December 22, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “The Affair”


It’s difficult, even after a full and absorbing season, to know exactly what to make of THE AFFAIR.  The series hasn’t fit neatly into either of the genres it seemed to be invoking:  despite the title and occasional bits of premium cable-level sex (as in tonight’s season finale), physical passion isn’t its main subject matter; and its flashforwards to a police investigation of a murder that embroils adulterous lovers Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) haven’t made it a thriller.

Then there is the show’s central structural gimmick, which examines overlapping plot each week from the viewpoints of first one of the protagonists, then the other.  Despite series co-creator Sarah Treem’s detailed explanation to Alan Sepinwall in conjunction with tonight’s season finale, it seems inconceivable that the characters would recall critical events with the extreme level of disparity featured in the finale–not just different nuances of location or dialogue, or recollections that make the remembering party more central or more sympathetic, but enormous factual distinctions.  This is especially true when from what we can see, the events being recalled are just a few years earlier, not memories from childhood like the one Treem cites in her explanation.  But even if one allows that such lapses are believable, it’s not clear what they add to the whole of The Affair.

On a big-picture basis, The Affair can be somewhat bewildering, and some of the plotting was a stretch, like the reveal that Alison’s in-laws were financing their fading ranch by dealing coke.  Scene by scene, however, the series is more often than not superb.  Tonight’s finale, written by Treem (who shares “created by” credit with Hagai Levi, on whose In Treatment she was a writer–they collaborated on the show’s overall concept, but she serves as sole showrunner) and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, largely took place 4 months after the events of the previous episode, when both central marriages had broken up, Noah’s with Helen (Maura Tierney), and Alison’s with Cole (Joshua Jackson).  Noah had used the time, after a run of one-afternoon-or-night-stands that got him suspended from his city teaching job, to finally finish his second novel (thanks to a real-life NY institution, the room where suspended educators have to spend their days in limbo while their cases await arbitration, very amusingly detailed here)–and in both his and Alison’s recollections, the new book pushed him to the level of success he’d always longed to achieve.  He was drawn back to his family, though, when Helen discovered what Noah already knew, that Alison’s brother-in-law (the future murder victim) was the man who’d impregnated their then-16-year-old daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles, magnetically brittle).  The two reconciled, but fell apart again when Whitney fled to the Hamptons, bringing both couples together, almost fatally when Cole drew a gun.  For Alison’s part, she’d spent the months (somewhat unconvincingly) on a zen retreat with her self-righteously new-age mom Athena (Deirdre O’Connell), only to return in time for Whitney’s arrival at her in-laws’ house.

Although often it’s Alison’s version of events that feels more emotionally detailed, here the honors went to Noah’s side, largely because of what continues to be remarkable work by Maura Tierney.  Her central sequence with West, at once furious, pleading, sexually needy and bitterly funny, pulled out about as much from that material as any human could.  The supporting characters are a particular strength of The Affair–apart from Tierney and Telles, Jackson gave his all to a bruising fight with Wilson where both of their characters finally said the hateful things to each other about the death of their young son that they’d held back for years.  Mare Winningham and Kathleen Chalifant have also been powerful as, respectively, Alison and Noah’s strong-willed mothers-in-law.

When it comes to the relationship between Noah and Alison, The Affair has again confounded expectations.  They may be soulmates, but they don’t feel inevitable as a couple–one could easily make the case that each of them would be better off staying with his or her spouse.  West and Wilson don’t play them as star-crossed heroes, but as complicated, damaged, sometimes unlikeable figures who leave plenty of devastation in their wake.  (Both performers have enormous charisma both individually and together, which certainly helps.)

The Affair garnered what would once have been considered mediocre ratings, but it performed particularly well with delayed viewing added.  (And paycable services, unlike broadcast and even basic cable, get exactly the same value from a viewer who watches online 3 weeks later as one who watches “live” on premiere night–both pay the same subscription fee.)  Just as valuably, the show garnered plenty of media attention, including a pile of Golden Globe nominations.  The series has already been renewed for next season, which will give Treem and her marvelous cast more time not just to unspool their plot (Noah’s arrest for murder at the climax of the finale was surely just one more step toward whatever truth may ultimately be revealed) but to explain exactly what kind of tale it is that they’re telling.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."