We can call The Affair an experiment—as nothing quite like it has ever been attempted on television—but it's not a reckless, haphazard one. The show's approach to storytelling is bold enough that we might forgive the occasional misstep, but, so far, executive producers Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi continue to demonstrate a masterful sense of control. Four episodes in, The Affair is unfolding like a finely crafted novel, and we have the sense that Levi and Treem know exactly what they are doing, and why.
Episode Four does some new things with the structure of this already complex story, but it's not so much a departure as it is another turning of the show's unique lens. Until now Noah and Alison have been meeting in the gaps of their normal lives, grabbing stolen moments that were necessarily brief, and substantively shallow: it has been, appropriately enough, a flirtation, each of them serving as an object of curiosity for the other. Last week's episode took the widest view yet, expanding outward to place these encounters in the larger context of the community of Montauk.
This week, all of that—and every other supporting character—falls to the wayside so the show can narrow in on the two people at the center of this story, and so they can focus on each other. This is exactly the right move for the show to make at this point in the season. We can be enamored with the games of perspective The Affair is playing—and I am—but that would wear off after a while: if the show is ever to be something more than an intriguing experiment in form, it needs to make us care about these characters, and invest in this relationship. More importantly, it needs to convince us that what this show has to say is as worthwhile as how it's said, and prove that this peculiar approach to storytelling is in service of a story that's well worth telling.
And this week's episode—written by Melanie Marnich—goes a long way towards accomplishing those goals. For all its many rewards, one of the risks of the show's alternating point-of-view "gimmick" is that it can become a distancing device: it can force us to stand outside the story, and analyze everything we see with a critical, even suspicious eye. Episode Four doesn't abandon the device, but uses it to different purposes: instead of showing us the same time period from each perspective, the shift occurs mid-stream, so the first half of this weeks events are shown from Noah's perspective, the second from Alison's.
This simple change creates a whole new dynamic for The Affair, and it's a perfect example of the incredibly smart and intentional ways in which form follows function on this show. Up until now, Noah and Alison have been living in their own subjective worlds, starring as the central protagonists in their own stories: Noah had his story, in which Alison was an objectified supporting player, and vice versa. Now, however, as these two people come together and begin to truly connect, it becomes one story, not two.
The show still needs both points of view, of course—and there are still slight discrepancies and variations between them—because The Affair is largely about how, from our wholly subjective perspectives, we never have exactly the same experience as another person, even when they're right beside us (or on top of us). But here the shift is almost seamless, and moves the distinction into subtler territory: it is less about what happened, and more why it happened, and how it felt, and what it means.
And it was smart to set the dividing line at the moment they first have sex. This is, of course, the threshold of the entire show, the moment from which there is no returning. (Though, as Alison quite rightly points out—and as Noah's reaction at the time indicated—his hand in her panties last week really represented their first irrevocable transgression.) But, more importantly, it's a recognition that sex, in general, changes things: it's a quantum leap of perception, a transformative lowering of the guard, a frightening revelation of self.
So it makes sense that sex becomes the border between points of view this week, because—for the first time—the characters are sharing in the disorientation a little. Beginning here, the walls are starting to come down, and these two points of view are beginning to feed into each other.
In the first half—Noah's half—Alison is who Alison always is in his perspective: the attractive, tough, slightly aggressive temptress. This story, from Noah's perspective, is still all about him at this point. He is the one conflicted about their impending affair. He is the one worried about being "a good person." (She doesn't believe in such a thing.) He has had only three lovers—a story tied up in his tragic teenage years—while she jokingly claims to have had "thousands."
Alison, in his memory of events, just wants him, plain and simple. "I like you," she assures him. "I like everything about you. I like the way you talk, I like the way you think, I don't even care what you're saying, I just like listening to you. And I like it when you touch me. I want to know what it feels like to be underneath you." Even when they fight, it is all about him: "I don't want to be your test-case, Noah, so you can prove how much you love your wife." When she storms off, he basically forgets her: so full of himself for getting good news about his book from Harry, his new editor, he doesn't give Alison another thought until he runs into her accidentally. She is still not a person to him, at this point, just an object of temptation who matters only as she will affect his life
The best example of this is also the only significant discrepancy between their memories in this episode: Alison's speech about the shipwreck off the coast of Block Island. This speech appears in both versions—indicating some slight muddling of the timeline in one of their memories or both—but its content is wildly different. In Noah's version, Alison describes how she came to this cove as a child, and pretended she was Tiger Lily in Neverland. "My grandfather used to say that if I listened closely to the wind, I would hear Peter calling for me."
There are a couple of things that are interesting about this. Obviously, the Peter Pan reference is a metaphor for Noah: the boy who never grew up. And Tiger Lily is the native maiden in the story, who must be rescued by Peter from drowning. (Remember that Alison can't swim, and that her child did in fact drown.) Tiger Lily is also, of course, the "other woman" in the story, the temptress who kisses Peter and makes Wendy jealous. (It's also worth noting that she almost dies protecting Peter's secret.)
What's more interesting, I think, is that Tiger Lily has no lines: she never speaks in J.M. Barrie's play, and makes only a muffled call for help in the Disney version. Given The Affair's focus on the limitations of subjective perspective, and how Noah here is framing this story as being all about him, I don't think it's an accident: the mute, helpless, tempting, secret-keeping Tiger Lily becomes a perfect stand-in for Alison in Noah's mind, at this stage in the story.
The point is, it's all about the fantasy at this point. She isn't, yet, real to him, and his version ends on the illusion that they can go on this way. "We don't know anything about each other," he says. "Let's keep it that way," Alison—or at least his Alison—replies.
But after they have sex—which, like their kiss in Episode Two, Alison is able to remember much less prudishly than Noah does—everything changes.
Some of the differences are the same ones we're already accustomed to from previous episodes: as usual, the Alison in Alison's version is much less sure of herself, much more conflicted, and much less together, than the one Noah sees. We see her staring at herself in the mirror as they have sex, her wedding ring staring back at her accusingly. We see her composing herself in the bathroom afterwards—"Don't freak out," she admonishes herself—and now she's the nervous wreck while Noah seems completely relaxed.
And then we have the scene at the cove, and, in Alison's post-coital version, the story she tells is completely different. She tells him again about the shipwreck, but now it is not a whimsical childhood memory: there is no mention of Peter Pan or Tiger Lily there, and her rendition is not—even metaphorically—about Noah at all:
"They say this beach is haunted. You see where it gets dark suddenly?…There's a shipwreck…They say if you listen closely to the wind, you can hear the sound of a little boy who died in the ship, calling for his mother…There's no wind today, but I've heard it before. You don't have to believe me, but I have."
This, obviously, is about the death of Alison's child, and her finally opening up about that to Noah becomes the emotional core of the second half of this episode. Back at the hotel room he notices her scars, and sends her off into an angry, defensive fury that puts all that "I like everything about you" stuff behind them. "I don't understand what just happened," Noah says. "What just happened is you fucked someone who isn't your wife, Noah. That's what happened. That's what you did wrong….You're a married man with four kids who's cheating on his wife."
Later, she apologizes for saying these things. "Well, they were true," he acknowledges. And then Alison proves that she also knows how he sees her: she understands perfectly the version of her that he has composed in his mind, and rebels against it.
"Look, I know what you think you see: some easy-going girl who's going to shake you up with her free spirit, so by the end of the summer you can go back to your boring life with a bounce in your step…Well, I'm not that girl, and I won't rescue you from anything. You're going to be sorry you ever met me."
But, while this assessment was accurate—prior to this episode—it perhaps no longer is. What she said about him was true, and what he says about her now is also true, because now he's begun to know the real person, not the manic-pixie-dream-girl :
"I don't know what the hell happened back there, but let me make one thing very clear. There is nothing about you that seems easy. And whatever darkness you think you're hiding, it's written all over your fucking face. And you know what? I kind of like it."
The brilliance of this episode is that Marnich is both commenting on the "gimmick" of The Affair and using in a new way: by making the alternating points of view sequential, not parallel, the device itself becomes a function of their character development and their deepening relationship. It becomes an episode not about disconnection, but connection; it is about understanding, not misunderstanding; it is not thesis and antithesis, but synthesis. Their two points of view function not contradictorily but cumulatively, as these two people begin, finally, to really see each other.
And this work brings them both, finally, to the point where they can share a genuine human moment, and relate to each other as people, not as objects of fantasy. In what is not just one of the best scenes of the season so far, but one of the best scenes I've watched on television all year, Alison finally opens up to Noah about her son.
Ruth Wilson, needless to say, destroys in this exchange: it's a raw but carefully measured performance that perfectly understand and balances all the various emotions happening within Alison at this moment: her terrible grief, her embarrassment, her fear of driving Noah away, and the sheer relief—even joy—she feels in being able to talk about Gabriel at all. ("GODDAMN, SHE'S GOOD," I wrote in my notes, at this point in the episode.) But West is almost as good, doing less, and the important thing about his role here—from a character perspective—is that he puts all his attention on her. For the first time since they've known each other, Noah steps out of his subjective reality and shows real sympathy: for once, it isn't all about him.
And if I thought Wilson couldn't break my heart more, her terrible follow-up question proved me wrong. "What do you see now, when you look at me?" she asks, fearfully and hopefully. "What do you think I see?" he asks her. "Death," she replies—because that's what everyone sees when they look at her, and now she fears that's what he sees as well.
It's a painfully sad, honest moment by itself, but it's also one that brings this episode, and the series so far, to an incredible culmination. "What do you see when you look at me?" has been one of the central questions of The Affair, after all, with its alternating, often contradictory perspectives. Until now, we have mostly viewed the discrepancies in their respective accounts—and their respective understandings of each other—as failures, as errors, as things to be reconciled. But this episode gets to the heart of their temptation by recognizing that those "errors" were highly appealing, to both of them. Noah got to see himself, for a while, through her eyes, as someone whose every word was worth listening to; Alison got to see herself through his eyes, as someone strong and happy and whole. They both got to be, for a while, the people they wanted to be, not the people they actually are.
That's over now: it was fun, and liberating, and overwhelmingly seductive, but it's ultimately limiting and ultimately doomed. The hand-off of perspective that happens in the middle of this episode represents more than a variation on a formal device; it is the moment when they have to let go of not just their illusions about each other but also the illusions they were projecting of themselves. Letting go of those illusions is necessary in order to forge a real connection—let alone to move from infatuation to actual love—but the show is also wise enough to acknowledge that there is something bittersweet in that moment of transition from fantasy to reality.
There will no doubt still be misunderstandings (because there always are), and they will both still exist in their subjective realities (because we all do). But they have invited the other in, and they have begun to really see each other as real people. In Episode One, Noah asked his wife to meet his eyes while they were making love, and Helen burst out laughing. Now, as he and Alison make love—make love, not "fuck"—he says the same thing. "Look at me," he says, and she does, because now—for the first time—they both can.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- It's always worth paying attention to clothes in this show. In previous episodes, there have been discrepancies: most often, Alison has been dressed much more provocatively in Noah's account than she is in her own. (In the first episode, for example, he remembers her wearing a flirty sundress when he meets her on the beach; in her account, she's wearing shorts. And even in scenes where the basic outfit is the same—like her waitress uniform—her skirt seems shorter in his version.) Here, however, as a sign of their growing ability to actually see each other, there are no such differences: even her lingerie (which is an area where one might have expected Old Noah to embellish) is consistent between the versions. And, of course, they both buy new clothes, together, near the beginning of the episode, as if agreeing on who they will be for each other.
- A nice, subtle moment: Noah sees a painting in the museum of the Mohegan Indians being driven over the cliff, which could be where he gets that information to insert into his version of Alison's shipwreck speech. (Alison, in her version, doesn't mention it.)
- I loved the scene of Noah and Alison swapping out the dressers in the hotel, after Noah put his foot through one. It could come back as a plot point, of course, but I enjoyed it just for its sheer, authentic absurdity: a moment of ridiculous practicality that draws them together.
- I haven't talked much about what's going on in the flash-forward future(s)—in which both Noah and Allison are being interrogated—but we get a strong suggestion this week that these scenes may not be happening even roughly at the same time. The detective tells Alison that he and his wife have been together 25 years, and still act like newlyweds; to Noah, however, he says his wife got custody of the kids. Unless the detective is lying to one of them, this implies that Noah's interrogation is taking place long after Alison's, and puts the possibility that Noah could end up killing her back into play.
- Alison's comment about not really being an "easy-going girl who's going to shake you up with her free spirit" reminded me of the speech Clementine (Kate Winslet) gives to Joel (Jim Carrey) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours." I don't know if Treem or Levi share my love of that movie, but—since both stories take place (at least in part) on Montauk, and deal with similar themes—I think we can call them spiritual cousins, at the very least.