Two Sides to Every Story – The Affair (2014–19)

By Kai-Arne Zimny

Have you ever talked about a past event with some­one who was involved in it and came to a point where you and that some­one didn’t quite agree on how, where, or even if some­thing had hap­pened? This can be amus­ing or awful, but it sure­ly makes us pon­der about truth, per­cep­tion, and the rela­tion­ship between the two.

And so does Showtime’s TV dra­ma series, The Affair.

The pilot episode starts in medias res with a police detec­tive (Vic­tor Williams) inter­ro­gat­ing our male pro­tag­o­nist, the teacher and semi-suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist, Noah Sol­loway (Dominic West). The detec­tive wants to know “how this whole mess got start­ed.” This is when it dawns on us that what we’re see­ing isn’t what’s hap­pen­ing right now. It’s mere­ly Noah’s rec­ol­lec­tion of what has hap­pened. Through Noah’s lens of mem­o­ry, we learn that at the begin­ning of the sto­ry he’s hap­pi­ly mar­ried (with 4 kids) to Helen (Mau­ra Tier­ney), his high school sweet­heart. Dur­ing their sum­mer vaca­tion in Mon­tauk (Long Island, New York), their lives change rad­i­cal­ly when Noah meets Ali­son Lock­hart (Ruth Wil­son). It is from her per­spec­tive that the sec­ond half of the episode is told. Ali­son is a wait­ress and unhap­pi­ly mar­ried to Cole (Joshua Jack­son). They’ve nev­er real­ly seemed to get over the death of their tod­dler who’d died in an acci­dent not long ago. As soon as she and Noah are on the screen togeth­er, we real­ize how this whole mess got started.

The film takes the say­ing “there are two sides to every sto­ry” lit­er­al­ly: The first half of each episode is told by one char­ac­ter, the sec­ond half by anoth­er. Don’t wor­ry about rep­e­ti­tions – all char­ac­ters have their own life and sto­ry. The ‘two sides’ approach is done very well, and often we have ‘light bulb moments’ when some­thing is hint­ed at in the first half which doesn’t ful­ly make sense with­out get­ting the sec­ond per­spec­tive. Of course, many of the scenes do in fact over­lap, but it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see how one and the same event dif­fers depend­ing on the per­spec­tive. There are count­less diverg­ing details, minor and big, and they are fun to spot.

As view­ers, we are con­stant­ly try­ing to fig­ure out which ver­sion is more accu­rate. The recent sea­son 4 finale, for instance, end­ed with diverg­ing view­points on an event so rich in dra­mat­ic con­se­quence that it almost hurt not to know which one is true. To add to the mys­tery, in this very case the two diverg­ing view­points are those of one and the same char­ac­ter. And yes, The Affair gets more com­pli­cat­ed as it con­tin­ues and more view­points are added.

Although we learn a mur­der had hap­pened in Mon­tauk ear­ly in sea­son 1, The Affair is nei­ther a crime sto­ry, nor a “who dun­nit.” It’s char­ac­ter-dri­ven, emo­tion­al, and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly con­vinc­ing. The four sea­sons of The Affair are avail­able on Ama­zon Prime; Show­time announced a fifth and final sea­son to air in 2019.

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