in front of him. He declines. In Noah’s memory, Alison has given him every indication that she’s a sexy ingénue, brought into his life to tempt him away from his wife. A little later, Noah witnesses what looks like a rape by Alison’s husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) on the hood of her car.
Then there’s a cut and we start the day over from Alison’s perspective. Alison’s day is a constant struggle to muster up enough energy to put on a façade that she’s functional. In the early morning, she’s wide awake in bed while her husband Cole sleeps. When they’re having sex, he’s clearly more into it than her. She struggles to look him in the eye and she doesn’t climax. When her husband leaves for work, she calls after him to be careful, signaling that his job may be dangerous. She goes through her routine like a zombie, with her face betraying deeply melancholy thoughts. We learn the most crucial detail about her that Noah doesn’t know yet - her four year old son died recently and today is his birthday. She misses a dinner at Cole’s mother’s house because she’s at his grave, tearfully reading him a story he can’t possibly hear. The fact that she’s grieving puts the entire day into a new light. Her marriage to Cole is strained because he is grieving in a way she can’t understand. When she remembers her husband’s behavior, she judged “it seemed almost evil to be happy.” She dwelled on the pain because it felt like the right thing to do.
Just before the scene that looked like a rape from Noah’s perspective, Cole airs his frustrations about Alison’s expectations of him. He’s done everything she’s asked and it isn’t enough for her. She apologizes, states that she’s in a lot of pain, and begs him to take it away. She starts kissing him and for a moment it seems like they’ve reconnected. When he suggests they go inside the house, she shuts down and refuses. Cole’s reaction is to put her on the hood of the car and ask if she wants it that way. She seems to say yes, and even though the sex is rough, it seems like it wakes her up from the numbness characterizing her behavior throughout the day. The episode ends on a bit of a cliffhanger as Alison is speaking to the same investigator Noah was speaking to earlier, she has a different name, and she has a kid.
The magic of the show comes alive in this second half of the episode. Every detail from the scenes of her with Noah has been flipped from when we got Noah’s perspective. Some of them are small, like how short her waitress uniform was or how she wore her hair or whether or not she was wearing a wedding ring. Other changes were more significant. Did he save his choking daughter, or did she? Did she produce the cigarettes they would smoke as he walked her back to her house, or was it him? Did she invite him to her outdoor shower, or did he plant the idea? Was what Noah witnessed from the end of her driveway marital rape or was it exactly what she wanted? Did she enjoy it or was it simply a necessary release? The ultimate question becomes whose perspective is right? What is the objective truth? I want the answers to these questions, but I’m almost positive the show will never fully answer them. We’re meant to take sides, maybe along gender lines, maybe due to our own unique mix of experiences.
Noah’s retelling feels like we went over the memory over and over again with his writerly impulses, making the irony a bit too obvious, the situations more dramatic, and the stakes higher. He uses his weaknesses to paint himself as a flawed but well-meaning hero. In contrast, Alison’s retelling is drenched in emotional turmoil. Her grief over the loss of her son informs every decision she makes. It’s so specific that it feels wrong to reduce their reactions to mere gender differences. However, there are times when the show seems to encourage that reaction. For example, Noah is very focused on looks and Alison’s more connected to the underlying emotion. It isn’t easy to bring these complex characters and situations to life with a sense of realism, but with a stellar cast of TV veterans like Ruth Wilson, Dominic West, Maura Tierney, and Joshua Jackson, the show is in safe hands.
If the show had to be reduced down to one simplified genre, it would be categorized as a romantic drama. The show is centered on a soul mate connection between Alison and Noah. They’re drawn to each other on first glance. However, the show is also very much about their two marriages. The sex scenes are plenty and reveal a lot of important information. There’s good sex, interrupted sex, empty sex, and painful sex, all in one episode. And we haven’t even gotten to the illicit affair sex yet! This aspect of the show is integral to characterization, which reminds me of the honest way sex is depicted in Tell Me You Love Me, one of the best shows about relationships I’ve ever seen. Sarah Treem, the creator of The Affair also worked on In Treatment, which treated sex and relationships the same way.
The hour just flies by. Every single little detail feels like it matters, and I find myself obsessing over those details much like the internet did with True Detective. Also like that amazing show, the surface looks and feels like an unsolved crime, but it’s really a mystery about human nature itself. The structure of shifting perspectives and how details get changed and lost from a painful memory recalls the innovative Rashomon. I don’t think this pilot has even scratched surface of what the entire show is capable of yet. There’s a wealth of material for the writers to expand on in this brilliant foundation. I’m breathlessly anticipating the rest of the story over the next nine episodes and beyond.
]. Stylishly shot, wonderfully acted, bewilderingly complex - The Affair is like a dream for lovers of challenging television.