“Can you tell us about who you were, back then?”
We are all the architects of our own history, meticulously constructing the framework of our past one memory at a time. Sometimes this framework makes us into the hero; sometimes, the victim. But the tricky thing about the history we create for ourselves is that it’s not our own, not really: it’s shared with the people who we share the experiences, and those experiences can be interpreted in vastly different ways. It’s in this ambiguous space between shared memories and the truth where The Affair firmly plants its flag, and then gamely asks the audience to go along for the ride.
Before The Affair premiered there was a sort of dance anyone who had seen it in advance was doing to avoid giving away some of the show’s central conceits. While this is understandable (and I also tried to avoid giving anything away when urging people to check out the episode) the construction of the episode is clever enough that the “surprise” factor of the way the pilot unfolds is almost beside the point. This is a story of an affair told from dual perspectives—his and hers—but hearing that as a logline only tells a very small fraction of the show’s actual intent. Because this isn’t just a story of an affair, it’s a story of two people, two marriages, two families, two wholly separate lives that become intertwined and, from all hints given here, irrevocably changed. Most of all, though, this is a story about reconstruction of the past and how people reconstruct the narrative of the choices they make, which is what elevates the premise beyond the typical infidelity narrative.
Because this is essentially an infidelity narrative, however, there’s a whole lot of “why should we care about two cheaters” baggage that The Affair must navigate. Creator Sarah Treem wisely does that here by using the title as a promise to come and establishing Noah and Alison’s lives in separate before throwing them together. Starting the pilot with Noah’s story is almost groan-worthy in its predictability, an “oh great, here comes another story about an unsatisfied privileged white guy,” but as his story unfolds it becomes clear The Affair has much more complicated intentions than that. These intentions start even with the opening narration, which immediately makes it clear this is a story Noah is telling to someone, and that the audience should adjust their expectations accordingly. Where these expectations get shattered is when it is revealed the narration is a part of some sort of police investigation, then the perspective abruptly shifts to Alison (via a nice, shocking title card) and the story starts all over again.
There are layers and layers of things to unpack just in this one episode, but the essentials are this: Noah Solloway (played to “what, who, me?” perfection by Dominic West) is a married father of four who has a self-described perfect life, even if his description of it throughout the episode sounds more like perfected chaos. His family goes to his in-laws’ giant house on Montauk for the summer, which is where he meets Alison (the always great Ruth Wilson), a Montauk native, when she waits on his family at a local restaurant. Eventually, they will have an affair (although none of those specifics are revealed at this time), and eventually, they will separately be questioned by some sort of detective in relation to a yet-to-be-revealed crime. The interrogation framework serves as a mysterious hook to bait the audience, but it sneakily also serves as a way to make the he said/she said dual structure of the episode feel like it has more purpose than as a mere narrative device.
This dual perspective is a tricky line to walk, especially when it is tied to a risky device like a season-long mystery to unravel, but at least in the pilot it is managed with extreme grace. It works because it’s never treated as a parlor trick: We see things one way in Noah’s half of the story, then a different way in Alison’s, and the writing never dares make the decision on whose perspective is the “right” one. Right and wrong isn’t the point here, character exploration is, especially the exploration of how a character’s personality and past life experience can make them see the exact same incident in wildly different ways.
Take the choking incident at the diner, which is the first time The Affair uses the its defining device. When Noah tells the story, he’s the savior, dislodging the marble his daughter is choking on and then comforting Alison over and over again when she has an emotional reaction to the scene. When Alison tells the same story, however, it’s her who tells Noah to turn the girl upside down to dislodge the marble, and it’s her who reluctantly hits the girl on the back to ultimately dislodge it. Later, Noah doesn’t comfort her so much as offer to pay her for her kindness. It’s not a subtle difference at all, but it manages to stay just on the side of believable because the show takes the time to establish that Alison has lost a child before revisiting the scene, so her reaction makes sense.
The best word to describe the construction of this pilot episode is careful, but the meticulous structure is why everything works so well. We see Noah’s pleasure at getting hit on by a younger woman turn into a bit of befuddled amusement when she realizes he’s married, then we see how his (apparently happy) marriage to Helen (Maura Tierney) still makes him feel a bit trapped and restless. Between his complicated children, his book that wasn’t the critical or commercial success he expected, and his father-in-law who constantly undermines him, Noah is telling his story as a self-professed happy man who almost accidentally fell into this relationship. But it’s just that: His story. Is he trying to convince the interrogator he’s telling the story to, or is he trying to convince himself?
One of the great pleasures of the pilot is when Noah’s story fades away and the title card for Alison’s story appears, because it feels like a declaration of intent. This isn’t just a man’s story of an affair as it appeared on the surface, it’s a story concerned with something more than that. Alison’s life immediately takes on a different tone than Noah’s, a quieter, sadder tone, and for good reason: There’s no pretending on her part that her marriage to Cole (Joshua Jackson) is a happy one following the death of their child. Her side of the story is so relentlessly unhappy here that it’s almost a blessing the show isn’t told entirely from her perspective, because it would simply be too much.
Alison’s perspective is vital one despite its heaviness, which is especially obvious when the beach scene repeats from her point of view. When Noah told the story of running into Alison on the beach, it was a story of a man being tempted despite his best intentions. It was Alison who was wearing a tiny sundress. It was Alison who spoke seductively to him and asked him to walk her home. It was Alison who invited him onto her property and then walked off into the distance of the frame as a tempting blur. It was Alison who was assaulted by some mystery man as Noah looked on. From Alison’s perspective, however, Noah is the one who instigates everything. He asks to walk her home. He asks to see her shower. And the sex that was seen as assault through his eyes is expanded through hers to reveal that it was more like rough sex following a fight between two married people. Whether or not this situation is outwardly mentioned again by either character, its presence is like a declaration for the show: Things are not always what they seem, so do not believe everything you hear.
If there’s one complaint to be made about the pilot it’s that it isn’t subtle, especially in Alison’s side of the story with the Peter Pan book and the temptation Tarot card. Still this is a tiny quibble in the face of what is one of the best pilots of the last several years. I can’t remember a pilot episode that personally affected me so much immediately (and whose effectiveness never waned upon repeated viewings) and because of that, I can’t wait to see what The Affair has in store for Noah and Alison next.
- Welcome to weekly coverage of The Affair! I am genuinely excited to talk about this show every week. I promise not to call Joshua Jackson Pacey here, but please know that’s what I’m always calling him in my head.
- I love the shot of Noah leaving the city, like he’s entering the bubble of the car and being transformed, leaving the city behind. There are a lot of visual cues specific to both Noah and Alison’s story throughout: Noah’s life is framed in close, claustrophobic shots until he gets to the beach with Alison, and Alison’s life is framed in wide, expansive vistas except when she is trapped with Cole’s family.
- Also strong is how the interrogation scenes almost bleed into the narrative, creating layers of artifice and constantly reminding that this is a story being told to us. Don’t trust everything you hear.
- I’m giving Noah’s awful kids a pass because I think their awfulness is a purposeful part of his story, but man, those kids are awful so far.
- Interesting parallel: Both married couples get a sex scene as their first scene together, and both serve to show two couples out of sync but for wildly different reasons. Noah and Helen are out of sync because of what appear to be outward forces, while Alison and Cole are out of sync because of internal ones.
- “I have to pick up my kid.” Well, that’s one way to keep things intriguing.