Photo: Eddy Chen (Showtime)

The question of identity has always been at the front of The Affair’s most stirring performances: Who are we really? How do others see us? How does that perception match up with our own? Usually these explorations play out rather benignly on The Affair, with Noah picturing himself as a brilliant white knight while the rest of us recognize him as the biggest asshole on the Eastern seaboard. This episode, though, shows how deadly those misconceptions and false presentations can be, with Alison’s two viewpoints (a first for the show) depicting Ben as a troubled but still benevolent man, or a troubled and ultimately homicidal one.

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The Affair’s double perception trademark hasn’t gotten much play this season, and it’s a really interesting usage here, with two points-of-view from a single character for the first time. What does that double perception mean, though? I feel like, unfortunately, that the second half of the episode is the true one (it’s the one with Alison winding up in the water, after all), with the first as an idealized version of the same encounter, maybe running through Alison’s mind while she’s doing the dishes, maybe a longing look backward from the now-deceased Alison. Either way, it’s a clever way for the show to still keep us guessing right before the season finale.

Since we know things end so tragically, it’s a hard episode to watch. The tension throughout this TV hour was nearly unbearable. Especially since, with the benefit of our 20/20 hindsight, we see all the million ways Alison could have gotten out of this scenario alive. Run out the door. Pound on a neighbor’s window. Call the cops! But don’t invite Ben into your home, and then let him make you dinner, or make him a goddamn snack. Is it just because Alison wanted to believe he was still a good person? Or was so curious about what he had to say?

At any rate, it’s a bit maddening, especially when Alison, our long-suffering victim, finally takes that cue from Helen and grabs her inner strength, right before she dies. She’s tired of being the woman men sneak around to be with, and she’s taking ownership for the roles that she played in those stories. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of the episode is Alison’s final monologue, talking about how she wants to be in a different story, how she’s been in pain all her life. Flighty mother, father nowhere to be seen, always feeling unsure and unstable—did Alison really ever have a chance for happy ending for herself? The writing in this episode, by showrunner Sarah Treem, is also hauntingly effective, with Alison swaying from being proud of her life to wondering whether it’s all a sham.

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Is anyone the villain in their own story? Do you think Ben feels justified for the lives he has taken? Ramon Rodriguez impressively switches from Alison’s sweet (but married) suitor to her killer. Alison begs him to tell her who he is, naively: Not everyone is going to be a great person. When Ben does finally reveal himself, it’s to Alison’s ultimate peril. (What’s that saying? When someone shows you who they are, believe them.)

This two-person, primarily one-room episode functions as a high level stage play, with tour de force performances by both Ruth Wilson and Rodriguez. As a swan song for her character, Wilson is heartbreaking here, offering a final portrait of a character we’ve come to know across these four seasons. Having to tell the horrifying story of Gabriel’s death and the fact that she’ll never stop blaming herself. Trying to offer Ben compassion, even though her vulnerability leads to her demise.

There’s a lot in this episode about telling people who you really are. Alison maintains that she opened herself up to Ben, who was duplicitous. “I have lived this entire story before, and it doesn’t end well.” There’s also a lot to unpack about how to live the story of your life even when it doesn’t match up with where you want your life to be. Alison and Ben have had horrible things happen to them, and have done things as well that they both lack forgiveness for. Is that why Alison ponders in the first scenario, “Maybe this as far as I come in this life”? And yet, she doesn’t kiss Ben until he says that he wants to live, as if she’s trying to embrace his life force.

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Even with their wildly different outcomes, there are parallels across both scenarios: Kisses, food, the story of the boy in Afghanistan. Ben’s insistence that he’s in love with and needs Alison, a woman he barely knows. The kisses transform from hunger on both sides to contact that makes Alison’s skin crawl. The food descends from Ben’s fried polenta (or pancakes?) to a sad plate of cheese and crackers, with even the knife adding to the scenario’s treachery. Music from phones to a turntable. Ben wanting to speak first. The way that Alison reveals that she met Ben’s wife, from forthcoming at the beginning to only admitting it in anger at the very end. The main elements of the story are the same, but the interpretation and emotional elements change everything.

As with last episode, it’s been a while since the once award-winning The Affair stretched the limits of what TV has to offer. Last week offered an inspired shift in gears mid-episode. This week, a master class in everything from acting to set direction (my favorite moments included the escalating tea kettle whistle when Alison asks Ben if he has kids, or the drippy faucet foreshadowing water as instrumental in Alison’s death).

It’s fascinating, but at the end we still have the death of Alison, completing this round of her story. The statue by her dead body appears to indicate that maybe Athena is right—maybe she’ll get another chance to live a happier life. Like she tells Ben: “I just think that sometimes we get into these patterns in life and we tell ourselves a story about what kind of person we are and how people treat us, and it’s not always true.” At least right before her death, Alison was ready to break apart from the self-defeating patterns that made her “some sort of receptacle for all their grief and rage and disappointment, but I am fucking sick of it.” Unfortunately, it was a realization she arrived at too late.

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Stray observations

  • Even though I’m pretty sure part 2 is the correct scenario, it is interesting how a lot of what Ben says in part 1 lines up exactly with what he told the cops. Almost like it’s from his perspective.
  • Every time Alison asked Ben if he was married in part 2, he answers that question with another question.
  • How well must Ben have cleaned up if there was no sigh of a struggle in Alison’s apartment? Traces of blood? Fingerprints?
  • The story of Gabriel’s death is never not going to be tragic, but if Cole wanted Gabriel to go to the hospital so much, why didn’t he take him?
  • I am ending The Affair season four feeling much more positively about it than when it started, how about you guys? See you next week for the finale.

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