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.
In Noah’s early recollections, he was a high-minded and relatively happy novelist with four kids, a Brooklyn brownstone and a sensible yet sexy wife, Helen (Maura Tierney). Over the course of a summer vacation at his wealthy in-laws’ Montauk estate, he succumbs to the lure of a devil-may-care waitress.
At first, Alison seems to be every stereotype of the mistress-seductress come to life. She caresses Noah’s shoulder lightly while taking his order at the diner where they first meet, despite the fact that his wife and kids are crammed into the booth with him. When he stumbles into Alison again on the beach one night, she’s watching the waves in a billowing sundress. She asks him to walk her home, invites him to take a look at her outdoor shower, peels off her clothes to wash away the sand and invites him to join her. He resists, that time, but it’s clear the man won’t be able to hold off her advances for long.
If this was what the show put forward as the verifiable truth, I think I would have had to pull a Pleasantville and climb through the TV screen just to dump a bucket of slime over Noah’s head. His abdication of responsibility is frustrating because it so closely mirrors narratives in movies and TV shows featuring femme fatales, purring Lolitas, workplace cougars and other seductresses that are 100% male fantasy. Of course Noah’s unaware of his own appeal, just doing his best to care for his wife and kids; of course a younger woman will keep shimmying her shoulders at him until he gives into temptation. It’s hard out there for a man with the broad-planed, open face of a trustworthy cartoon armchair.
Thankfully, the show flips the script with Alison’s side of the story. In her telling, she met Noah while she was vacillating between numbness and grief over the accidental death of her four-year-old son a few years earlier. The loss has strained her relationship with her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson), another Montauk local who works with his brothers on a horse ranch. When Alison and Noah first meet at the diner, her hair is tied back in a practical service-worker ponytail, not tumbling over her shoulders; during their encounter on the beach, she’s covered up in jeans and a shawl. Her manner around Noah is hesitant and vulnerable; you can hear the hitch in her breath before she asks him a question. It’s Noah who asks to escort her home and who invites himself to take a look at the outdoor shower. Nobody loses their shirt that night, but he keeps escalating their connection at every turn.
If it’s hard to believe that Noah could really be such a stand-up guy spun around by a Montauk siren, it’s also difficult to imagine Alison falling in with Noah quite so passively as her story suggests. Both characters appear to be shaping their stories to the police detective so as to cast the other as the initiator. Are they each trying to shrug off accountability in order to soothe their troubled consciences, or do they have something to hide?
Given the whole police investigation angle, the latter option seems like a safe bet. But what’s even more interesting to me is how The Affair’s dual-narrative structure wrests away Noah’s control over the story.
Noah’s recollections suggest that he was shaken by his attraction to Alison, wanting both to resist and to give into it. In order to exert discipline over their volatile connection, he tries to be the one calling the shots. In the third episode, they kiss each other by the water. Noah tells her to stop, and Alison starts to walk away. “I thought you wanted this,” she says, calling his bluff.
“You can’t rush me,” he says, pulling her back toward him. “We’ll do this at my speed, okay? I know I sound like an asshole. But I want to be in charge here, okay?”
But Alison consistently refuses to play her role as Noah tries to script it. In the next episode, the pair take a day trip to Block Island. The possibility of getting a hotel room crackles between them. Both are aware that the trip is a turning point for their affair, and they vacillate between conspiratorial giddiness and backpedaling.
In a dim bar, Noah asks Alison if she considers herself a good person. “I don’t believe there are good people and bad people,” she says. “Yeah, there’s rapists, sociopaths. But beyond that, I think we’re all just doing our best to get by.”
“I’ve never cheated on Helen,” Noah confesses. “I could never convince myself it was worth it.”
“What do you want me to say, Noah, that I’m worth it?” Alison asks. “I’m probably not.”
Noah’s mystified by his girlfriend’s self-composure: after all, she’s married too. But Alison is no less ethical than he is, just less prone to hypocrisy.
Noah seems to think that telling his mistress how guilty he feels about cheating on his wife will somehow relieve him of accountability. He wants Alison to assure him she’s worth it; he wants to be beguiled by her so he can believe that he’s still a good person and keep the story he’s built about himself and his marriage intact. Not coincidentally, this is the exact narrative our culture likes to tell about men who cheat. Somehow the blame is always destined for the other woman, not the husband who breaks his wife’s trust.
(Stories about married women who cheat, it’s worth noting, tend to unfold very differently. Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Edna Pontellier lose control of their narratives. Their paramours grow bored or prove themselves unworthy; the women become outcasts and eventually kick the bucket. Suffering is always mandatory. Even I Am Love, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in the last 10 years, forces Tilda Swinton to lose her son before she’s permitted to be with her beloved.)
But Alison is uninterested in playing a supporting role in Noah’s personal drama, and she’s lost so much already that’s she’s not scared of losing more. She doesn’t need to have a coherent tale about the affair the way that Noah does, nor does the prospect of cheating ruin her self-image. Her moral relativism is the product of knowing just how dark and lonely life can get. It allows her to own her choices in a way that Noah cannot.
“I have only one thing to do / and that’s be the wave that I am / and then sink back into the ocean,” Fiona Apple sings in The Affair’s strange, bewitching opening credits. The show is committed to telling both Noah and Alison’s side of the affair, and by now it seems clear that both of their perspectives mix the true and the false. But I think the opening credits disclose where the series’ loyalties lie. The shape-shifter who embraces impermanence, the speaker who rises knowing she’ll fall back—that’s pure Alison. She’s an unreliable narrator, sure. Aren’t we all.