Can a season finale be totally frustrating, almost completely let down the season that came before it, and yet still somehow manage to be immensely entertaining despite those issues? Well, the season one finale of The Affair manages to be exactly that. It’s a maddening, frustrating, soapy, compelling, occasionally hilarious, entertaining mess, and I somehow equally loved and hated it at the same time. Hey, at least it wasn’t boring.
One thing is definitely clear: This isn’t the same show it appeared to be at the beginning of the season. My struggle with last week’s episode was that the show was suddenly this big, over-the-top, soapy thing, when previously it handled its soapier inclinations with much more subtlety and ease. After seeing this finale—which is bigger and soapier in every aspect—it appears The Affair has shifted gears into a slightly different kind of drama than the intimate character study its shifting perspective premise first suggested. A show naturally evolves and changes as it goes on, and The Affair in particular has gone through several mutations since its stunning pilot, but none more than the evolution of its defining device. In the first half of the season, the dual perspective device was used as a fascinating look at character and how personal experience affects someone’s perception of the world around them. Gradually, though, the device lost a lot of its punch, becoming either a meaningless game of “spot the difference” or confusing via the differences in perspective rather than enlightening, leaving the device as something that now exists more in form than function.
This change would be completely fine, except it feels as if the show doesn’t quite recognize that the perspective device isn’t really working anymore. The biggest example of this in the finale comes during the climactic scene at the Lockhart ranch, where the two perspectives on what happened are so hopelessly divergent that any meaning the differences impart are lost in the incredulity. In Noah’s version, Cherry begs Helen and Noah not to press charges against Scotty for statutory rape, the situation ending with Cole stopping Noah’s attempt to beat up Scotty by brandishing a gun, leaving Noah literally in the middle of Alison and Helen as Cole threatens his life. In Alison’s version, Cole threatens everyone with a gun, finally turning the gun on himself until Alison talks him down, leaving Noah to abandon his family and comfort Alison after the scene ends. There’s something to be said about people having different recollections of an event—especially if their recollection puts themselves in a favorable light—but having such vastly differing experiences when someone is holding a gun on you seems disingenuous at best, and laughable at worst. So Noah and Alison’s experiences were so different in their head that they forgot exactly how someone threatened to kill them? It’s so jarring that it completely took me out of the experience of Alison’s memory, which is a disservice to the character work the writers were trying to do with the scene and especially a disservice to Joshua Jackson, who was acting his ass off.
The strange thing about this maddening scene is that, in both perspectives, it was highly unbelievable yet entertaining as hell. Noah and Alison’s stories have devolved into this twisted, soapy, dramatic tangle, and the show is practically begging you to lean into the wind and go for the ride. I resisted last week’s episode, but when you take last week in combination with this finale—and accept the new world order of the show—it turns out to be a pretty good time. It helps that despite the crazy plot twists, the show has retained the bones of an interesting character drama. Noah’s single life is profoundly uninteresting (other than the very well-directed, clever device the show used to show the passing of four months, between the various women he brought back to his tiny studio and the monotony of his weird teacher detention) but every second he spends onscreen with Helen crackles with life. This is partly because the dynamic of their relationship is interesting, and partly because Maura Tierney is a force of nature, but nothing sings in this finale more than the fight they have where Helen reveals she wants him to move back home. It’s a stunning scene, complex and well-written and absolutely devastating, and it’s moments like these that keep the entire show from completely falling off the precipice.
Similarly, Alison gets some interesting development amidst the madness. Her four months were spent in a yoga community with Athena, which turns out to be the unlikeliest, best thing Alison could have done for herself. She leaves far more at peace with herself and her life than when she went in, and she feels settled in a way she’s never been in her stories. She’s actually far more like what she was like in Noah’s early perspectives, which is an interesting and subtle touch. Alison is also far surer of what she wants in her marriage than Noah: She wants to leave Cole, and the scene where she tells him is raw, searing magic.
Despite enjoying the soapier parts of this finale, what’s still so hard to get accustomed to is how a show that can render such beauty in these small character scenes goes so far over the top (and off-track) with its soap-tinged plots. When The Affair began, it was almost entirely made up of scenes like Noah and Helen’s fight, or Alison and Cole’s final breakup, until the plot aspects started creeping in. Now the balance has shifted toward the plot, and this finale is the first time it felt like the shifts didn’t completely pull the show off its own axis. What is still a giant, cumbersome mess, though, is the murder mystery. It’s been quite a while since I’ve personally cared much about who killed Scotty—Scotty isn’t enough of a character to give more than a perfunctory thought to—but the show is determined to make this murder mystery a mystery, dammit, no matter how useless that mystery seems.
The thing about the mystery, though, is the writers might know that no one cares about Scotty. The show spent the finale building to a big reveal, but the episode had very little to do with Scotty himself; he only even appeared for one very brief minute. It turns out that Scotty’s murder, and the investigation by Detective Jeffries, was really about Noah and Alison all along, and the big reveal the season was building to was not who killed Scotty, but what is going on with Noah and Alison. All of that nonsense with Jeffries was leading to the reveal that Noah sold his “extraordinary” novel for half a million dollars, bought a fancy house in New York, and is now together with Alison (and there’s a child involved in all this, somehow). It was also leading to the reveal that Noah has enough to hide that he would bribe the tow truck driver from earlier in the season to act like he’s never met him, which then lead to Noah’s arrest. Finally, it was leading to the reveal that Alison and Noah definitely have something to hide surrounding Scotty’s murder, and that something is something big, and something together.
Listen, there’s no mandate that the show needed to solve Scotty’s murder in season one. I actually laughed with absolute delight when the show ended on Alison’s face, the murderer still as unclear to us as it was in the pilot. The problem is that by dragging it out, it forces us to remember just how much we don’t care about Scotty, over and over again, until it is solved. The question isn’t “Did Noah and/or Alison kill Scotty?” The question is whether or not we care that they killed Scotty. The Affair spent the entire season getting to this timeline where Noah and Alison apparently left their spouses, made a decision to be together, and built a life, yet none of that process has been revealed. The question that remains is what does the second season possibly look like? Is it a carbon copy of the first, with multiple perspectives and timelines, as we continue to inch closer to the truth about what happened to Scotty? Which leaves one final question: If it is, do we care? The Affair is certainly not the groundbreaking drama it appeared to be in the pilot, but as this highly entertaining finale proved, it isn’t a dud, either. It would be a shame to see it get bogged down trying to sustain and unsustainable mystery.
- Thanks for sticking around while I worked through my very complicated feelings about this show throughout the season, everyone. It’s been a good time and I appreciate all your very thoughtful and insightful comments.
- So after all that, Jeffries is gay and everything he said to Noah and Alison about his family was a lie? The show sure is having fun with that little runner.
- I loved the way the episode suggested passing time within Noah’s story, but that montage was so divorced from what we’ve seen as the established style of the show that it felt like it was out of a completely different project. An inconsequential indie film, perhaps.
- Whitney is absolutely great in this episode. I forgot how good Julia Godani Telles is at delivering dramatic lines that are tinged with a bit comedic irony (like her sociopath banter) like she did on Bunheads.
- No sign of Oscar once again, cementing him as the season’s character who only existed to move the plot for the main characters. Once the writers didn’t need him to be an outside influence to Noah or Alison? Poof, he disappears.
- Chances that note telling Noah “you are my hero” actually exists? 0.00 percent.
- “So were you really screwing my dad? Why? He’s so old, and your husband is so hot.” Whitney, speaking truth.
- This Might Matter In The Future: Oh who the hell knows anymore?