Adultery is boring, at least when married men do it on TV. It’s no big mystery why a dissolute, murder-y president might seek out passion and endless drama in the form of a long-term affair, or why a mid-century ad man would try to hush his inner nihilist by sleeping with a steady stream of modern women. Even when shows complicate the roles of husband, wife, and mistress—as both Scandal and Mad Men do—their parts remain underpinned by all-too-familiar tropes. Husbands are deceitful and lusty, wives are a drag, mistresses are sexy but needy and women love shopping, I guess.
Not only are these plot lines offensive to all parties involved, they also tend to assign men ultimate control over how the affair plays out. After all, the husband holds the power to decide where he’ll spend the night, with whom he’ll split an expensive bottle of wine, the person he’ll call first when he gets a piece of bad news, and of course who he’ll end up with in the end. His desires determine what happens next. Meanwhile the wife has zero agency within the love triangle, since she typically doesn’t know it exists. The mistress is also beholden to her lover’s decisions. If she’s a cool girl, she’ll acquiesce to his comings and goings without making demands; if she wants more, better hide the bunnies. Moving between his domestic life and his clandestine one, the husband is the only person involved who has all the information and can make choices accordingly.
Thankfully, the Showtime series The Affair has managed to find a way to do something new with the creaky old infidelity tale. On the surface, the show revolves around a familiar plotline: Restless family man meets libidinous younger woman. But the series immediately calls the reliability of these characterizations into question. More than infidelity, The Affair is about how the way we construct the stories of our lives confers power—sometimes to ourselves, sometimes to someone else.
Each episode of the series thus far has been split between the perspectives of the adulterers, Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), as a police detective questions them over a mysterious death. The story of how their affair began, revealed in flashbacks, varies according to who’s doing the talking.