Lunchtable TV talk: The end of The Affair

lunchtable tv talk
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I don’t watch nearly the amount of television I used to, and even when I do, I don’t much feel the need to write about it like I once did (compulsively). But as I finished watching the final season of The Affair, I felt like I wanted to chronicle the various feelings I had as it came to a close. (For not being that invested in The Affair, I have written about it twice before… hmm. Clearly, over time, I warmed to it.)

What struck me most as the series ended and core characters drift back together is that it is truer to life in many ways than the extraneous drama of the series (or any series) would have us believe. Critics and viewers alike would criticize The Affair‘s frequent introduction of (in the big scheme, peripheral) characters who really didn’t fit or factor in (like the high school principal Noah gets involved with (Sanaa Lathan) or the French visiting professor, who seemed caricature-like in an uncharacteristically cliched performance from Irène Jacob)). Sometimes these characters – or events they prompted – come back in ways you don’t expect and are very important to the narrative – surprising the viewer in an almost This Is Us kind of way. While this can be both surprising and interesting for the narrative (as well as misleading, because we are getting only one perspective on something that may not have happened the way it appeared), it is also random in the kind of way we often experience in life. We have fleeting encounters that come back up later – for better or worse.

Some of these “surprises” or twists are more satisfying than others. I found the whole Sasha Mann story superfluous – it added nothing to the final season of the show. The Anna Paquin “future” scenes were awful, all the more because Paquin, if possible, is becoming a worse and less believable actress as her career continues (and she wasn’t great in the first place). Her storyline in the final season is completely unsatisfying, and the random people who pop up in her narrative thread feel very random until the story pops the surprise at the end, even if that part doesn’t feel gimmicky. But were these narrative missteps (the Anna Paquin/Joanie story) as much as they punctuated the very real theme of The Affair – how people come into our lives for intense, but often quite casual and temporary, moments and disappear just as rapidly as they moved in? Meanwhile other connections are lasting – like the central characters we have come to know in Dominic West‘s Noah and Maura Tierney‘s Helen. (And who on this earth doesn’t love Maura Tierney?)

Similarly you see in the end, through the eyes of both Noah and Helen’s eldest daughter Whitney, and Joanie, that when we are young we often see things in very “black and white”/”right and wrong” ways that tend to blur (significantly at times) with life experience and age. Things seem very “all or nothing” to the young; “old people” (anyone over 35) have lost their edge, mellowed, sold out, but it’s more a case of realizing what does and does not matter, how tangled, and intertwined our connections and relationships are, and how much pain and hurt rigidity and judgment of “right and wrong” can cause.  For the characters in this often flawed story (and what else could it be, dealing with flawed characters, told from each of their distinctive, subjective perspectives?), the power of forgiveness over time transforms their relationships and lives.

By the end of the series, it felt a lot like we were watching a completely different show from where it all started. Two of the four leads (Ruth Wilson‘s Alison and Joshua Jackson‘s Cole) weren’t in the last season at all. But the story had moved forward in any case, even if the presence of both characters continued to be felt. Yet their absence came across very much like the ‘real life’ feeling I took away from the series as a whole – sometimes people who play meaningful, real and serious roles in our lives are nevertheless temporary, whether it is because we grow apart, we find our own insecurities welling up and causing us to destroy our relationships, because people die, because people move to other places, because we find ourselves at different stages in our personal development than others who have been in our lives before… this is the stuff of life. We continue to move and grow, and those around us do, too. And through it all, we are weaving our meandering way through the lives of others, sometimes igniting a brief spark, sometimes leaving a deep mark.

Lunchtable TV Talk warmed over: The Affair

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I am still not really liking The Affair, but for the first time this week I actually felt a stirring of interest in my brain. Generally speaking, I like Maura Tierney. Her role in this seems a bit strange because she is meant to come off as some ultra-privileged and almost clueless woman – also the woman scorned and hurt (by her husband having an affair). But she has spent the 20+ years of their marriage blithely unaware, undercutting her husband and his confidence, seeming to revel in having the upper hand. She never saw it, and maybe it never really existed except in his mind, but as Tierney plays it, you get the sense that her entitled nature and habitual getting her own way have made her blind to the slow erosion and eventual disappearance of the relationship she believed she had.

It’s interesting that I saw this episode today. I had been thinking a lot about how relationships end, and how it happens that one person can be completely blindsided by a breakup. Of course it is normal that one person may plan the breakup and want it for some time before setting it into motion. But are there not signs? Things, that if one were paying attention and not, as I wrote above, blithely unaware (or willfully ignoring, hoping against hope that one is wrong?), that would be bright red flags? The tragedy of relationships that end, particularly for the person who is “dumped” is that it so rarely ends up in the kind of self-reflection it should, that would benefit. It often turns into a victim/self-pity party (which of course is fine for a while because it hurts. The pain is real). But how often do we – any of us – use a breakup as a genuine opportunity for real self-reflection and introspection?

I know that there is a phase in the breakup/heartache cycle during which the “dumped” asks him/herself, on a very superficial level, “What did I do wrong?” But this is not the kind of self-questioning that I think would help. No, instead, it’s a true assessment of what did I contribute (or not) to the relationship over time that led to this. Sure, sometimes people just grow apart. But in these cases where one person is just *dumbfounded* by being broken up with, I imagine the signs were there, and it’s not all one person’s fault (not that it is a fault-based thing). How can one look at the whole picture and find the places on the path that they stumbled or tripped but got back up again and kept walking without addressing the underlying symptoms?

These thoughts were swirling around in my mind today as I watched Tierney’s character. Even as she committed the ultimate fuck-up, she still was not honest enough with herself to start looking at the pitfalls and stumbles that put her marriage where it ended up. No, it is not all on her, and obviously, her husband had an affair and they split up. But that is never the whole story.

I was also struck by the fact that it is so rare, in all likelihood, that Tierney’s character would ever in a million years break away from the kind of rigid, taut life she had formed. A dose of divorce proceedings going south and a dash of pressure from a would-be suitor/longtime family friend and the general discord of her family life, I am sure she was worn down, and as the episode depicted, she got wildly drunk, consumed some edible marijuana … and realized only after she was swarmed by the multiple forms of inebriation that she had to go pick up her kids at camp. As soon as you see her rush off to get them, you know this spells trouble because, as the always responsible one, the one who holds things together, who never breaks rules, she will never catch a break. In the chaos that ensued in that storyline, I came to really feel for her character in ways that none of the other parts of the story had ever allowed for.