A Review of ‘The Affair‘ on Showtime
This post contains spoilers and refers only to Season 1.
I’ve been binge-watching the first season of ‘The Affair’, which is a T.V. show about a likeable but resentful married man, Noah (played by Dominic West), who has an affair with a unlikeable but fuckable married woman, Alison (played by Ruth Wilson). The show, which seems to have gotten mixed but largely positive reviews, has some problems: there’s a whole lotta plot for not a ton of pay-off, and everyone spends a lot of time in Montauk looking agitated and unresolved.
But there are some things I really like about ‘The Affair’, and one of those things is the relationship between Noah and his wife Helen (played by Maura Tierney). It seems, despite his affair, like a happy relationship, a long and companiable marriage between two people who essentially like each other.
Normally, when a relationship with a cheating member is depicted on T.V., the blame for the infidelity is put, in part, on the spouse cheated-on. They are cold; they are mean. I appreciate that ‘The Affair’ is willing to have a spouse step out on a good relationship.
Or I did like that, until, in the middle of the first season, Helen learns about Noah’s affair, and, in couple’s therapy, comes out with this little speech:
“”Do you know why I married you?”
“Because you love me?”
“I thought you were safe…Do you remember how quiet you used to be? You got paralyzed if there were more than three people in the conversation. I mean, you only spoke to me; everyone else thought you were mute. And I could have had anyone, when I was young – I’m sorry if that sounds crass, but it’s true, and I chose you. And I knew you were never going to be President or famous or rich, but I didn’t care about that because I had a rich, famous father and he’s such a fucking asshole and you adored me. I knew you would never cheat; you wouldn’t leave and you would be a good father and we would have a nice life and we would grow old and die together and everyone would talk about how lucky we are and what a smart choice I made.””
This is some bullshit right here.
She’s horrible! For the entire first half of the first season, she’s been doing a very good impression of a devoted wife and mother, but she fooled you! She’s a narcissist – she only chose him because she thought his mediocrity would trap him with her and make her look good by comparison. Their life, their marriage, their children, all were props in her one-woman show: Smart Choices of Helen Solloway. She is revealed as moral monster.
There was no good reason to pathologize this character or this relationship this way. It shows an intolerance for the fact that most humans are complicated. If a husband (or wife) is unfaithful, it does not mean that their spouse must be secretly awful. There are plenty of people who like, or even love, their spouses, and still cheat on them. Not every unfaithful spouse is escaping a rotten marriage: people get bored, or lazy, or have some other existential crisis, or they meet someone else they really, really want to have sex with.
In order to make sure that we stayed with Noah, that we continued to care about his story, they threw his wife under the plot bus: they made her the villain so that his fidelity would make sense.
But infidelity already makes sense – it doesn’t need explaining. Anyone who has ever wanted to have sex understands the idea of wanting to have sex with someone else. And it’s an old and cheap trick, making the wife emotionally responsible for the husband’s failing. It’s retrograde and stupid.
And I can’t help but notice that while Helen, Noah’s wife, must bear the weight of his error, Alison’s husband Cole (played by Joshua Jackson) is allowed to remain sympathetic. In each relationship, it is the woman who is ultimately responsible for the infidelity
‘The Affair’ got a lot less interesting when it decided to make Helen horrible. Before, things were murky and hard and muddled. There were four complicated people in a mess, and the fact that the mess was of their own construction did not mean that I did not feel for them; now, there are only irritating people acting badly. The show is flat now, and I can’t seem to care anymore who sleeps with whom, or leaves whom, or knows what. They can all go to hell in a handbasket for all I care, and good riddance.
Features image from imdb.com. Title quotation by George Bernard Shaw.