THE AFFAIR 1×03

One of my pet peeves—in any kind of fiction—is the writer as protagonist. There can be good reasons for making your main character a writer, of course, but more often it feels like a failure of imagination: the work of a writer who doesn't know how to write anything but writers. (Make your main character a lumberjack, or a physicist, or a ballerina, and you have to do all this research, and you have to layer in all these details to make it seem authentic. "I know, I'll make him a writer!" people too often say instead. "I already know how writers live!")

So I groaned a little during the pilot episode of The Affair when I saw that Noah was a struggling novelist: it just seemed too obvious, and too convenient, and too familiar. And, even through the second episode, it seemed there was really no reason for Noah to be a writer: if the story is about a guy who falls in love on vacation, he could have been a math teacher, or a dentist, or anything. It felt a little lazy.

I realized this week, however, that I'd underestimated this show. Noah's writing moves to the forefront this episode, as researching his new novel becomes an excuse to interact with Alison. ("You're my insider," he tells her.) And, in the flash-forward framing sequence, we learn that Noah's second novel may contain important clues to the mysterious death being investigated, touching on the political tensions, criminal enterprises, and long-standing family feuds that simmer beneath the quaint surface of Montauk. Writing is about investigation and exploration, and—as it becomes clearer that this show is about the mysteries of an entire community as much as it's about the mysteries of individual souls—Noah's being a writing starts to make more sense.

But, more importantly, it's becoming clear that Noah is a writer because this is a story about—amongst a lot of other things—storytelling. I've already written in my previous reviews about how The Affair is exploring the shifting, unreliable grounds of memory and subjective experience, and how the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we've done are really the only reality we can know.

I'm thinking about it from a slightly different angle this week, however, because it occurred to me that another way to look at The Affair is as a show about the process of reading and writing. There's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" element to this show that feels, at times, like different drafts of the same story being shuffled together. In the most glaring, least reconcilable differences in Noah and Alison's accounts, we start to feel we're not just dealing with two people who remember things differently: it seems, instead, like alternate drafts of the same story, splitting off from a moment of decision like those alternate realities Noah mentioned last week.

Ruth Wilson and Dominic West in THE AFFAIR 1x03

But that's how writing works, right? It's about making choices, and making revisions: you write a chapter one way, and it doesn't quite feel right, so you go back and write it another way. You add certain lines and scenes and pieces of dialogue, and you ruthlessly excise others.

Yet the funny thing about this process is that it's so tentative, and the things you change have a way of lingering. You go back looking for lines you remember writing, forgetting that you removed them. You accidentally make reference back, later, to scenes you cut, and you find that excised stuff from earlier drafts and alternate versions still, somehow, inform the story and the characters as they move forward. Every finished work contains the ghosts of other drafts, the voices of vanished characters, the palimpsestic shadows of all the forms the story might have taken.

So one way to read this show—though far from the only way—is as a huge, ongoing metaphor for the writing process. The Affair is deconstructing this story even as it constructs it, offering us the multiple possibilities of process instead of the reductive certainties of product. For example, the big discrepancy between Noah's and Alison's accounts this week has to do with what happens after the town-hall meeting. In his version, they meet up after the meeting, and go to an isolated spot by the shore, and have their first sexual encounter. In her version, however, they never meet up that night at all: he texts her later in the evening, apologizing for missing it.

This is a bigger difference than we've had to deal with so far. Yes, it could still be a matter of fuzzy memories. (Memory is unreliable: if their first liaison happened on another, similar night, it's plausible that one or both of them might genuinely mix up the occasions when recounting it years later.) But it feels like a revision to the text: in one version they meet up for sex on the beach, and in the next they go home to their spouses and prolong their flirtation and temptation longer. Which feels right?

And the interesting thing is that, because we see both play out, they don't feel incompatible. (It was only on my second viewing that I realized it's impossible to reconcile their two accounts in any way.) When Noah texts Alison later that night, it feels like their sexual affair has already begun; as she surreptitiously reads Noah's text in bed, beside her sleeping husband, we read it as though she is already remembering—like we are—their intense, slightly troubling physical encounter. (Even though, of course, she can't be: in her version, it hasn't happened yet.)

It may be, of course, that we will eventually discover which version is "real" and which is "false," forced like the detective to make sense of all these discrepancies and contradictions. But I doubt it. I have a hunch that the show will not only avoid choosing for us, but avoid asking us to choose: instead, we will be asked to let the multiple versions play together in our minds, the story becoming not something that is told to us but something that takes ever-shifting shape in the gaps of what we know for certain.

It's a fascinating approach to storytelling, and it makes The Affair the most formally interesting show on television. With the different points of view, and with the shifts from past to future to past again, we are constantly reading in multiple directions: forwards, backwards, and sideways. Nothing is ever solid or certain, because things which haven't happened yet, and things which perhaps never happened at all, inform and complicate our understanding of what we are watching.

Stephen Kunken and Dominic West in THE AFFAIR 1x03

And the show carefully destabilizes our reading in other ways. There is a scene this week, for example, in which Noah meets with Harry (Stephen Kunken), Bruce's literary agent, to discuss his new novel. Noah, at this point, has written nothing, as far as we can tell, and doesn't even know what the story is about, and so we see him make it up on the spot. First, he spouts some vague, pretentious bullshit—"I think it's about the death of the American pastoral"—and then, when pressured, he fills in unimaginatively with the preoccupying details of his current situation: it's about a small-town girl, and a city guy, who meet and fall in love. "Well, I've read it before," Harry says—speaking for all of us—and asks Noah how his story will be different.

"He kills her, in the end," Noah decides, getting Harry's—and our—attention.

It gets our attention because it's a bold choice, both for Noah's novel and for The Affair. It forces us, instantly, to recalibrate our reading of this show. It makes us wonder about Noah, and how his mind works, and whether he sees Alison as—figuratively, if not literally—disposable. It asks us to consider that there could be something dark and destructive in Noah's dalliance with this "small-town girl," and—combined with his "death of the American pastoral" crap—it makes us think about their affair as a metaphor for the destruction of Montauk's way of life that both Cole and Alison talk about later in the episode. (Alison will describe the invasion of commercial fishing boats as a "rape.") It makes us, I think, consider whether Noah is the villain of this story, destined to destroy this local woman just as he and his fellow "summer people" are destroying Montauk.

And this scene of extemporaneous storytelling further draws our attention to all the ways this particular story could possibly go. Unless we genuinely believe we are watching alternate realities play out—which seems unlikely, if not quite impossible—we don't seriously think Noah might kill Alison. (We have seen her alive and well in the future, after all.) But that possibility now exists alongside the "reality" we have seen, and complicates our reading of the entirety: it becomes another version of the story, another rejected draft, another alternate life for these characters that exists alongside the one we are watching.

Character works the same way in The Affair: we are never allowed, for very long, to believe we fully know who anyone is. I was struck this episode by how many definitions of Noah we are offered. "You got an honest face," Harry tells him (even as Noah is bullshitting him). His mother-in-law calls him an "idealist," and means it as an insult. Alison calls him a "storyteller," and means it as a compliment (even if we can hear that word as a synonym for "liar").  Alison also, however, calls him a "summer person," and though she doesn't mean it meanly, it's perhaps the worst designation she can apply: it suggests weakness, frivolity, carelessness. (This echoes with the title of Noah's first novel, which we glimpse this episode: Noah may, in the end, be nothing but A Person Who Visits a Place.)

Dominic West and Ruth Wilson in THE AFFAIR 1x03

Even Noah's account of himself is hard to pin down. We see him pushing Alison away: as always, in his recollection, he is the conscience-struck husband, and she is the aggressive temptress. ("You could just fuck me," Alison purrs to him, in his version. "Get it out of your system.") But then he suddenly shifts, and becomes forceful, controlling, dominant, thrusting his hand up under her skirt, Don-Draper style. "We go at my speed," he says. "I know I sound like an asshole, but I want to be in charge, okay?"

If some version of this scene took place in both accounts, it would be operating at our usual level of ambiguity in The Affair. But the fact that it occurs only in Noah's version makes it a more interesting moment. Is this how Noah actually acted, seizing this opportunity to redefine himself with Alison and claim some of the power he lacks in his (somewhat emasculating) life with his family? Or is this an embellished version of himself—the way he wishes he were—just as the Alison in his memory is the fantasy version of her?

The way this show toys with our notions of authenticity is kind of remarkable. That moment, for example, rings false (at least to me): at the end of the episode, after we've seen Alison's version, we are tempted to reject Noah's account as male-empowerment fantasy. And yet the following scene in Noah's account—of his returning to his family, and washing Alison's scent off his hands—rings true. (Kudos to writer Eric Overmyer for juxtaposing this scene with the family's viewing of Ferris Bueller's Day Off—and specifically the moment in that movie when Cameron changes his life forever by committing an irrevocable act. "What'd I do?" we hear him ask, and that same question plays over Noah's face: he has done something, for better or worse, from which there is no turning back.)

Ruth Wilson in THE AFFAIR 1x03

Alison's character, too, keeps surprising us. The storyline this week in which she decides to return to work is a masterclass in thwarting audience expectation, offering one surprise after another. The first, which comes as we glimpse her that morning, singing along to the radio, is simply the realization that she's happy. Whatever else the burgeoning love affair has done, it seems to have woken her up, and the Alison we glimpse here is closer to the vivacious woman in Noah's accounts than the haunted figure we've seen in her own. We then learn, for the first time, that Alison used to be a nurse, which is a recalibration of her character, since we (like Noah) have been accustomed to thinking of her as "just" a waitress. It's a nice reminder that we never know exactly what we're looking at when we see someone: we can see the person they are right now, but not the story that led them there, or any of the other people they've also been.

And then Alison's return to work turns out to be short-lived. She'd have to return to pediatrics, her boss tells her hesitantly, and we see how the prospect of facing sick children—after the death of her son—is not one she's really ready to face after all. (I have been assuming Alison and Cole's son died in an accident—it was, after all, apparently in the papers—but it's suggested here it might have been an illness, as Alison becomes grief-stricken at the sight of a sick little boy.)

But then Alison surprises us again, using her boss's keycard to break into a storage closet. Given the suggestion that Cole and Alison are smuggling drugs, we wonder suddenly if this was all a ploy, to gain access to illicit narcotics: like Noah's comment about how his character kills his lover, it's a moment that makes us question whether we know at all who this person, or what she's capable of. ("Do you have a secret, detective?" we hear her ask in voice-over. "Something you don't want to tell even yourself?")

But then it takes another turn: we see Alison was not stealing drugs, but only antiseptic and gauze: she's a cutter, and we see her carry out her ritual on the beach. As we have seen her before searching the beach for a stone to leave on her son's grave, now we see her looking for a shell with which to cut her thigh, in order to cope with her grief over her son's death. We glimpse the scars of previous cuttings, a somewhat literal reminder of the wounds and crimes every person carries but doesn't necessary show.

One of the things I'm loving about The Affair—and I am loving it—is that the more we find out, the less we really know. The more points of view we see, the less certain we are about what we are looking at. It's worth bearing in mind through all of this how little Noah and Alison know about each other: we are privy to a lot, but they—based on the conversations we've seen—know so little. (Noah does not even—as far as I can tell—know about Alison's son: it is the most important, defining fact of her current identity, and he has no idea about it.) They are falling in love, and yet neither of them really has any idea who the other person is.

So the show is a reminder that "reality," as most of us understand it, is necessarily limiting and reductive: we tend to settle on a simplified vision of things—of ourselves, of other people, of the world around us—with which we can cope, and to ignore everything that falls outside of that. It's much harder to remain open to—or at least aware of—all the things we don't know, all the hidden histories and guarded secrets and incompatible drafts that are constantly shifting and recombining to form a human being, to form reality itself. The longing for understanding tempts us to simplify—to see things one way, to settle on one version—but The Affair challenges us towards a deeper understanding that only comes with complexity, and contradiction, and a willingness to constantly revise what we think we know.

"People need to change to survive," Oscar tells Alison. The truth, of course, is that change is happening all the time, to everyone: no one can completely know themselves or anyone else, because human beings are constantly changing. But it's a frightening thing to acknowledge, a shattering of our fragile understanding of ourselves that can force us to remap the world. An affair, of course, is one of those things that forces us, and the people closest to us, to acknowledge it: it's a dramatic revision of the text, a re-imagining of the lives we thought we were living and the people we thought we were.

So it's no wonder that the episode begins and ends with Noah and Alison telling their spouses the same thing: "Don't wake up." We can read this as their selfishness, of course: their wanting to project their fantasies of each other onto their unsuspecting partners. But I think it's more than that. Even as they themselves wake up to new, and terrifying possibilities, they want Helen and Cole to keep their eyes closed, to not see who they are now, to stay dreaming in the illusion that nothing has changed.

 

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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