“Do you two know each other?” Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) and Noah Solloway (Dominic West) are asked, early in Episode Two of The Affair.
“Not really,” Alison replies.
This is a bit of a lie, of course: Alison is covering, hiding their growing attraction from her sister-in-law Mary Kate (Kaija Matiss) and Noah’s daughter Stacey (Leya Catlett). But it’s also a statement of truth, and possibly a mission statement for The Affair. These two people don’t really know each other, and not just because their acquaintance is a new one: they don’t know each other because it may not be possible for two people to really know each other. All of reality is subjective, all identities are contextual, and there is no such thing as a genuinely shared moment: even two people together at the exact same time in the exact same place are having two entirely different experiences.
We’re all aware of this fundamental subjectivity on some level, but most of us find it easier to ignore it. We all need to trust in common experiences. We all need to have faith that we see other people roughly as they truly are, and that other people see us more or less as we see ourselves. We all have to believe in the possibility of genuine connection, of understanding, of sympathy, or else we could not believe in love, or friendship, or art, or most of the things that make life worth living at all.
We’re all aware of the disconnect—between our personal perceptions and this mythical thing called “reality”—but we choose not to dwell on it. We go forth as if the world we perceive is the world, because the alternative would be unfathomable: to realize that there is nothing solid on which to stand; to recognize that we can never know anyone or anything for certain; to accept that we are, each and every one of us, alone.
“Sometimes I kind of take a giant step back into myself, and watch everyone else go by, like from a window high above. I felt like I could see so clearly from up there…It made me feel better being so far away from everyone else. I was alone, and safe.” — Alison
It is this willingness to live in the shifting ground that makes The Affair so fascinating. Creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem are not telling an original, groundbreaking story here; in fact, in terms of plot, this summer, seaside love affair between a dissatisfied, upper-class writer and a damaged, working-class woman is familiar, even clichéd. (This plot outline—which also includes an investigation of a mysterious death—seems ready-made for a cheesy, weepy Nicholas Sparks movie.)
But in this case the familiar beats are forgivable—perhaps even necessary—because the plot is not the point. Levi and Treem are using this commonplace tale as a lens to look inward, not outward. They are taking a situation we’ve seen a thousand times before and unpacking it, deconstructing it, showing how even the most banal of stories—two lonely people trying to connect—can be an infinitely expanding frame through which to explore fundamental questions about the very essence of human experience.
“She seemed like the loneliest girl in the world,” Noah tells the detective (Victor Williams), remembering his first encounters with Alison. It’s an interesting observation, because it’s not one the Noah in the story would make: we have seen Alison’s sadness at this point, but Noah has not. The Alison he encountered last week was vivacious, seductive, totally in control. Even this week, their encounter on the beach—from Noah’s perspective—frames her as the happy aggressor. It is she who lures him away from the party; it is she who orchestrates their first kiss; it is she who promises him a route out of his boredom and isolation. “Maybe you should try living a little, and then you’ll have something to write about,” she says, a line that sounds like a total cliche of an artist-meets-muse affair. Noah remembers her dancing playfully, enticingly, in the waves, a wild vision of promise and possibility beckoning him out of his boring life.
When we later see this scene from Alison’s perspective, that vision is missing: in fact, Alison says she doesn’t go in the water because she can’t swim. The entire shape of their encounter is different: now it is Noah who suggests they go to the beach; now it is he who pushes the issue of their attraction, and she is who more reluctant. “Marriage means different things to different people,” Alison says, in both versions, but the line itself means something different in each iteration.
But it’s too simple to say either of them are lying to the detective, or even to themselves. There are lies, of course: as Noah says “I wasn’t thinking about her at all,” we see him thinking about her constantly, riding past her house, looking for her in crowds, remembering moments of their earlier encounter. And, in their final scene together this week, Alison’s account seems to confirm things in Noah’s account in Episode One: “So it’s nice to see you again, alone, clothed…” Noah says, which suggests that some version of the shower scene Alison left out of her story last week did happen.
But the flash-forward framing sequence of the investigation just adds one more level of ambiguity to the already complicated and conflicted process of perception and memory. After all, can any of us really remember things objectively? When we look back at our first encounters with someone who became important to us, don’t the things we experienced later always color and inform those earliest impressions? We remember lines that might not have been said, or we mix up conversations and events that happened at different times, or we insert the things we wish we’d said or done. We remember how it felt as much as we remember what happened, and we shape the memory to reflect these more experiential, not objective, facts.
History, as Napoleon (and David Milch) said, is a lie agreed upon: we are always reading the past through the lens of the future, and in the process memory, knowledge, projection, rationalization, and interpretation all blend together into a narrative we can live with. It’s too easy to call it a lie, or even a misinterpretation, because that presupposes some idea of “truth” that doesn’t exist: this is simply how we experience and process and form the narratives of our lives.
And this is always how we work: though the large emotional beats of The Affair stand out as the most obvious scenes we have to reconcile, smaller moments are just as subjective. At the farmer’s market, for example, Noah buys jam from Alison and Mary Kate, and he remembers spending $12: Alison remembers that he spent $40. It’s a tiny, seemingly insignificant detail, but it speaks as profoundly as some of the larger moments, touching on class differences that begin to rise to the surface this episode. To Noah, it was a piddling purchase: to Alison and Mary Kate, it was a windfall. Throughout this episode, the locals of Montauk keep talking about “the summer people,” the wealthy tourists who come every year to spend ridiculous amounts of money and treat the residents as scenery. “We might as well be traffic lights to them, stop signs, lampposts,” Alison says, and thus class becomes a different lens through which Levi and Treem can examine their fundamental question: whether it is possible for people to ever really see each other as more than objects.
Actually, I’m not even sure it’s a question: The Affair doesn’t seem to be exploring so much as simply acknowledging the unfathomable gulf that exists between each of us and the world (and people) around us. Noah and Helen, for example, think they know each other all too well: like most long-term couples, they have fallen into patterns of predictability and familiarity. When he opens a cupboard in her parents’ house, she knows exactly what he’s looking for without asking him. When asked to run an errand, she speaks for him. “He doesn’t mind,” she says. Later, as they pass the ranch, she talks about how she rode there as a child. “Do you know how many times you’ve told me that?” Noah says, and we understand this is probably a story she tells every summer. “Well, you repeat things too, you know,” she replies casually.
Part of this, of course, is the simple familiarity-breeds-contempt argument that justifies infidelity. They are so familiar, so accustomed to taking each other for granted, that there is no surprise or excitement left, and anything different is attractive: Noah would rather masturbate in the shower, to visions of a stranger, than have his wife join him there.
But there are larger things going on here about subjective identity versus the defining gaze of others. For, of course, Helen does not really know Noah, or—more accurately—she knows, intimately, only the person he is with her. But he has an entire inner life which is connected to his role as a husband and father but not contained by it. He is larger and more complicated than what she sees, as we are all larger and more complicated than what anyone who knows us can grasp. She knows one version of him, one facet, accurate but necessarily reductive.
And we see this theme picked up in Alison’s story, as people keep implying they know her inside and out. “Your strength allows us all to be strong,” her mother-in-law Cherry (Mare Winningham) says. In Cherry’s narrative, Alison and Cole’s marriage, surviving tragedy, is a testament to love, and an inspiration. Noah’s mother-in-law, Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant) thinks she knows Alison too: “Oh my god, you’re that poor little girl who lost her baby, aren’t you? I wondered what happened to you.” She offers well-meaning but condescending advice—”Eat well, exercise”—that presumes to know who Alison is and what she needs. Again, Alison is a story, a public narrative, an object that everyone thinks they understand. (Little things underline this theme, and reinforce the point that we never really understand what we’re looking at when we see another person: the odious Bruce, for example, sees Alison’s tight dress and assumes she’s trying to lure men; we know, however, that Alison borrowed the dress from Jane [Nicolette Robinson], and is incredibly uncomfortable in it.)
“Well, I’m still here,” Alison says to Margaret: still a person, still living, still something more than the story everyone thinks they know. In voice over, Alison hints at an inner life that is far more complicated than the people around her can understand. “I felt like I had to be so strong for them, because if they knew what I was really thinking, they’d be terrified of me.”
“So the theory goes that your true life, your first life, continues as is unchanged, but at the moment of decision a new life splits off along a tangent, into a parallel universe. So you could, in a way, live both lives.” — Noah
Though The Affair is constructed something as a he-said/she-said debate, and as something of a detective story, the ultimate point is not to determine the “truth,” but to recognize that so-called truth is always infinitely more complicated and unstable and expanding than we can even grasp. We can construct workable narratives from the information we have, from the experiences we live, from the things the camera’s eye is able to capture, but every person contains an entire world of information we’ll never have. The Affair is focusing on Alison and Noah, and constructing a narrative from their shared, sometimes conflicting memories, but even that is grossly incomplete. What of Helen’s inner life, and her experiences when Noah is not with her? What of Cole’s? What of the children? There’s an entire love triangle that has happened between Bruce, Margaret, and another woman, which we only glimpse in passing, but which could be explored in the same way as the affair between Noah and Alison.
It’s almost overwhelming to think about, and The Affair makes us think about it: the infinite, subjective experiences of every single person on Earth. Each and every one of us contain entire worlds, and we barely begin to understand our own: how can we even pretend to understand the life of even one other person, of which we can ever only glimpse just the tiniest part?
And, if we all construct our own realities, then how do we know how we exist in the reality of someone else? This, to me, is one of the most interesting questions The Affair seems to be asking: if everything is subjective, if there are no objective truths, and if identity is a question of context and perception, who are we at any given moment? I used the word “reconcile” above, but that’s the wrong word, and I suspect it’s the wrong way to approach this show: we are not tasked with reconciling these different versions, or deciding between them, but to allow them to exist in parallel. We do not need—and should not try—to decide which “version” of Alison is the real one: they are all as real as each other. The person Noah sees, the person Cole sees, the person the town sees, the person Alison thinks herself to be, are all constructs, narratives, creations born from limited understanding and ever-changing information.
This, then, is one meaning of the speech Noah gives at the end of this episode, his recounting of a half-remembered theory of time travel he heard in his college days: that each moment of decision spins off along an alternate path in a parallel universe. We can hear in that the wistful, even pathetic longing of a married man for the road not taken, and that is certainly an element. We can also see this as the first real glimpse we’ve had of a deeper, more serious man—perhaps the man he is in his writing—and recognize this as the moment Alison begins to fall in love with him. (It is important to note that Noah does not recount this speech in his account: this is a side of himself he either doesn’t acknowledge or doesn’t value, but it is the most important—the most intimate—moment in Alison’s memory of the night they first kissed.)
But we can also read in Noah’s time-travel analogy not just a fantasy or longing, but a subconscious recognition of what actually happens when we meet someone new, when we allow ourselves to exist in their eyes, when our subjectivity encounters that of another. Alison spoke earlier in the episode about how she felt safe in her solitude, protected by her isolated role as a distant observer of humanity. The corollary of that is that there is an element of risk, of vulnerability, of terrible intimacy, in opening ourselves up to the world of another: it changes us, it challenges us, it spins us off into a different version of ourselves, and that is part of the attraction. (Noah inadvertently acknowledges this theme when he describes why he married Helen: “She was beautiful, she was rich, and she was kind of artsy. I wanted to be beautiful, rich, and artsy, so I married her.”)
When Noah and Alison met they did not stop being the people they were before—the people they were to themselves, or to other people—but they each became someone new: at this fateful moment of decision, they split off into the people they are to each other. These are the alternate universes that we create and move through, all the time, as we observe others, and as we are observed in turn. The Affair asks us to acknowledge these different subjective realities, and these different people we are within them, and to allow them to exist in our minds, side-by-side, in a relationship that is complimentary but not necessarily contradictory.
And even if we don’t want to think about all of this subjectivity too deeply—though I suspect it’s Levi and Treem’s main interest—isn’t it, in the end, a fantastic metaphor for infidelity, and for love in general? Isn’t love always as much about wanting to be someone new as it is wanting to have someone new? And what is a love affair but a terrible and transformative expansion of reality, a splintering of identity into a quantum realm of new possibilities, a parallel life we live not instead of, but alongside, the one we lived before?
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Welcome to my new, ongoing coverage of The Affair. (I wrote about the first episode in my “First Look/Last Look” series here.) My plan is to cover every episode of this show, though I don’t expect posts to go up very quickly: this is not an easy show to write about, and there’s a lot going on in it that’s hard to articulate, and I expect that each post will take a while: look for them to go up mid-week at the earliest. I also strongly suspect that it will take me several episodes to even feel like I’ve got a grasp on this show: they say every book teaches you how to read it, and I like to think that every show, eventually, teaches you how to watch it and—I hope—how to write about it.
- One thing I hope to spend more time discussing in future reviews is how well the different viewpoints are done: it is not simply a matter of what happens, but also how it happens, and how we experience it. It is interesting, for example, how differently the camera captures the male and female gaze in each segment. When Noah lusts after Alison, we see him note (or remember) her ass, her breasts, her legs; when Alison starts to lust after Noah, however—in that last scene on the beach—the camera focuses on his hands, and the wrinkles around his eyes. (Their memories of the kiss are very different as well: for Noah it is a more chaste, romantic movie kiss, while for Alison it is much more earthy and intimate.)
- Another nice, subtle difference of perception: the slightly more dislikable figure Helen becomes in Alison’s version, compared to who she is to Noah. As with other scenes, I love that the show does not make either version unbelievable, or even conflicting: it is easy to imagine that both versions are accurate, and Maura Tierney does a nice job of just ever so slightly turning up the dial on her spoiled, upper-class privilege.
- Slightly less subtle is the difference between how Alison and Noah see Cole: in her version, he’s a gentler, laid-back, almost hippy-ish figure; in Noah’s, he’s the Marlboro Man.
- I will, I promise, spend more time discussing the actual events of each episode in future reviews. A few incidents to note here, just from a plot perspective: Alison and Cole seem to be smuggling something in through the fishing boats, which will probably dovetail with whatever the mystery is that the detective is investigating. Meanwhile, Noah’s 16-year-old daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) has drawn the pervy eye of Cole’s brother Scotty (Colin Donnell). (This, too, could be a motive for murder at some point? My money is on Scotty for the dead guy.)
- Of the overall mystery, I’m reserving judgement until I see how it plays out, but to me it is the least interesting thing about The Affair: I appreciate it more as a thematic echo of how we quest through memory for elusive truth, and less as an actual plot point I’m supposed to care about. Similarly, I hope the show doesn’t spend too much time drawing out our curiosity about the death of Alison and Cole’s child (which I bet has something to do with why Alison doesn’t swim). I’m so hoping this show manages to avoid melodrama, which could overshadow the exquisite exploration it’s otherwise undertaking.
- I’m not going to dwell on it here—because I expect to be discussing it every episode—but goddamn Ruth Wilson is good. We’re two episodes in, and I’m already going to be angry if she doesn’t get a nomination for Best Actress at next year’s Emmys. Let’s start the campaign now.