The Affair: Change in an Ordinary Instant
“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” Tennessee William, The Glass Menagerie
Anais Nin once said, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” There’s no arguing that point; who we are shapes our worldview, our perspective, and how and what we see. Our experiences and our sense of self color how we see life, shadowing (for better or worse) our recollections. Further still, each person is the hero of his/her own story (the exact quote has been attributed to two different people, so forgive my lack of credit). Each person is the protagonist, the central figure, and that narrative focus determines our remembrances. In the pilot episode of Showtime’s The Affair, this holds remarkably true. Two character (Noah and Alison) recount an affair they had together, separately. Told as a retrospective from the present, they’re being interviewed by a detective regarding a murder of a man whose identity has yet to be revealed.
Given that memory is a shifting and often unreliable narrator, Noah and Alison’s stories are similar, but not exactly the same. Each sees him/herself as the hero of the story, and that is reflected in the memories each relays. Central to both narratives, though, is a sense of personal loss – both a loss of a sense of self and a familial loss. Noah is in his father-in-law’s shadow, who is a famous author; Noah is a first-time novelist and a school teacher. While his marriage to Helen seems relatively solid, there is a palpable strain between them, an odd disconnect. Twice, they try to engage in sexual intimacy, and twice they’re interrupted by their kids. During the second time, Helen starts laughing, and something about that wounds Noah. They’re staying at his father-in-law’s house in Montauk for the summer, much to his dismay and his kids’ dismay. Sullen does not even begin to properly describe his eldest daughter’s attitude. Helen and Noah’s marriage appears relatively solid, but there’s a sense that personal fulfillment is lacking – at least for him. The beginning of the episode has a brief bit of flirtation with a woman, before leaving for vacation. It may bear out that Noah has lost his sense of self, and he no longer knows who he is outside of his relationship to Helen.
Alison has lost a child and is struggling to regain her footing in the wake of that – not to mention her relationship with her husband, Cole, has suffered in the wake of losing their son. There’s a distinct impression that neither Noah nor Alison are succeeding in their lives as they’d hoped – that they’re falling short of personal (and external) expectations. We meet her in Montauk on her dead son’s birthday, and her grief is consuming and raw. She and her husband has sex, but it is a strangely empty intimate act – it’s just sex. She looks heartbroken during its duration, and afterwards, Cole notices that she didn’t orgasm – and she tells him not to bother, to just hold her hand. The argument could be made that holding someone’s hand is an intimate act of comfort. You don’t hold the hand of someone you don’t like. But the fact that she’s not invested in their lovemaking gave me pause. Before he leaves for work, Cole tells her to try and have a good day, and it’s almost accusatory – like he believes she wants to be unhappy. Their initial sex scene is in stark contrast to the one near the end of the episode, after Alison meets Noah on the beach (we’ll get to that later). Alison and Cole argue; she was late to the dinner his mother put together. She thinks he’s cheating on her. They are at odds with each other in a way that feels almost irreparable. However, the sex they engage in at that point is both more intimate and less (she’s facing away from him – and she makes distinct eye contact with Noah, who had just walked her home.). It read like grief sex – comfort sex. Rough and something that fills a need, not something necessarily born of love.
But let’s delve into the start of the affair between Noah and Alison. The basics of the story are consistent: they meet at the diner in Montauk where she is a waitress. His younger daughter nearly chokes to death on a marble. They meet later on the beach, near the world’s least rowdy bonfire. He walks her home, witnesses the fight she has with her husband, and see her have sex with Cole.
From Noah’s perspective, Alison flirts with him. She is the initiator, the instigator, and one might say temptress. After the choking incident (Noah saves his daughter, and Alison picks up the marble that the child had choked on), he runs into her by the bathrooms accidentally, where she is visibly upset – because as she just witnessed a child almost die on her dead son’s birthday, that’s understandable. Later, when they meet on the beach (he wandered from his father-in-law’s house, while his wife is sleeping), she flirts with him heavily. In his version, she is wearing a dress with a distinct lack of underwear. She asks him to walk her home, gets in her outdoor shower, naked, while flirting heavily – and he’s the one who flees before anything happens. He only comes back because of the shouting between her and Cole, and his perception of their argument is interesting. It positions Cole as a bully and possibly an abuser, who possibly forces Alison to have sex. Alison and Noah make eye contact – and he starts to rush toward her to help, but she shakes her head. Noah sees himself as a hero and not the initiator of the affair. It should also be acknowledged that Noah’s father-in-law is kind of an emasculating jerk, who blatantly states his literary success makes him kind of a whore, but that he doesn’t care – because he has a wealth of material possessions. Noah, in contrast, seems stuck in his father-in-law’s considerably shadow, which is punctuated by overt sense of judgment.
From Alison’s perspective, we get a glimpse into her relationship with Cole, which I mentioned a little bit previously. There is a brokenness about her, a sense of abject loss, not just of her son – but of who she is. Her boss at the diner comments about how she was 10 or 15 years ago in a way that implies she hasn’t lived up to her promise. It should be noted that her boss is also a serious creep, who mentions how hot she was and how he slept with her. Apparently, he is unaware that sexual harassment is a thing. In her version, Alison helps save Noah’s daughter from choking to death, when Helen freezes and is unable to move. A grateful Noah follows her to the bathroom, thanks her profusely, and flirts with her heavily. Later, we follow her to the ocean and to the cemetery to visit her son, and she ends up arriving late to the dinner in honor her deceased son’s birthday. The tension between Cole and Alison during dinner is volatile, even though neither really speaks to the other. He’s visibly angry that she was late to dinner, despite the fact that they apologize.
After dinner, they presumably arrive at the aforementioned bonfire together. She sits well apart from the group, and Cole (as far as we know) makes no attempt to join her. She watches him flirt with a blonde woman, who later drops him off at home, and then Noah arrives. In her recollection, he flirts with her. She is wearing shorts and short, which is far more modest that what Noah remembered. And while he does walk her home, she recalls his insistence at doing so (a repayment from saving his child), and it is Noah who insists on seeing the outdoor shower. In a huge disparity between the two narratives, Noah kisses Alison (who pulls away and stops him, though not immediately). Noah’s narrative excludes a kiss and any kind of real physical contact. Because it’s Alison who stops the moment, she continues to see herself as being the hero – as being good. Each character is desperate to see themselves as fundamentally good people, which is how every person wants himself/herself to be seen. (More on that in a moment.)
In Alison’s view, we get the full-view of her argument with her husband. From her perspective, their fight culminates in sex as a coping mechanism, as a method of combating the grief and loss they both feel. While their dialogue is sharp and tense, each almost fed up and disconnected emotionally from the other, I’m not entirely sure the passion is anything more than escapism. Alison makes eye contact with Noah, who was drawn by the shouting, and it is that moment of connection where we see Alison really engage in sex with her husband (her husband cannot see her face). The sex, here, has two values: it contrast the earlier intimacy between Cole and Alison, and it suggests physical intimacy is being used as a Band-Aid for emotional intimacy. However, the moment of connection via voyeurism between Noah and Alison cannot be overlooked. Perhaps it is his presence that spurs her own. The possibility is certainly present.
Each character sees the beginning of the affair as the fault of the other. It’s more common to excuse (or explain away) an illicit relationship, if you lay the burden of its beginning (and possibly continuation) at the feet of the other person. If it just happened, you’re not at fault. If you didn’t pursue or go after the other person, you can still talk your way out of guilt. If you don’t acknowledge your role, you’re less culpable. At least, that’s the theory.
But the truth is that as much as a person may want to divest themselves of blame, no relationship just happens. You have feelings, and then you act of them. It always, always takes two people to tango – especially the naked tango. The reasons for an affair are often varied. Loss can fuel it in so many ways. But there’s always a reason, and it’s almost always not just about sex. It’s the emotional component of an affair that’s most dangerous. Sex is easy. Feelings are most definitely not.
So, who began the affair? Who seduced whom? As of right now, I don’t think that matters. A person may not remember details perfectly, but feelings always remain. I think Noah and Alison both need something – and someone. Neither went looking for it. (If they did, it would be easy to label one a villain or a bad guy and be done with it.) That’s what makes this story so real: it’s not black and white. No one is perfect. Nobody is good or bad. Noah and Alison are like you and me: human, flawed, and fallible. As Joan Didion said, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” For Noah and Alison, that ordinary instant is when they meet.