Season finale review: ‘The Affair’ – ‘Episode 10’

Senior Television Writer
12.21.14 95 Comments

Showtime

A review of “The Affair” season finale – and a few thoughts from co-creator Sarah Treem – coming up just as soon as I'm alone and need a kidney…

When I spoke with Sarah Treem before this season began, she said of the show's split-POV device, and the way details would change from one account to the other, “And the memory is tricky – that you remember things through your own prism.” That, for the most part, is how I've chosen to look at the way “The Affair” depicts the two halves of the story. Noah remembers Alison being in a pristine white dress when he and Helen come to fetch Whitney, because she's his angelic savior from the life he no longer wants, while Alison remembers a less striking outfit (albeit one where the skirt was still white). And the business with the pregnancy test in the trash can last week isn't contradictory: it's entirely possible that Alison found it at one point during her visit to the Solloway home, and that Noah found it later (after she had placed it a bit higher in the pile).

There were several times in the finale, though, where the stories began to diverge so much that I began wondering exactly how the device was meant to be viewed by us. Is it really just memory? Is there a chance one account or the other is meant to be the way Noah wrote it in his best-selling roman à clef? We know that we aren't meant to interpret anything as lies they are telling the cop, both because the interrogations largely ended several episodes ago, and because we've seen things that the show made clear the cop wasn't told about, like the kiss at the gate to Bruce's private beach.

Specifically, I wondered about two things in the finale: 1)The stark differences between how Noah and Alison recall the events revolving around Cole taking out the gun (his take involves a backyard brawl with Scotty, hers is inside the kitchen and with Scotty entirely absent), and 2)That when Alison is telling Phoebe about the perfect moment with Noah that she kept trying to recapture, the clip we see is of them after the town council meeting in episode 3 – only that scene was shown only from Noah's perspective, whereas in Alison's memory, Noah never showed up at that meeting and she had sex with Cole that night.

I'd had questions all season long about the POV device – and noted last week that the dueling perspectives made it hard to get a handle on how either party genuinely felt about the other – but this was the first time I found myself so distracted by the divergences that I had trouble engaging with what was happening at that moment in the episode. (After the fact, for instance, I assumed that Alison and Noah's encounter by the water simply happened on a different night, but watching the scene, the thought balloon above my head was just a collection of question marks and other stray punctuation.) Treem is out of the country on her honeymoon at the moment, which made the usual showrunner post-mortem interview understandably difficult, but she was kind enough to respond to my query about this via email. I'm reproducing her response in its entirety.

Okay Alan, I see two different questions here. In terms of the Phoebe moment, it is, of course, purposeful that scene that Alison recalls is from Noah's memory. If you noticed, Noah also remembers a moment on his side, that is actually taken from Alison's memory at the end of episode 4. What we're saying, in that moment, is that you haven't seen every memory these characters have… that some memories are buried so deep,  we don't allow ourselves to recall them until we absolutely have too. When Alison recounted episode 3 and Noah recounted episode 4, it was still early in their revisiting of what happened – they were still constructing their memories in order to fit a narrative that made them most comfortable. But when you see those flashes of memory in episode 10, it's almost like… they're remembering those moments despite themselves. Those memories are invading their consciousness, even as they struggle to maintain their distance from each other. 

In terms of how the memories function overall, in the storytelling… memory is not a science. There are no laws governing what we remember and why. It is individual and it is emotional. I don't care how smart you are or how educated or how aware. Every single person's memory is laughably faulty and the product of so many influences that have nothing to do with what actually happened.
If we followed any law in story construction it was that… how do these people emotionally remember their lives. What were the moments that stuck out for them? What mattered to them? What didn't matter? What have they forgotten? What have they buried? I was talking to a friend of mine on this vacation who I have known since I was a child. I very clearly remember accidentally hitting her in the head with a whiffle ball bat. I remember her crying to my grandmother in french (because she is french). She insists it never happened to her. She swears it was her brother who I hit. Who's to say who's right? And if one of us is misremembering, why? We will literally never know who's right and it does not matter. All that matters is how those memories have informed our senses of ourselves.
So, in terms of the final moment with Scotty. Noah remembers that he was brawling with Scotty. Alison just remembers Cole pulling a gun. Noah probably was brawling with Scotty – I don't know why Noah would remember that if it hadn't happened. But it doesn't matter to Alison.  All that matters to Alison is that Cole pulled a gun. That she suddenly had to choose between her husband and her lover. That she had to put herself between her husband and her lover. That she had to save her lover. That she had to stop her husband from making the kind of mistake that would ruin or end his life.
One rule we did follow in the memory construction is the MORE STRESSFUL THE SITUATION, THE MORE DIVERGENT THE MEMORY. So, if you remember from the pilot, they have radically different memories about who saved the daughter from choking. That is not, as you say, “easily brushed off by tricks of memory.” Someone clearly saved the kid and someone didn't. Someone has constructed a memory. But to me, it doesn't matter. All that matters, when you're telling a memory play, which I've always maintained this is, is how each party remmbers the incident and what that tells the audience about their respective character.
So, back to Scotty… Noah remembers himself as defending his daughter's honor, when his lover's psychopathic husband pulls a gun out of nowhere. Remember, the first memory Noah has of Cole, is of him raping his wife. Noah has only ever known Cole as a violent and unhinged man. When we come back on Alison's side, she doesn't remember Scotty being present, because, even if he was, of everything that happened that day, Scotty is the least of her concerns. What mattered to her about that moment was the gun that Cole pulled. And, in her memory, he had set her up to invite Noah, so that he could pull a gun. So if Scotty was there, and if he and Noah had an altercation, it was incidental to the plot. Which is, in Alison's mind, that Cole made her bring Noah to the ranch so that he confront him.

Okay, so that is the explanation. Fair enough. The kind of differences she's talking about, and the reasons for them, are the kind of thing you can't have characters explain to the audience, or each other. Even though this is a show loaded with characters primarily designed to receive exposition – the cop, the therapist, even Harry and Phoebe – there's no graceful way to have Noah or Alison come right out and say any of what Treem wrote here. It either comes across in the text – as I think it did in many of the previous divergences – or it doesn't. Ultimately, the device adds far more than it detracts, but it's also one where discussion of the differences, their meaning, how this is possible, who is “lying,” etc., may have started to consume all other discussion of the show, just based anecdotally on what I've seen in the comments here and on social media. (In a weird way, it's like the whacking and other mob violence on “The Sopranos”: a device meant to inform our understanding of the main character that at some point became the only thing a segment of the audience was paying attention to.) 

And thinking back on the finale, it's funny that I found myself so fixated on those differences in the two accounts, given how separated the two characters are for most of the hour.

Before Noah and Helen get in the car to collect Whitney, his half of the episode is a perfect little short story about the roller coaster ride of divorce. One minute, he's making up for decades of lost time by having sex with any attractive woman in his orbit (the swimmer from the premiere, other teachers at his school); the next, he's banished to one of the New York school system's infamous “rubber rooms,” where teachers can spend years on end waiting for their disciplinary cases to be adjudicated. As with the separation itself, Noah turns this setback to his advantage, turning the depressing setting into the ideal workspace to finish his novel and land a fat advance. And just as he's about to embrace his new life as a literary lion – and even get envious questions from Harry about the splendors of the single life – Helen calls him back to the house and tries to reconcile.

Throughout the season, any extended time the show gives us with Noah and Helen has been dynamite, and that's again the case here. Helen groveling in front of Noah, promising that she can be the one to change, when he's the one who caused all these problems, is a five-course meal of a scene, so uncomfortable and mortifying, yet written, directed and played so well that you can understand where this poor, lonely woman is coming from. She has it harder than him – while he's off hooking up with women whose names he doesn't even know, she has to wrangle four kids, including the very volatile and self-destructive Whitney – and she never got to make any active decisions in this split, save for ordering him out of the house immediately. The amount of pain and weakness that Maura Tierney displays as Helen pleads for Noah's return is impressive, even as the conversation – and what we've seen and heard of Noah in the previous scenes – suggests there is no way they should still be together. Then again, he wasn't going to tell Helen about Alison until he saw the suicide jumper last week, and he might have gone home to Brooklyn and stayed there for years if another life-and-death experience hadn't again shaken him from his complacency. Noah's hypocrite enough to back to that life, Helen weak enough that she'll take the easiest path even if it's the wrong one.

Fortunately (for him, at least, if not for her), Cole's display with the gun shakes everything up, and brings this chapter of the story to an angry, definitive close.

Though she doesn't get a sex montage, nor the triumphant swell of a project completed (it's Cole who takes advantage of the time alone to fix up their house), Alison is also thriving as a solo act when we first catch up with her. Athena gets a moment of empathy similar to the one Bruce got a few weeks ago, as we see that under certain circumstances, she can be exactly the kind of mother Alison needs, even if it's just when she's trying to hide from the world for a while.

When circumstance – in this case, a desire to sell the house at the height of the market – brings her back to Montauk, she too gets a spousal plea for reconciliation, but one she's strong and self-aware enough to not really consider. And because she's so blunt and definitive on ending things, she sets up Cole's gun-wielding anger at the family house. (The show has always depicted him as a cowboy out of step with the way the world has been changing; putting a pistol in his hands only strengthens that image.) This is not a marriage that could ever survive the deep and bitter schism between its two partners, but I'll miss seeing them try.

In that earlier interview with Treem, I admitted that I wasn't expecting much of “The Affair,” simply because the subject matter has never interested me, to the point where Ebert's “it isn't what it's about, but how it's about it” test still didn't work. (See also my boredom with “Downton Abbey” even in the days when “Downton Abbey” was good.)  That I was as engaged by so much of this season, despite the hole I found at the center of it, is a testament to the great strength of the show around the title relationship. And I'll be curious to see both how the second season is structured – I'm guessing it will be toggle between Noah's legal plight in the present and Noah and Alison's early days as a real couple (with a baby to be born, a Hamptons wedding and Scotty's death all to happen in between) – and how I respond to it now that the two original family units are no more, while Noah and Alison's relationship will presumably be more prominent than ever.

I liked this finale a lot, when I wasn't busy being distracted by the differences in POV. But I also don't think it's a coincidence that one of my favorite episodes of the season had so little to do with the central couple as a couple.

Some other thoughts:

* Noah and Alison have certainly come up in the world at the time before his arrest, with a baby girl, a swank apartment in the West Village and enough money that Noah can easily make a wire transfer of $20,000 to bribe a potential witness against him.

* Nice use of The Animals' “It's My Life” for the montage of Noah sowing his oats all over Brooklyn.

* Noah's admiring rubber room seatmate Victor was played by Geoffrey Owens, aka Elvin from “The Cosby Show,” who also had a memorable “Leftovers” guest appearance earlier this year. Too bad there's not enough time left in 2014 for him to hit the pay cable trifecta on a Starz drama. 

* Using the “Previously, on…” montage to remind viewers of a long-ago character or plot point tends to give away the return of that person or thing, but it's still useful more often than not. I otherwise wouldn't have remembered the existence of the tow truck driver and his previous encounter with Noah.

What did everybody else think of the finale, and the season? Does Treem's explanation of the POV device change how you look at the split?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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